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Ted Kennedy is celebrated for his longtime support of health-care reform

By Eli Saslow and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; A07

While President Obama gathered with lawmakers for a bill-signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday afternoon, dozens of others came to commemorate health-care legislation here, on a quiet hillside in Section 45 of Arlington National Cemetery.

The grave site of Edward M. Kennedy consists of only a white cross and a flat marble footstone, but it has attracted hundreds of visitors during the past several days. First came Vicki Kennedy, the widowed wife, staying for several hours Sunday while Congress prepared for its decisive vote. Next was Patrick Kennedy, the son, who left behind a note written on his congressional stationery Monday morning. Then, on Tuesday, health-care advocates and student groups were led to the grave by tour guides, one of whom pointed to the white cross and recalled, "The Great Ted Kennedy, the man who championed health care."

The longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts died of cancer seven months ago, on Aug. 25, but his last legacy became official at 11:52 a.m. Tuesday, when Obama signed the bill. The political odyssey of health-care reform is in many ways the story of Ted Kennedy. He dedicated his career to reforming the system; his Republican replacement in the Senate, Scott Brown, threatened the passage of Obama's bill; Democrats persevered in part because they rallied around Kennedy's memory.

On Tuesday, Obama invited several members of Kennedy's family to attend the bill signing. Vicki rode with him in the limousine, and Patrick gave the president the original paper copy of his father's first health-care reform bill, introduced in Congress in 1970. The president credited the late senator in his speech, mentioning him twice and eliciting standing ovations. On their right wrists, Obama, Vice President Biden and members of Congress wore blue bracelets inscribed with the phrase "TedStrong."

"I remember seeing Ted walk through that door in a summit in this room a year ago -- one of his last public appearances," Obama said. "And it was hard for him to make it. But he was confident that we would do the right thing."

Even as Obama beamed and told jokes, the atmosphere in Arlington tended more toward reflection than celebration. All around Kennedy's grave were reminders of the newness of his death, including the footstone that read, in its entirety, "1932-2009." The approach to Kennedy's grave required a walk on soggy, tattered floor mats, which cemetery officials plan to replace eventually with a more ornate concrete walkway. New grass, a shade darker than the rest of the hillside, traced the outline of a grave.

Most visitors who came to see Kennedy's final resting place stopped first to see those of his famous brothers. They walked to President John F. Kennedy's grave, with its eternal flame and two police officers standing guard. They proceeded next to Robert Kennedy's grave, where a fountain is engraved with quotes from his speeches. Then they walked 90 feet down the hill to the grave of Ted Kennedy, where a white rope acted as a barrier to protect his humble footstone.

Some visitors lingered in the rain under two bare maple trees that spring had yet to reach. Three women wearing "Yes We Can!" health-care T-shirts posed for pictures. A tour group from Massachusetts formed a short line and jockeyed for the closest viewing positions. "He would be enjoying all this," one said.

The most intimate visits happened before and after the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. public visiting hours. Vicki Kennedy came Sunday, bringing camellias from the family garden and her three dogs, to spend time at her husband's grave site before she returned to her Kalorama home to watch the climactic vote on television. She was confident the bill would pass and wanted to be near her husband on the day, she said, because he had been so focused on the legislation in the months before his death.

On his way to have brain surgery at Duke University in June 2008, Kennedy had called Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn) and asked him to prepare a health-care bill for the next administration. A few months later, Kennedy had ignored doctors' advice and given a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver about health-care reform. Then, in a final plea, he had reiterated his feelings in a letter to Obama, which Vicki delivered after her husband died.

"You will be the president who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society," Kennedy wrote. "For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life."

For the past seven months, Vicki made it the cause of her life as well. In the days before her visit to her husband's grave, she had quietly visited the Capitol, again and again, to meet one on one with wavering House members. She stayed in regular contact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and senior White House officials. "She was very substantive in just explaining what the bill would do for average Americans," said Michael Myers, who worked on Kennedy's staff for 23 years as a health policy adviser. "And, of course, she would say she was channeling the senator in doing that."

Many others were channeling the senator, too. David Bowen, who was the senator's health director, remembered how he had vowed at Kennedy's funeral not to visit the grave site at Arlington until health-care reform became law. Obama evoked Kennedy in conversations with members of Congress during the final days before the vote. Pelosi mentioned Kennedy in her floor speech Sunday night, causing Democratic members to erupt in chants of "Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!"

Patrick Kennedy, the son, also spoke on the House floor in the hours before the vote, and his father was foremost in his mind. "His heart and soul are in this bill," he said.

The next morning, after he cast his vote, he visited his father's grave. There, alone in Section 45, he was more succinct. He pulled out one of his congressional note cards, which he would leave at the footstone.

"Dad," he wrote in blue marker, "the 'unfinished business' is done."

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