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Published: Friday, 8/28/2009

The statesman he became

PERHAPS the most fitting tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy came not from President Obama, who correctly called him one of the greatest senators in U.S. history, but from the man who lost last year's election: John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who was often the political polar opposite of his colleague from Massachusetts.

Hours after Senator Kennedy lost his battle with a brain tumor late Tuesday, a tearful Mr. McCain called him the most effective member of the Senate - and nobody spoke to disagree.

Both Mr. McCain and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) agreed that health-care reform would be a lot further along had Senator Kennedy been healthy the last few months.

Though Ted Kennedy's own views were among the most liberal in the Senate, it was universally agreed that he was the unsurpassed master at getting both sides to sit down and work out a compromise that everyone could live with.

Though most saw him either as the last great tribune of the people and the heir of Camelot, or as a bloated, hard-drinking, free-spending liberal who led a scandalous life, the truth is that his most important role became that of the quintessential legislator, a man who was a master at finding a way to getting worthy legislation through the Senate, regardless of its origin.

For example, Senator Kennedy was the main force behind the Americans With Disabilities Act, but also worked with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind.

At his death at age 77, Mr. Kennedy had served in the Senate four times as long as his brothers John and Robert combined, having been first elected when President Obama was barely a year old.

Edward Moore Kennedy's legislative career would have greatly surprised almost everyone when he was first elected in 1962, with little or nothing to recommend him except his famous name. But while his brothers regarded the Senate mostly as a stepping stone, he made it a career.

That doesn't mean his record was unblemished. In the early 1970s, he refused to help President Richard Nixon pass health-care reform, something he later regretted. And, indeed, for many years, there were two Teddy Kennedys - the responsible, diligent legislator, and the out-of-control, drunken, womanizer who, in 1969, drove off a bridge and fled the scene, leaving a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in his car.

Millions of Americans found the incident at Chappaquiddick Island unforgivable, and it probably doomed any chance he had of becoming president. The private man was, to put it charitably, not particularly admirable until his life changed with his marriage to Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie in 1992.

The personal transformation was complete, by most accounts, and it is the statesman of the Senate he became in the ensuing years that the nation will honor.

"When you survey the impact of the Kennedys on American life and politics and policy, he will end up by far being the most significant," congressional scholar Norman Ornstein observed. That's something that would have pleased the brothers he idolized, the assassinated John and Robert and his childhood hero Joe, who died in World War II.

As Teddy Kennedy often said of them, we will live long before we see his like again.

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