Politics & Government

End of an era: America says goodbye to Edward Kennedy

Funeral services for Sen. Ted Kennedy at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, Mass.
Funeral services for Sen. Ted Kennedy at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, Mass. Brian Snyder/Abaca Press/MCT

ARLINGTON, Va. — America Saturday celebrated the passion and legacy of the late Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy as President Barack Obama — whom Kennedy helped propel into the nation's highest office — pledged at a funeral mass: "We carry on."

The Senate's liberal icon, scion of a political family whose style and views influenced policy-makers for half a century, died Tuesday night at age 77 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer.

He was buried Saturday just after sundown at Arlington National Cemetery near his slain brothers John and Robert. "They called him the lion of the Senate, and indeed that is what he was," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington. "You always knew, and you were always touched, by his passion for the underdog ..."

McCarrick read from a letter Kennedy wrote to Pope Benedict XVI just before his death, a letter President Barack Obama personally delivered last month. Kennedy asked the pope to pray for him. "I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path," Kennedy wrote.

The brief graveside service ended a day that began with a morning funeral mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston that combined a remembrance of his storied life with a vow to keep the spirit alive.

As a panorama of American political figures looked on — including three former presidents and their wives, dozens of U.S. senators past and present and three generations of Kennedys — Obama and family members recalled Kennedy's ability to overcome daunting obstacles and eagerly and good-naturedly champion the causes he cherished.

"We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers rights or civil rights," said Obama.

Kennedy's endorsement of Obama early in the 2008 primary season was an important boost to his candidacy, and nowhere has Kennedy's bid for a legacy been more evident than Obama's struggle this year to overhaul the nation's health care system.

No one was talking hardball politics Saturday, but there was an undertone to the eulogies by family members — to pass the health care legislation. Exactly one year before he died, Kennedy told the 2008 Democratic convention that health care was "the cause of my life," and it has become the cause of the first year of Obama's presidency.

Obama and family members suggested that Ted Kennedy would have striven to avoid public displays of rancor as the health care fight got uglier.

"While his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did," said Obama. "While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that is not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw him."

He recalled Kennedy as "a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect, a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots."

The day also had the end-of-an-era feel, a time to remember the last and youngest of the Kennedy brothers, who lived under the harshest of public spotlights. Obama recalled how Kennedy survived personal tragedy — the loss of two brothers to assassin's bullets in the 1960s, the 1964 plane crash that badly injured him, two children diagnosed with cancer.

"It was a string of events that would have broken a lesser man," the president said. No one mentioned the Senator's 1969 auto accident at Chappaquiddick, in which a woman drowned and Kennedy delayed informing police.

The senator's oldest son, Ted Jr., remembered his father's frailties and his strengths.

"Although it hasn't been easy at times to live with this name, I've never been more proud of it than I am today," he said.

The senator "loved everything French — cheese, wine and women," the son chuckled. "He was not perfect, far from it. But my father believed in redemption."

But Ted Jr., 47, also reminded everyone that his father knew how to be a father. After losing a leg to bone cancer at age 12, he struggled to climb a snowy hill so he could go sledding.

"I know you can do it. There is nothing that you can't do. We're going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day," Ted Jr. remembered his father saying. "Sure enough, he held me around my waist and we slowly made it to the top."

Choking up, he remembered how on that day, "I knew I was going to be okay. My father taught me even our most profound losses are survivable."

After the service, the funeral party flew to Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland and drove to Washington. It halted in front of the U.S. Capitol, where an estimated 2,000 people waited for hours on the steamy, hot afternoon.

"Thank you for sharing the senator and so much of his life with us," the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, the House of Representatives chaplain, told widow Vicki Kennedy.

Certain themes kept recurring among people in the crowd: Kennedy's humor, his loyalty, his political and emotional acumen.

"He is a man who could have been bent, broken, destroyed by any number of things in his life, and he wasn't," said Michael Slevin, 62, a clinical social worker who worked for Kennedy between 1984 and 1994.

Slevin said he showed up to await Kennedy's last Capitol appearance because he has "a lot to process," but he wasn't crying. No one seemed to be crying; except, perhaps, when the crowd joined in the singing of "America the Beautiful."

Watching and waiting, Nan Simpson distinguished the relatively upbeat mood from June 1968 when she, as a young Mount Holyoke College graduate, watched as Edward Kennedy's slain brother Robert was conveyed through Washington.

"There's something quite different about the death of a man who lived long enough to become a master of Congress," Simpson said.

In Boston, an estimated 60,000 people had waited, often for hours, from Thursday night until Saturday morning, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, to pay their last respects before Kennedy's coffin.

And though Saturday was rainy in Boston, hundreds gathered outside the basilica to say goodbye.

Patricia Bell, 53, took a 5:30 a.m. Greyhound bus from the Bronx to Boston. "I want to tell him 'thank you, we love you, and we appreciate your sacrifice,'" she said, standing under her umbrella, clutching her breakfast in a paper bag,

Inside the vast basilica, where Kennedy had prayed daily as his daughter Kara fought cancer, most were old enough to remember the family tragedies and triumphs: The election of the dapper young John F. Kennedy 49 years ago, his assassination a thousand days later, Bobby's brief run for the presidency in 1968, until an assassin cut him down and Ted's own tragedies and triumphs.

"The spirit of resilience and good humor would see Ted Kennedy through more pain and tragedy than most of us will ever know," Obama said.

The mood was less one of sadness than reflection.

"The Mass of Christian burial weaves together memory and hope," said the Rev. Mark Hession, a Cape Cod priest and a Kennedy family friend.

That theme was woven through the service. Kara Kennedy Allen led the audience in a recitation of Psalm 72 — "Justice shall flourish in his time and fullness of peace forever." Hession cited Matthew 25:31-32A, 34-40, which talks about compassion.

Ten nieces, nephews and grandchildren recalled "Uncle Teddy" or their grandfather. Ted Junior's son, Teddy, used the occasion to remind the audience to keep up the fight for health care.

Outside, in the rain, some waved signs that read "KENNEDY THANKS," that were being passed out by Mayor Thomas Menino's staff. Others made their own signs that read "HEALTHCARE, DO IT FOR TED." Another, inked on cardboard torn from a Cheerios cereal box read "THANK YOU SENATOR KENNEDY."

Massillon Laporte came from Montreal, Canada, to play Schubert's "Ave Maria" on his trumpet for Kennedy. The doleful sound of drifted up the street through the rain.

"I came out to honor a beautiful man and to show my respect," said Lillian Bennet, 59. "He was one of a kind. We want him back." Bennet had arrived from nearby Dorchester at 6:45 a.m.

"It's the passing of history. This is the end of an era," said Bill Zoppo, who was there with his wife, Sally. "He was a father to all his brothers' children, so this is a big transition for them. Who will pick up the mantle?"

Inside, Obama added a personal touch. He recalled how he had hung a painting of a Cape Cod seascape in his personal study — "a gift to a freshman legislator who had just arrived in Washington and happened to admire it when Ted Kennedy welcomed him into his office.

"By the way," Obama chuckled, "that's my second favorite gift from Teddy and Vicki, after our dog Bo."

Obama urged the nation not to forget Ted Kennedy's dream.

Remember, he said, "the memories he gave, the good that he did, the dream he kept alive, and a single, enduring image, the image of a man on a boat, white man tousled, smiling broadly as he sails into the wind, ready for whatever storms may come, carrying on toward some new and wondrous place just beyond the horizon."

(Lightman and Doyle reported from Washington. Spring reported from Boston)

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