By Paul Kane and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 6:29 PM
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the political patriarch who died late Tuesday after a 15-month battle with brain cancer, will be buried Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery, close to the famed gravesites of his slain brothers.
As tributes poured in Wednesday from across the country and the world, Washington mourned the Massachusetts Democrat whose outsize personality and political skills continued to drive the health-care debate even in his final days.
Flags were ordered flown at half-staff at the U.S. Capitol, the White House and federal buildings. Across the Potomac River at the nation's military cemetery, photographers and camera crews were escorted to the flickering orange flame and polished marble gravestones that mark the final resting places of John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, in the third year of his presidency, and Robert F. Kennedy, killed nearly five years later during his own White House campaign.
At national landmarks, tourists and federal workers paused to remember the last surviving Kennedy brother, an American legend known for his political prowess as well as his personal failings, his charisma as well as his storied family tree.
"The Kennedys were the first royal family that we had," said Kenneth Nielsen, 64, a retired college math teacher from Greencastle, Pa., who was sightseeing on Capitol Hill. "That mystique was carried over. . . . They were destined."
President Obama plans to speak at Kennedy's funeral service Saturday morning at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston, according to a senior White House official.
Kennedy, 77, attended the church each day while his daughter Kara successfully battled cancer at a nearby hospital, according to a statement from the family. "Over time, the Basilica took on special meaning for him as a place of hope and optimism," the statement said.
A three-day memorial will begin early Thursday morning, when a motorcade departs the family compound on Hyannis Port, Mass., for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where Kennedy's body will lie in repose. On Friday night, a private "Celebration of Life Memorial Service" will be held at the library.
By 5 p.m. Saturday, Kennedy will be buried during a private ceremony at the cemetery in Arlington.
Kennedy's death leaves Democrats without their best-known legislative leader, eight months into Obama's ambitious first term. The senator's memory was immediately invoked by some lawmakers eager to rescue Obama's embattled health-care legislation, passage of which was one of Kennedy's top priorities during the final months of his life.
"My heart and soul weeps at the loss of my best friend in the Senate, my beloved friend, Ted Kennedy," Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is also in poor health, said in a statement. "In his honor and as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on health-care reform which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name for his commitment to insuring the health of every American."
Other politicians, including Obama and Vice President Biden, steered clear of direct references to lawmaking. Biden jettisoned a planned speech on energy issues, instead using his appearance before an audience of federal employees to pay tearful tribute to his longtime colleague and friend.
"Teddy spent a lifetime working for a fair and just America," Biden, a former senator from Delaware, said. "Every day that I was with him, he restored my sense of idealism and my faith in the possibilities of what this country could do."
Biden said that when he telephoned Kennedy's widow, Victoria, to express condolences, she told him, "He was ready to go, Joe." But, the vice president added, "we're not ready to let him go."
Obama was awoken by a top aide about 2 a.m. Wednesday and told that Kennedy had died late Tuesday night with close family members at his bedside. Obama, who phoned Victoria Kennedy at 2:25 a.m., said he and first lady Michelle Obama were "heartbroken" at the loss of a political mentor and cherished friend.
Kennedy "became not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but also one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy," Obama said in a somber morning appearance at the rented compound in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing with his family -- a short ferry ride from the Hyannis Port compound where the ailing senator died.
Obama, the nation's first black president, said he was among millions of Americans who benefited from Kennedy's work on civil rights and other legislation that made this country "more equal, and more just."
Kennedy's death reduces the number of Democrats in the Senate to 59, one short of a filibuster-proof majority. According to current Massachusetts law, the seat will remain vacant for at least a few months, until a special election can be held later this year.
But the senator's final public statement was a letter to state leaders asking that they adopt a law that would allow Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint an interim senator, so that the state could have two senators during the interval before the special election. State leaders have given no indication whether such a change would be made.
Several members of the state's House delegation, including Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), as well as Kennedy's nephew, former representative Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), have been mentioned as potential candidates for the seat.
Kennedy, the Senate's third-longest serving member, was a liberal guidepost in the chamber, spending almost 47 years advocating for national health care and civil rights in particular. Many lawmakers have wondered this summer how the negotiations over health-care reform would have been different if the man known as the lion of the Senate had been able to actively participate.
His friendships legendarily crossed partisan lines, and his absence during the 15 months he battled brain cancer cast a pall on the chamber.
Kennedy's colleagues, scattered across the country on August recess, fixed their reactions on his legacy, not his successor.
