WASHINGTON, D.C.—Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat and icon of American liberal politics who was the last surviving brother of a legendary political family, died late Tuesday at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., his family announced. He was 77.
Kennedy had been in declining health since having a seizure in May 2008. Subsequent tests determined that he had a malignant brain tumor.
He did not attend the funeral for his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Aug. 11, or a White House ceremony during which he was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"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," his family said in a statement.
A popular figure on both sides of the aisle in the Senate, Kennedy electrified his colleagues in July 2008 when he appeared briefly to vote on a measure to stave off a cut in Medicare fees to doctors who treat seniors, military personnel and their families and others. The measure passed on a 69-30 vote.
Kennedy was greeted with a wild reception from the party faithful in August 2008 on the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He addressed the gathering in a strong, steady voice, predicting that "this November, the torch will be passed to a new generation of Americans," a reference to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who was elected president three months later. Kennedy's endorsement of Obama in January 2008 was credited as an important validation of the senator's bid to win the nomination against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"The Kennedy family and the Senate family have together lost our patriarch," Harry Reid, the Senate's Democratic leader, said in a statement.
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, also expressed her sorrow in a statement. "Senator Kennedy had a grand vision for America, and an unparalleled ability to effect change," she said.
As the standard-bearer for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, the square-jawed "Ted" or "Teddy" Kennedy believed in government's ability to help solve people's problems, and over the decades he learned how to wield power in the Senate to move the government in that direction. He found numerous ways to work with Republican administrations and senators to fashion significant legislation on issues he cared deeply about.
Kennedy became a national figure after his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were assassinated in the 1960s. Many Americans still yearned for a Kennedy who could occupy the White House, and they looked to the youngest of the Kennedy brothers to fulfill those hopes.
But his public image and political fortunes suffered an indelible stain on July 18, 1969, when he drove his Oldsmobile off a bridge into the water on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. He survived without serious injury, but his female passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died. In a lapse of judgment that was never fully explained, Kennedy sought the help of friends and advisors and delayed reporting the accident to police for 10 hours.
Nothing he did afterward could wipe out the public memory of that lapse. Though he filled his life with decades of work for progressive causes, and though he became the beloved patriarch of his large and often troubled family, his behavior following the incident at Chappaquiddick still held the power to stun.
Partly because of lingering questions about his actions and his relationship with Kopechne, Kennedy did not run for president in 1972 and 1976. In 1980, apparently believing that enough time had passed, he launched a fierce primary challenge against unpopular President Jimmy Carter that roiled the Democratic Party. Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Carter handily in the general election.
After that last foray into presidential politics, Kennedy concentrated his efforts on the Senate, becoming one of that body's most effective members.
Though his most cherished legislative goal of universal health insurance eluded him, Kennedy helped write a number of laws that ranged from making it easier for workers who change or lose jobs to keep their health insurance, to giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, to deregulating the airlines, helping lower airfares.
He several times spearheaded legislation to raise the minimum wage and, in the early 1970s, wrote the law creating Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to seniors. He was influential in reforming immigration laws and in expanding Head Start programs.
In 1982, he helped gain an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and he was a principal sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which negated Supreme Court decisions that made it more difficult for minorities to win lawsuits charging job discrimination by employers. In 1990, he worked with then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) to gain passage of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act giving disabled Americans greater access to employment, among other things. That same year, he was author of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act providing funds for community healthcare and support services.
And every major education law passed since the 1960s bears Kennedy's imprint, according to the National Education Assn., which gave Kennedy its highest award in 2000.