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Looking Back at Highs, Lows of Kennedy’s High-profile Life

August 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Kwame Holman looks back at the life of the last surviving Kennedy brother and his role as a liberal stalwart.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, more on Sen. Edward Kennedy. We begin with a look back at the life of the last surviving brother of a one-of-a-kind political family. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has the story.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, D-Mass.: I feel that it is essential that we provide a medical care program to meet the needs of our senior and elderly citizens.

KWAME HOLMAN: For nearly half a century, Senator Edward Kennedy was one of the nation’s and his party’s most prominent voices. The eight-term Massachusetts Democrat lent his eloquent and forceful voice to many causes: civil rights…

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: I am accusing them of creating a climate that encourages discrimination…

KWAME HOLMAN: … the minimum wage…

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: If you work hard 40 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year, you shouldn’t live in poverty.

KWAME HOLMAN: … education…

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: If you’re going to turn around schools, you’re going to have to invest.

KWAME HOLMAN: … immigration policy…

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: One way or the other, they’re going to come in, and that is where the temporary worker program comes in.

KWAME HOLMAN: … and health care.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: You do not need a stethoscope to diagnose the cause of health care cost inflation. Hospitals and doctors charge too much.

KWAME HOLMAN: Indeed, it was health care that Kennedy regarded as the cause of his life. Just as political debate on Capitol Hill heated up, he made the case for health care reform in Newsweek magazine in July, with the assistance of long-time friend and political strategist Bob Shrum.

Ted was the youngest son of one of the nation’s most-storied political families, legendary both for its service and the tragedies that befell it. Two of his older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, were struck down by assassins in the span of just five years.

He mourned Robert at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1968.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: 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. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tragedy was followed by scandal that impacted both his private and political lives. It was in 1969 that the senator’s car plunged off a bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick. A young woman riding with him, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

Like his brothers before him, Ted Kennedy sought the White House. In 1979, he challenged the incumbent Democrat, President Jimmy Carter. But Kennedy’s campaign stumbled from the start, when he seemed unready for a question from Roger Mudd of CBS.

Flawed run for the White House

ROGER MUDD, CBS reporter: Why do you want to be president?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, I'm -- were I to make the announcement and run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is -- there's more natural resources than any nation of the world, there's the greatest-educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for innovation in the world, and the greatest political system in the world.

And yet I see at the current time that most of the industrial nations of the world are exceeding us in terms of productivity or doing better than us in terms of meeting the problems of inflation.

KWAME HOLMAN: By the next summer, his quest for the presidency ended in his most famous address to the 1980 Democratic convention.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Five years later, he announced he would never again seek the presidency and instead dedicate himself to work in the Senate.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: I have decided that the best way to advance the values you and I share -- peace on Earth, economic growth at home, and compassion for all Americans -- is to be a United States senator and not a candidate for president of the United States.

'The work goes on'

KWAME HOLMAN: Kennedy relished his Senate role. In 1987, he rushed to the chamber to denounce the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, minutes after President Reagan announced it.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is and is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Three months later, Bork's nomination failed.

But the senator also was known as a consummate dealmaker, able to reach across party lines to get things done. In 2002, he worked with President George W. Bush to initiate the major education reform known as No Child Left Behind.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: This legislation gives the assurance to people of Massachusetts and across this country that we are going to have a well-qualified teacher in every classroom in every school in America. That is what this legislation is about, too.

KWAME HOLMAN: But when it came to the Iraq war, Kennedy was firmly in his role as leader of the Democrats' liberal wing. Two years ago, he excoriated President Bush for his troop surge plan, likening it to the long and difficult experience the U.S. had in Vietnam.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Echoes of that disaster are all around us today. Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam. As with Vietnam, the only rational solution to the crisis is political, not military. Injecting more troops into a civil war is not the answer.

Our men and women in uniform cannot force the Iraqi people to reconcile their differences. The open-ended commitment of our military forces continues to enable the Iraqis to avoid taking responsibility for their own future.

Final years in the Senate

KWAME HOLMAN: Kennedy achieved a long-sought victory in 2007, when Congress finally approved an increase in the minimum wage, the first in a decade.

In last year's presidential campaign, Kennedy's early decision to endorse Barack Obama over longtime friend Hillary Clinton was a major boost to Mr. Obama.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view. He is tough-minded, but he also has an uncommon capacity to appeal to the better angels of our nature.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, Kennedy collapsed at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and was diagnosed with brain cancer.

He returned to limited work in the Senate that summer, including a vote on the Medicare bill, after undergoing surgery.

In January, he was on hand for President Obama's inauguration, but suffered a seizure at the luncheon immediately afterward.

Senator Kennedy won a standing ovation in his last major public appearance in April, when President Obama signed legislation he co-sponsored to expand the AmeriCorps volunteer program.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: This is a wonderful day for all of our country and all Americans who will now have a chance and the opportunity to give back to their communities and the nation, the nation that we love so much.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. He was 77 years old.