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Image: Kennedy at the DNC in 2004
Timothy A. Clary  /  AFP - Getty Images file
To the American public, Ted Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of America's most glamorous political family, a father figure, and memorably, the eulogist of an Irish-American clan plagued again and again by tragedy.
NBC News and news services
updated 8/27/2009 9:23:13 AM ET 2009-08-27T13:23:13

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate and haunted bearer of the Camelot torch after two of his brothers fell to assassins' bullets, has died at his home in Hyannis Port after battling a brain tumor. He was 77.

In nearly 50 years in the Senate, Kennedy 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. More than a quarter-century later, he handed then-Sen. 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 — known to friends and foes alike simply as Ted — 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.

His 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," the statement 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."

A few hours later, two vans left the family compound at Hyannis Port in pre-dawn darkness. Both bore hearse license plates — with the word "hearse" blacked out.

Kennedy will lie in repose Thursday and Friday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston before his funeral at a city church, the senator's office said.

Kennedy is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery near his slain brothers, said Kennedy spokesman Keith Maley.

Kennedy's funeral Mass will take place Saturday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica — commonly known as the Mission Church — in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston.

Obama, on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., said he and the first lady were “heartbroken” to hear of Kennedy's passing.

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“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.

Young senator
Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962, taking the seat that his brother John had occupied before winning the White House, and served longer than all but two senators in history.

His own hopes of reaching the White House were damaged — perhaps doomed — in 1969 by the scandal that came to be known as Chappaquiddick, an auto accident that left a young woman dead.

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.

‘Ally and a dear friend’
Kennedy's death triggered an outpouring of superlatives .

Video: Outside the Kennedy compound Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement that her husband and Kennedy "could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another."

She added that she considered Kennedy "an ally and a dear friend. I will miss him."

Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wife, Maria Shriver, was Kennedy's niece, praised “the rock of our family: a loving husband, father, brother and uncle.”

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that both the Kennedy family and the Senate have "lost our patriarch" and vowed Congress would renew the push for the cause of Kennedy's life, health care reform.

Building a legacy
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kennedy's son Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said his father had defied the predictions of doctors by surviving more than a year with his fight against brain cancer.

The younger Kennedy also said his father's legacy was built largely in the Senate.

"He has authored more pieces of major legislation than any other United States senator," Patrick Kennedy said. "He is the penultimate senator. I don't need to exaggerate when I talk about my father. That's the amazing thing. He breaks all the records himself."

Ted Kennedy made a surprise return to the Capitol last summer to cast the decisive vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He made sure he was there again last January to see his former Senate colleague Barack Obama sworn in as the nation's first black president, but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.

He also made a surprise and forceful appearance at last summer's Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his own illness and said health care was the cause of his life. His death occurred precisely one year later, almost to the hour.

Kennedy was away from the Senate for much of this year, leaving Republicans and Democrats to speculate about the impact what his absence meant for the fate of Obama's health care proposals.

Under state law, Kennedy's successor will be chosen by special election . In his last known public act, the senator urged state officials to give Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick the power to name an interim replacement. But that appears unlikely, leaving Democrats in Washington with one less vote for the next several months as they struggle to pass Obama's health care legislation.

His death came less than two weeks after that of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver on Aug. 11. Kennedy was not present for the funeral, an indication of the precariousness of his own health.

Tragic figure
After Chappaquiddick especially, Kennedy gained a reputation as a heavy drinker and a womanizer, a tragically flawed figure haunted by the fear that he did not quite measure up to his brothers. As his weight ballooned, he was lampooned by comics and cartoonists in the 1980s and '90s as the very embodiment of government waste, bloat and decadence.

But in his later years, after he had remarried, he buckled down and came to be regarded as a statesman on Capitol Hill, seen as one of the most effective, hardworking lawmakers Washington has ever seen.

A barrel-chested figure with a swath of white hair, a booming voice and a thick, widely imitated Boston accent, he coupled fist-pumping floor speeches with his well-honed Irish charm and formidable negotiating skills. He was both a passionate liberal and a clear-eyed pragmatist, unafraid to reach across the aisle to get things done.

Over the decades, he managed to put his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to clear the Congress. In fact, for all his insecurities, he ended up perhaps the most influential liberal voice of his time.

He arrived at his place in the Senate after a string of family tragedies so terrible it sometimes seemed as if the Kennedys — America's foremost political dynasty — were as cursed as they were charmed. He was the only one of the four Kennedy brothers to die of natural causes.

Kennedy's eldest brother, Joseph, was killed in a plane crash in World War II. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles as he campaigned for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash at age 38 along with his wife in 1999.

It fell to Ted Kennedy to deliver the eulogies, to comfort his brothers' widows, to mentor fatherless nieces and nephews. It was Ted Kennedy who walked JFK's daughter, Caroline, down the aisle at her wedding.

Eloquence and scandal
Tragedy had a way of bringing out his eloquence.

Kennedy sketched a dream of a better future as he laid to rest his brother Robert in 1968: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

After John Jr.'s death, the senator eulogized the young man by saying: "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years."

