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Published: Thursday, 8/27/2009

The extraordinary life, times of Edward M. Kennedy

THESE things can be said of Edward Moore Kennedy, senator from Massachusetts, last surviving brother of a remarkable generation of a remarkable American family, who died Tuesday night at 77:

He was one of the watchmen on the walls of freedom. He stood up to improve the lot of others and sent forth tiny ripples of hope. He saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it.

Those three sentences are a patchwork from an era and from a family, the first coming from the speech President John F. Kennedy never lived to deliver on Nov. 22, 1963, the second from Robert F. Kennedy's landmark speech in Cape Town in 1966, the third from Sen. Edward Kennedy's eulogy of his slain brother Bobby in 1968.

Together, they speak of how interwoven were the three brothers' lives, the public work they did and the civic legacy they left behind.

For the death of the last Kennedy brother is more than the passing of one of America's greatest legislators, a man whom history may well rank with Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Robert Taft, Lyndon B. Johnson, Everett Dirksen, Howard H. Baker, Jr., and Robert J. Dole as among the top 10 senators in the American pantheon.

Mr. Kennedy's death marks the end of a generation of Kennedys who defined an era (the 1960s), defined an ideology (modern liberalism), defined an outlook (Theodore Roosevelt athleticism plus Adlai Stevenson intellectualism), and defined a tone (Cotton Mather certainty with a touch of Tennyson poetry). Above all they defined a style, a style inevitably called, simply, the Kennedy style.

You could recognize it anywhere and everywhere. It was more than the pointed finger of John Kennedy (House member, senator, president, martyr to an era), more than the quixotic idealism and steely determination of Robert Kennedy (attorney general, senator, fallen warrior in a tragic year), more than the rumbustious thirst for life and dedication to the task of the last Kennedy (senator, possessor of the finest Capitol Hill staff in a generation, gladiator for golden causes even when their luster was tarnished).

You could recognize it because so many around the world adopted and adapted the Kennedy style. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in France went by the letters JJSS much as JFK, RFK, and EMK had gone by their initials. Tony Blair in England affected the cerebral ebullience of the Kennedys. And countless politicians in the United States suddenly appeared photographed on blustery beach bluffs holding blazers with a single finger over their right shoulder.

That style - and by that term we are not referring to the storied personal imperfections of the Kennedy brothers - is why political candidates even now end their sentences with a higher intonation than when they began them, why presidential contenders punctuate their speeches with quotes from Aeschylus and Yeats, and why men no longer wear hats.

And if for a moment you doubt the legacy of the Kennedy brothers, whose last member expired Tuesday night, consider whether your grandchildren will understand the meaning of these three names, in this order: Jack, Bobby, Ted.

These are quintessentially American names, and by their achievements the men who bore them helped transform the name Kennedy from Irish to American. In so doing, and by their determination to broaden the rights of all, they broadened all of our views of who is an American and what it means to be one.

Yesterday was the first day since January, 1953 (with a short interregnum after the election of President Kennedy), without a member of that generation of Kennedy brothers in the Senate.

This period comprises exactly one quarter of the history of the United States. In that time the nation fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; battled over the meaning of freedom in the McCarthy and civil rights eras, and watched the ideological struggle of the Cold War deepen and chill - and then end altogether.

The period began with the de Havilland Comet, moved to Sputnik and Explorer, raced through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and ended with Americans talking about a manned mission to Mars. It went from rotary dials to cell phones, from mainframes in central locations to Internet cafes on Main Street.

There will be much said in the days ahead about what Mr. Kennedy and his brothers did. One of the first to weigh in was President Obama, who reminded Americans that 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."

All three brothers had great passions - John Kennedy for the survival of freedom in a world threatened by frightful weapons and a frightening rival ideology, Robert Kennedy for justice in a world marked by injustice, Ted Kennedy for health care in a nation awash in medical technology but riven by a debate over how to pay for it and how to provide universal access to it.

Each left a signature legacy - one the soaring rhetoric that gave flight to American idealism in a contentious decade, another the sense of hope that goodwill could make a good world, the last a sense America was rich, decent, and bold enough to extend the privileges he enjoyed by virtue of his birth in a prominent family to those of meaner circumstances, all in an effort to raise the American mean.

All three Kennedys ran for president and had their older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., not been killed in England in 1944 during World War II, he surely would have run for the White House first; the Kennedys said, not jokingly, that they were bred for that by their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the wartime U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

But alone among the Kennedy brothers, Ted Kennedy will be remembered less for his presidential campaign and more for how he gave meaning to the valedictory remark of his failed 1980 nomination fight with President Jimmy Carter: "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."

The words of the first two Kennedy brothers are written in large letters on the sides of American buildings. The legacy of the final Kennedy brother endures in the small print of American law.

In his eulogy for his fallen brother Robert, Mr. Kennedy said that the New York senator "need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life."

In Ted Kennedy's life, there always was tragedy (Dallas, Los Angeles, Chappaquiddick) mixed with triumph. But the legacy of Edward Moore Kennedy - and his generation of Kennedys' last gift to their country - is a lesson in how to triumph over tragedy.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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