Senator Edward Kennedy Dead at 77

08/26/2009 at 01:45 AM EDT

Senator Edward Kennedy Dead at 77
Terry Lee/Landov
Edward Kennedy, the iconic Democratic U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who raised a strong liberal voice in American politics for the past four decades, died Tuesday at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. He was 77.

His family said in a statement. "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 ... He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it.”

Kennedy – the last surviving brother of a political dynasty that included President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, both struck down by assassin's bullets – had been suffering from a malignant brain tumor first diagnosed in 2008. In January, he was rushed from a post-Inauguration luncheon at the U.S. Capitol after suffering another seizure.

Even with his own share of the setbacks and tragedies that have befallen his legendary family, Kennedy, known as Ted, was an indefatigable leader in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere. The decline in health leading to his death brought a spirited show of support from both sides of the political aisle: Just after Kennedy was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital two years ago, then-President Bush phoned the senator's wife, Victoria Kennedy, to convey the message, "Take care of my friend."

The Kennedy Dynasty

Kennedy was the youngest of nine children of Massachusetts businessman and ruthless political patriarch Joseph Kennedy and his wife Rose. The senator's eldest sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 88, died Aug. 11. Jean Kennedy Smith, 81, is now the sole surviving member of that generation of Kennedys.

While it was Kennedy's older brother Joseph Jr. (born in 1915, 17 years before Ted) whom his father eyed for the White House, that dream died in 1944, when the plane Joe Jr. was piloting was shot down during World War II. Instead, in 1960, second child John ran for the presidency – and won, bringing a glamorous era to Washington politics symbolized as The New Frontier.

JFK's victory put the entire family in the spotlight. Third son (and seventh child) Robert was appointed his brother's Attorney General, while, in 1962, 30-year-old Ted – a graduate of Harvard and the University of Virginia School of Law – ran for brother John's vacated U.S. Senate seat and handily won the office. He was re-elected in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006 – making him the body's second-longest serving member and earning him the nickname "The Liberal Lion."

Kennedy promoted environmental, educational and health issues, as well as his home state's historic approval of same-sex marriages. He served on the Judiciary as well as Armed Services Committees, and was a member of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee and the Congressional Friends of Ireland, and a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Always in the Headlines

But just as there were highpoints, so were there unfathomable lows. In 1964, he was hospitalized for several months after being seriously injured in a plane crash that claimed the lives of the pilot and another passenger. His sister Kathleen, in 1948 (at age 28), and his nephew, John Jr., were also killed in plane crashes; the assassination of his brother John was in 1963, and Robert was killed in 1968.

As the sole surviving male member of that second generation of Kennedys, "Uncle Ted" served as surrogate father to his late brothers' 13 children.

The scandal that essentially torpedoed Edward's hope of winning the presidency – for which he campaigned in 1980 – occurred in summer 1969, when, after a party, the senator drove a car off a bridge into the channel between Chappaquiddick Island and Martha's Vineyard. Kennedy escaped but his young female passenger, campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the submerged vehicle.

The relationship of the two long remained a matter of rumor. Kennedy pleaded guilty to abandoning the scene of an accident and received a suspended jail sentence of two months.

Despite being raised a Roman Catholic, Kennedy ended his first marriage, to on-air TV model Virginia Joan Bennett (known as Joan), with a divorce in 1982, after 24 years and three children: Kara (born 1960), Edward Jr. (1961), and Patrick (1967).

In July 1992, he re-married, to Victoria Anne Reggie, a divorced attorney with two children of her own.

Scandals aside, Kennedy was a political survivor, finding a seat of power in the Senate long after dreams of the White House had faded. Last summer, he electrified the party's convention in Denver, striding onstage unassisted as the 4,400 delegates in the hall rose from their seats to deliver their cheers and screams.

"It's so wonderful to be here! Nothing – nothing – is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight," said Kennedy, who was introduced by his niece, Caroline Kennedy.

Besides his widow and children, Kennedy is survived by five grandchildren – and a lasting imprint on an era of American history that some have called Camelot.

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