His own legacy was blighted on the night of July 18, 1969, when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha's Vineyard. Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old worker with RFK's campaign, was found dead in the submerged car's back seat 10 hours later.

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."

At the height of the scandal, Kennedy went on national television to explain himself in an extraordinary 13-minute address in which he denied driving drunk and rejected rumors of "immoral conduct" with Ms. Kopechne. He said he was haunted by "irrational" thoughts immediately after the accident, and wondered "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys." He said his failure to report the accident right away was "indefensible."

In 1980, Kennedy took the extraordinary step of challenging a sitting president, Carter, for the party's nomination. Kennedy's left-of-center politics made him an unlikely choice. But Chappaquiddick — and lingering suspicions that the famous Kennedy money and clout had gotten him out of the trouble — damaged his chances, too.

Wide-ranging legislative record
First elected to the Senate in 1962, easily re-elected in 2006, Kennedy served close to 47 years, longer than all but two senators in history: Robert Byrd of West Virginia (more than 50 1/2 years and counting) and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who put in nearly 47 1/2 years.

His legislative achievements included bills to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Meals on Wheels for the elderly, abortion clinic access, family leave, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

He was also a key negotiator on legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens and was a driving force for peace in Ireland and a persistent critic of the war in Iraq.

Video: What is Sen. Kennedy’s political legacy? Kennedy did not always prevail. In late 2008, he unsuccessfully lobbied for niece Caroline's appointment to the Senate from New York.

Wildly popular among Democrats, Kennedy routinely won re-election by large margins. He grew comfortable in his role as Republican foil and leader of his party's liberal wing.

President George W. Bush welcomed Kennedy to the Rose Garden on several occasions as he signed bills that the Democrat helped write.

"He's the kind of person who will state his case, sometimes quite eloquently and vociferously, and then on another issue will come along and you can work with him," Bush said shortly before his first term began in 2001.

But Bush was also the target of some of Kennedy's sharpest attacks. Kennedy assailed the Iraq war as Bush's Vietnam, a conflict "made up in Texas" and marketed by the Bush administration for political gain.

Passing the torch
Kennedy and his niece Caroline shook up the Democratic establishment in January 2008 when they endorsed Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination for president. The ailing Massachusetts senator electrified delegates when he made a surprise trip to Denver last August to address the Democratic convention and press for Obama's election.

After Obama won in November, Kennedy renewed words once spoken by his brother John, declaring: "The world is changing. The old ways will not do. ... It is time for a new generation of leadership."

Born in 1932, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Edward Moore Kennedy was part of a family bristling with political ambition, beginning with maternal grandfather John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, a congressman and mayor of Boston.

Round-cheeked Teddy was thrown out of Harvard in 1951 for cheating, after arranging for a classmate to take a freshman Spanish exam for him. He eventually returned, earning his degree in 1956.

In 1955, Kennedy's performance on the football field for Harvard earned him the notice of the Green Bay Packers, who suggested he could have a professional sports career. Kennedy declined the approach, however, saying he planned to to "go into another contact sport, politics."

He went on to the University of Virginia Law School, and in 1962, while his brother John was president, announced plans to run for the Senate seat JFK had vacated in 1960. A family friend had held the seat in the interim because Kennedy was not yet 30, the minimum age for a senator. He ultmately won the general election.

But devastated by his brothers' assassinations and injured in a 1964 plane crash that left him with back pain that would plague him for decades, Kennedy temporarily withdrew from public life in 1968. He re-emerged in 1969 to be elected majority whip of the Senate.

Then came Chappaquiddick.

Kennedy still handily won re-election in 1970, but he lost his leadership job. He remained outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War and support of social programs but ruled out a 1976 presidential bid.

Kennedy married Virginia Joan Bennett, known as Joan, in 1958. They divorced in 1982. In 1992, he married Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie. His survivors include a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen; two sons, Edward Jr. and Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island; and two stepchildren, Caroline and Curran Raclin.

Video: Chris Matthews on Sen. Kennedy’s life In 1991, Kennedy roused his nephew William Kennedy Smith and his son Patrick from bed to go out for drinks while staying at the family's Palm Beach, Fla., estate. Later that night, a woman Smith met at a bar accused him of raping her at the home.

Smith was acquitted, but the senator's carousing — and testimony about him wandering about the house in his shirttails and no pants — further damaged his reputation.

Later on, his second wife appeared to have a calming influence on him, helping him rehabilitate his image.

Memoir forthcoming
Kennedy's family life has been marked by illness.

Edward Jr. lost a leg to bone cancer in 1973 at age 12. Kara had a cancerous tumor removed from her lung in 2003. In 1988, Patrick had a noncancerous tumor pressing on his spine removed. He has also struggled with mental problems and addiction and announced in June that he was re-entering rehab.

In 2005, the senator's ex-wife underwent surgery for breast cancer. She has also battled alcoholism.

Kennedy's memoir, "True Compass," is set to be published on Sept. 14.

More on: Ted Kennedy

NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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