Senator Ted Kennedy, Lion of the Senate, Dies

August 26, 2009

Senator Ted Kennedy in March 2009

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), 77, died of brain cancer last night, just before midnight, at his Hyannis Port, MA family compound. First diagnosed in May 2008 with a malignant glioma after experiencing a seizure at home — and initially given less than a year to live — the “Lion of the Senate” was largely absent from the Washington political scene after the diagnosis, concentrating instead on family life at his Cape Cod home. Rumors of his declining condition seemed confirmed when he was absent at three August events: the funeral of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver; the Senate confirmation vote for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; and a ceremony last week when his daughter Kara Anne accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom for him.

Exactly one year to the day before his death, Kennedy electrified the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado with his appearance. Advised by doctors not to make the trip, he instead left his hospital bed and flew to Denver, where he told a crowd of 20,000 at the convention that it was “a season of hope.” One of his final public appearances was at the Inaugural Breakfast, after President Obama was sworn in; however, he had a seizure at the breakfast as well. In March 2009, he received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, for his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland and for his championship of better health care and better education. He served in the Senate for 47 years, actually influencing the course of the nation perhaps more so than either of his assassinated brothers were able to do.

Senator Ted Kennedy, Speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado in August 2008

Time Magazine once wrote that Kennedy’s “titanic record of legislation” touched “the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country.” He described universal health care as “the cause of my life,” he wrought changes in health care, immigration and gun control as well. He led the opposition to the 1986 Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, and came to oppose the Vietnam War.

Bitterly opposed to the Bush administration, he said his proudest Senate vote came in 2002, when he voted against authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq. In a 2004 speech at the Brookings Instituion, he said: “There was no imminent threat…This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud.”

Americans with Disabilities Act

He led the Senate with his stands on civil rights, campaign finance reform, education, health care and labor law. Kennedy’s legislation created access to health care for millions of people and funded cures for diseases afflicting people throughout the world. He promoted AIDS research and treatment and biomedical research. He led the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the 1996 Kennedy-Kassebaum bill , allowing employees to keep their health insurance after leaving a job. He supported recent immigration law reform and spearheaded the 1965 fight to pass the Hart-Cellar Act, which lifted a 1924 ban on Asian immigration and abolished immigration quotas. Other notable laws bearing his imprint include the 1982 Voting Rights extension and a rare raise in the minimum wage for Americans.

Kennedy reportedly expressed a wish that his wife, Victoria, succeed him in office. Under Massachusetts state law, a vacant Senate seat can only be filled with a special election; Victoria Kennedy would have to campaign for the Senate seat.

Read the speech Ted Kennedy gave when endorsing Barack Obama.

Photo credit: MSNBC and Reuters

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