"It was the thrill of my lifetime to work with Ted Kennedy," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement. "As we mourn his loss, we rededicate ourselves to the causes for which he so dutifully dedicated his life."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called Kennedy a "great elder statesman" and a "treasured friend" whose influence could not be overstated. Kennedy will always be remembered as someone "who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber," Hatch said.
Another close Kennedy friend, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), said he would "miss him every day I serve, and every day I live."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted that Kennedy's death came exactly one year to the day after the senator gave his last major speech, in Denver on the first night of the Democratic National Convention. "Ted Kennedy's dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration," Pelosi said in a statement.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called Kennedy "one of the giants of American political life . . . No one could have known the man without admiring the passion and vigor he poured into a truly momentous life."
House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Kennedy was a "tireless public servant. . . . While there were few political issues on which he and I agreed, our relationship was never disagreeable."
Fellow Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) called Kennedy "the best senator, the best advocate you could hope for." Kerry, who visited Kennedy in the weeks before his death, said his colleague was an "irrepressible, larger than life presence who was simply the best."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who married Kennedy's niece, Maria Shriver, hailed the personal inspiration he derived from the leading man of America's liberal dynasty.
"He was the rock of our family: a loving husband, father, brother and uncle," the governor said in a statement. "Teddy inspired our country through his dedication to health care reform, his commitment to social justice, and his devotion to a life of public service."
Former first lady Nancy Reagan said people were sometimes surprised at how close the Reagans were to the Kennedy family. They had found common ground in stem cell research, she said, "and I considered him an ally and a dear friend."
Obama said of Kennedy that "for five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts."
"I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of events, he always had time for a new colleague. . . . And even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I've profited as president from his encouragement and wisdom."
The president noted that the 15 months since Kennedy's diagnosis gave Americans an opportunity "to say thank you and goodbye" in a way they never could with his slain brothers, gunned down at the heights of their political careers.
"Although we've known this day was coming for some time now," Obama said, "we've awaited it with no small amount of dread."
In Britain and Ireland, Kennedy was remembered particularly for his involvement in the long process that led to Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace accord. Kennedy risked alienating powerful Irish American allies, whose sympathies lay with the province's Catholic Irish nationalists rather than the British Protestant majority.
"Even facing illness and death he never stopped fighting for the causes which were his life's work," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
Kennedy's pursuit of health-care legislation dates back four decades, and did not flag as his own illness progressed.
In January 1971, Kennedy was ousted from his position as majority whip, the No. 2 Democratic leader in the Senate, by Byrd in a tight battle. Exiting the closed-door meeting after his defeat, Kennedy told reporters at the time he would commit himself to committee work, particularly the effort to pass universal health-care legislation.
After suffering a seizure in May 2008 that led to the cancer diagnosis, Kennedy remained chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, despite an absence that left him on Capitol Hill only a handful of times. His panel crafted one version of the health-care legislation that has turned into the political fulcrum of this summer, with Kennedy talking frequently by phone from his home on Cape Cod to his aides and to Dodd, his close friend, who has run the committee in Kennedy's absence.
Byrd, 91, the longest-serving senator ever, is also ailing and has missed much of the Senate's summer session. The former rivals became close allies later in their careers.
In weekend appearances on national television, Hatch and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- both friends of Kennedy's and members of his HELP committee -- lamented Kennedy's absence from the health-care debate, questioning whether he could have used his personal connections to break the partisan impasse that has set in on the issue.
Kennedy's last appearance in the Senate came April 27, during a vote on mortgage legislation. He had cast just nine votes this year out of 270 roll calls. His appearances were very brief: making quick stops on the Senate floor, casting a vote and then disappearing out a side door.
His last long stay in the Capitol was on Jan. 20, President Obama's inauguration day. Kennedy braved the cold weather to go outside on the West Front of the Capitol to see his protege be sworn in as president, coming a year after Kennedy's impassioned endorsement of Obama gave the newcomer a huge symbolic lift over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in their Democratic primary battle.
But shortly after Obama's swearing-in, at a luncheon in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, Kennedy suffered another cancer-related seizure and was rushed out of the building with Dodd, Hatch and Kerry ushering him into an ambulance.
Staff writers Michael D. Shear in Martha's Vineyard and Mark Berman, Hamil R. Harris, Michael Ruane and Jacqueline L. Salon in Washington contributed to this report.