Kennedy Did His Life's Work Until the End

The flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has been taken from the family home on Cape Cod for the trip to Boston. Video by AP
By Ann Gerhart and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Several weeks ago, Vicki Kennedy sent an e-mail to the extended Kennedy family -- relatives, friends, colleagues -- with one of her regular updates on her husband. We're doing fine, she wrote. "He's a miracle man."

By that time, Edward M. Kennedy was in serious decline. The cancer he had battled for more than a year had gained the upper hand. The drugs he was using to fight off the disease were taking an enormous toll on his body. Many days were bad. He was having trouble speaking, though on occasion friends could hear his voice in the background when his wife was on the phone.

Toward the end, Vicki Kennedy kept up a steady stream of reports to the Kennedy network. He's fighting, she would say. He's the most determined man I know. On his better days, if there was a bit of a breeze, he went sailing.

This indomitable spirit gave many of the couple's intimates hope that the senator would manage one more visit to the White House, to have President Obama place the Medal of Freedom around his neck on Aug. 12. Instead, his daughter, Kara, accepted the honor in his place.

Her father had used up his strength the night before, to put on a crisp white shirt and a tie, comb his gray hair and travel to the family's private gathering in Hyannis Port, Mass., for his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

"Ted, he's having his own struggles right now," his nephew Bobby Kennedy Jr. acknowledged after Shriver's death. "But he's doing well. He's sailing. I saw him out on the boat yesterday. He's going sailing every day. He's keeping up with his work."

Ted Kennedy was the only one of the remarkable Kennedy brothers who lived to earn the indignities and frailty of old age, with its opportunities for wisdom and suffering. In wrapping up nearly 90 hours of interviews with the senator shortly before his diagnosis, oral historian James S. Young of the University of Virginia discovered a reflective man whose credo in his work was: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." If that pragmatic idea helped Kennedy struggle back from numerous personal failings, it also enabled him to wring a quality of life from his final 15 months, friends said, and move toward a good death.

In those months, Kennedy was determined to carry on as long as he could with his last projects. His memoir, "True Compass," which will be published Sept. 14, was just one that occupied him. He partnered with Bob Shrum, his longtime wordsmith, to make a last, deeply personal plea for his life's work, health-care reform. In a Newsweek essay, published July 27, Kennedy gave an unadorned assessment: He had a malignant brain tumor, surgeons had removed part of it, he had undergone "proton-beam radiation," but he knew he would not be cured.

When his longtime friend Chris Dodd, a senator from Connecticut, came twice for dinner in Hyannis Port, they talked health care. When the president called from Rome in July, after hand-delivering a letter from Kennedy to the pope, they talked health care. Kennedy wrote that he kept pushing to ensure that "when there is a cure for the disease I now have, no American who needs it will be denied it."

When he was healthier, he would pick up the phone and call old friends. Bill Carrick, who worked for Kennedy in the 1980s, remembered his last call with the senator, several months ago. Kennedy talked about the memoir he was laboring to finish. "He was very upbeat," Carrick said.

Even as his cancer moved deeper into his brain, he maintained his interest and involvement in the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, a living testament to the work of his brother, the former president.

Kennedy prided himself on his near-perfect record of attendance at the institute's board meetings. In April, he was preparing to go to a meeting when swine flu began to spread. His doctors concluded it wasn't safe for him to be there, so he participated by telephone.

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