Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the last surviving brother in an enduring political dynasty and one of the most influential senators in history, died Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod after a yearlong struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.
In nearly 50 years in the Senate, Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, served alongside 10 presidents – his brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy among them – compiling an impressive list of legislative achievements on health care, civil rights, education, immigration and more.
His only run for the White House ended in defeat in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter turned back his challenge for the party's nomination. More than a quarter-century later, he handed then-Senator Barack Obama an endorsement at a critical point in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, explicitly likening the young contender to President Kennedy.
To the American public, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of America's most glamorous political family, father figure and, memorably, eulogist of an Irish-American clan plagued again and again by tragedy. But his career was forever marred by an accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969, when a car he was driving plunged off a bridge, killing a young woman.
Kennedy's death triggered an outpouring of superlatives from Democrats and Republicans as well as foreign leaders.
"An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time," Obama said in a written statement.
"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," said Obama, vacationing at Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast.
Ted Kennedy with then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1986 (Archive photo: Reuters)
Kennedy's family announced his death in a brief statement released early Wednesday.
"We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," it said. "We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all."
Kennedy, then 37, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence and a year's probation. A judge eventually determined there was "probable cause to believe that Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently ... and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne."
He sought the White House more than a decade later, lost the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, and bowed out with a stirring valedictory that echoed across the decades: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."
Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
'He always stood by Israel'
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed great grief over Kennedy's death on behalf of himself and the people of Israel. Ted Kennedy, he said, "was a great friend to Israel and to the Jewish people, a defender of human rights, and the son of a glorious family, who during his many years as a member of the Senate stood by Israel during its tough times as well."
President Shimon Peres said in a statement, "He was an outstanding leader. He was a man of thought and his voice overpowered a lot of prejudice and walls. Kennedy was not only interested in global politics, but also in social issues, and said in one of his speeches that today's problems are related to yesterday's achievements – meaning that every generation must reach its own achievements.
"Kennedy was a declared friend of Israel throughout the way, and helped anywhere he could. He was a totally independent person, and his opinions did not stem from political or family-related considerations. He woke up in the morning as an independent man, with independent ideas and an independent voice.
"I believe many people worldwide listened to his voice because of the originality, the strength and the wisdom it expressed. I know this is a great loss to the American people and I share in the American people's grief, but it's also a great loss to any sensitive and thinking person in the entire world.
"The Kennedy family experienced greatness and tragedies – and he represented both courageously until his very last days, when he was hit by this horrible disease and fought it with unusual courage. May his soul rest in peace," Peres concluded. .
Attila Somfalvi and Roni Sofer contributed to this report