Year
2009

Ted Kennedy, “liberal lion of the Senate,” dies at 77

On this day in 2009, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the youngest brother of President John F. Kennedy and a U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 1962 to 2009, dies of brain cancer at age 77 at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Kennedy, one of the longest-serving senators in American history, was a leader of the Democratic Party and a spokesman for liberal causes who also was known for his ability to work with those on both sides of the political aisle.

Edward Moore Kennedy was born in Boston on February 22, 1932, the youngest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., a wealthy financier who served as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later as ambassador to Great Britain, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the daughter of a Boston politician. After serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, Kennedy graduated from Harvard University in 1956 and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1959. While still a student, he managed his brother John’s successful 1958 re-election campaign to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. Also in 1958, Ted Kennedy married Joan Bennett, with whom he later had three children. The couple divorced in 1982, and in 1992, Kennedy married Victoria Reggie, a Washington attorney with two children.

In November 1960, John Kennedy was elected America’s 35th president. The following month, a Kennedy family friend was appointed to fill the president-elect’s vacated Senate seat until a special election was held. In November 1962, Ted Kennedy, who earlier that year had turned 30, the minimum age requirement for a U.S. senator, won the special election in Massachusetts to serve out the remainder of his brother’s Senate term, ending in January 1965. Massachusetts voters re-elected Kennedy to the seat eight more times, in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006.

Kennedy came from privileged background, but his family was no stranger to tragedy. His oldest brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr., a Navy pilot, died in World War II, while his second-eldest sister, Kathleen, was killed in a 1948 plane crash. President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The following year, Ted Kennedy was seriously injured in a plane crash that left him hospitalized for six months. In 1968, U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy was also assassinated. With Robert’s death, Ted Kennedy became the family patriarch and a substitute father to his two slain brothers’ 13 children.

On July 18, 1969, Kennedy was involved in a controversial event that would mar the rest of his career, when he accidentally drove his car off a bridge on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned. Kennedy failed to report the incident to the authorities for nearly 10 hours, claiming the delay was due to the fact that he had suffered a concussion and was exhausted from attempting to rescue Kopechne. He later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence. However, Kennedy was plagued by questions about his behavior, as well as his relationship with Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Robert Kennedy. He later referred to his actions as “inexcusable,” and said Kopechne’s death “haunts me every day of my life.” In 1980, Kennedy made a failed bid against President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. He never again ran for the White House, instead focusing on his work on Capitol Hill, where he was dubbed the “liberal lion of the Senate.” During his nearly 47-year-career in Washington, D.C., Kennedy successfully fought for legislation concerning education, immigration reform, health care, increases to the federal minimum wage, voting rights, various consumer protections and equal rights for minorities, the disabled, women and gay Americans. In foreign policy matters, he was an opponent of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and a champion of human rights in such places as Africa and South America.

In May 2008, Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. That August, despite his poor health, he made a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in support of Barack Obama, who he had endorsed for president.

After his death in August 2009, Kennedy was buried at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, near the graves of his brothers John and Robert.

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