BOSTON - Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate and haunted bearer of the Camelot torch after two of his brothers fell to assassins' bullets, has died at his home in Hyannis Port after battling a brain tumor. He was 77.
For nearly a half-century in the Senate, Kennedy was a steadfast champion of the working class and the poor, a powerful voice on health care, civil rights, and war and peace. To the American public, though, he was best known as the last surviving son of America's most glamorous political family, the eulogist of a clan shattered again and again by tragedy.
His family announced his death in a brief statement released early Wednesday.
"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," the statement said. "We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all."
President Obama, on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., said he and the first lady were “heartbroken” to hear of Kennedy's passing.
“An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time,” Obama said.
Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962, when his brother John was president, and served longer than all but two senators in history. Over the decades, he put his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to clear the Congress.
His own hopes of reaching the White House were damaged — perhaps doomed — in 1969 by the scandal that came to be known as Chappaquiddick, an auto accident that left a young woman dead.
Kennedy — known to family, friends and foes simply as Ted — ended his quest for the presidency in 1980 with a stirring valedictory that echoed across the decades: "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 third-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
His death late Tuesday comes just weeks after that of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver on Aug. 11.
‘Ally and a dear friend’
Nancy Reagan, the widow of President Ronald Reagan, was one of the first to speak out from the Republican Party.
"Given our political differences, people are sometimes surprised by how close Ronnie and I have been to the Kennedy family," she said in a statement.
"But Ronnie and Ted could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another. In recent years, Ted and I found our common ground in stem cell research, and I considered him an ally and a dear friend. I will miss him," she said.
Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wife, Maria Shriver, was Kennedy's niece, praised “the rock of our family: a loving husband, father, brother and uncle.”
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that both the Kennedy family and the Senate have "lost our patriarch" and vowed Congress would renew the push for the cause of Kennedy's life, health care reform.