By Debbi Wilgoren and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will receive an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday during his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
With Vice President Biden and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looking on from the podium, Brown praised Kennedy for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland after generations of strife and his decades of work to strengthen health care and education opportunities in the United States and around the globe.
"Northern Ireland today is at peace, more Americans have health care, children around the world are going to school," Brown said. "And for all these things, we owe a great debt to the life, and courage, of Senator Edward Kennedy."
Lawmakers rose to their feet to applaud.
Kennedy, 77, is battling brain cancer and was not in the House chamber for Brown's speech. The British premier said the two spoke by phone Tuesday night.
"I'm deeply grateful to Her Majesty the Queen and to Prime Minister Brown for this extraordinary honor," Kennedy said in a statement. "I have always prized the opportunity to work with the British government and strengthen and deepen the role of our two countries as leading beacons of democracy in the world. I am proud that I was able to play a part in the decades-long effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland."
Kennedy, who has served in the Senate since 1962, is among the best-known American politicians in Britain and the patriarch of the U.S. family that most closely resembles political royalty. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's in the years leading up to World War II.
In his statement, Kennedy noted his family's long ties to Britain, saying that "a portion of land at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, is now designated as American soil" and dedicated to his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
The British Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying that Kennedy's award was "in recognition of a career during which Senator Kennedy has consistently promoted a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, and has been a vital figure in promoting the cause of peace in Northern Ireland."
"For me, this honor is moving and personal -- a reflection not only of my public life, but of things that profoundly matter to me as an individual," Kennedy said in his statement. "I accept this honor in the spirit in which it is given, with a continuing commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and for the shared ideals of freedom and fairness which are so fundamental to the character of our two countries."
Honorary knighthoods are generally given as recognition of achievement in various fields, with most going to British citizens.
According to Buckingham Palace, fewer than 90 U.S. citizens have received honorary knighthoods since the queen took the throne in 1952. Last month, the British Embassy announced that former senator John W. Warner (R-Va.) would be similarly honored.
Kennedy will not be able to officially use the title "Sir," according to a spokesman for Britain's Cabinet Office, which oversees the honors system. Only those who receive full knighthoods may be officially called "Sir" or "Dame," and only citizens of the United Kingdom or Commonwealth countries are eligible for that honor, said a spokeswoman for Buckingham Palace.
Such protocol details did not stop Brown from using the title informally during his speech yesterday morning, as he extended greetings "on behalf of the British people" to "Sir Edward Kennedy."
Sullivan reported from London.