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77 Candles, Countless Good Wishes

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

Washington, on certain special nights, feels like America's living room writ large.

Last night, it was Uncle Teddy's living room.

They all crammed in, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's whole Washington familial tableau, eager to wish him a happy, if belated, 77th birthday. The senators and the staffers, the television anchors and the social secretaries -- generations of official Washington all brought together. They slipped into gowns and dark suits, and mingled familiarly in the red-carpeted halls of the Kennedy Center.

And they tried not to think too much about Uncle Teddy's health, about the brain cancer that threatens to take him away, but then again, it's hard not to do that these days.

"We both know what suffering is like," Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah and one of Kennedy's closest friends, said outside the Concert Hall. "Naturally, I'm very concerned about his health."

A few steps away, there was John Dingell, the Democratic congressman from Michigan, leaning heavily on two canes. Washington can be a rough place, he said, but not on this night.

"There's still goodness left here," Dingell noted.

His wife, GM Foundation executive Debbie Dingell, caught herself before emotion overcame her. "I can't say anymore," she said, "or I'll cry."

Elizabeth Bagley -- a former Kennedy staffer, like so, so many in this town -- reminisced about her onetime boss's annual Christmas parties. His nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., told the one about Uncle Teddy singing and playing the piano until 4 a.m. with John Lennon and the football star Rosey Grier. He'd just come from a private room where his uncle was hanging out with first lady Michelle Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"He's exceeding all expectations," the nephew said.

His voice was full of hope.

It had been a strange, emotional week. Kennedy made a surprise appearance at President Obama's White House health-care summit -- each public sighting since the senator collapsed with a seizure on Inauguration Day is now an event. Then Rush Limbaugh sneered that the effort could end up being named "the Ted Kennedy Memorial Health-Care Bill." Kennedy lovers were appalled.

But no one was speaking of memorials last night, and how could they, with Kennedy -- whose birthday was Feb. 22 -- glowing in the balcony with his wife, Victoria, on one side, and the first lady on the other? In the building named for one of his assassinated brothers, Kennedy rose with great effort to acknowledge a standing ovation from his friends below. Then he stood again, and again. Smiling. Waving. Loving it.

Row after row of big names came to their feet to applaud him. There was his niece Maria Shriver, former senator Tom Daschle -- not so long removed from having to drop out as nominee for health and human services secretary -- and loads of Massachusetts pols, including Boston Mayor Tom Menino.

Bernadette Peters, sassy as ever, sang "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" and blew him two kisses from the stage. Lauren Bacall, in that marvelously husky voice, called him "the greatest senator." James Taylor strummed a guitar and declared, "No one has done more than Senator Ted Kennedy to help resolve the problems in Ireland."

And it went on like that for two hours -- two hours of laughter and praise, praise and laughter. Bill Cosby told jokes, and Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson, belted out "Sweet Rosie O'Grady," the ballad he sang with Kennedy on a trip to Ireland.

"I know you do a great version of this yourself," Wilkinson said, smiling slyly. The audience roared. Kennedy is -- ahem -- "an enthusiastic singer," actress Phyllis Newman told the crowd. "A relentlessly enthusiastic singer."

Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell sang "The Impossible Dream," a tune he said always reminds him of Kennedy. A few years ago, he sang it at a memorial for the actor Christopher Reeve. But last night was about living.

Then there was Caroline Kennedy, who wanted so to join her Uncle Teddy in the Senate but couldn't pull it off.

"I never thought I would be in a room with so many senators," she said, drawing knowing chuckles.

She presented him with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, an honor that in healthier times, the senator was onstage to present to others.

Then the big surprise: President Obama glided onstage to start a round of "Happy Birthday." He slipped away, with that loose-limbed strut of his, without saying a word.

No one upstages Uncle Teddy on this night.

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