|HAPPY TIMES – In this Jan. 28, 2008 file photo, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., smiles with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., during a rally at American University in Washington where Kennedy endorsed Obama. Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, has died after battling a brain tumor. He was 77. Kennedy’s family announced his death in a brief statement released early Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)|
by Glen Johnson
Associated Press Writer
CHILMARK, Mass. (AP) — Edward M. Kennedy was much more than just former Senate colleague and influential legislator to Barack Obama, evident in the president’s personal, mournful tribute on Wednesday.
Obama lauded the Massachusetts senator’s tireless work for legislation that reshaped the lives of millions of Americans — “including myself,” the nation’s first black president added in a poignant hint of affection. Also clearly not forgotten as a grieving president took a break from his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to mark Kennedy’s death from brain cancer late Tuesday night: the great political debt Obama owes Kennedy.
“His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us: the blessing of time to say thank you — and goodbye,” Obama said.
Obama owes his ascension to the White House perch that was denied Kennedy in part to the senator’s help.
At a crucial moment in the brutal, marathon primary contests, Kennedy endorsed Obama over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. During his endorsement, Edward Kennedy painted Obama as heir to the legacy of his slain brothers. That connection, to the dynasty of John, Robert and Edward Kennedy, lent the young contender immeasurable credibility with establishment Democrats and cemented a personal friendship.
“I remember another such time, in the 1960s, when I came to the Senate at the age of 30. We had a new president who inspired the nation — especially the young — to seek a new frontier,” said Kennedy during the endorsement speech. “I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And with Barack Obama, we can do it again.”
“Your time only comes once, and this is your time,” Kennedy had told Obama in urging him to seek the White House in 2006, according to a Kennedy aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to recount a private conversation.
All high praise from a man whose family name, Obama said Wednesday, “is synonymous with the Democratic Party.”
White House aides said Obama planned to attend and speak at services for Kennedy, though it was not immediately clear which ones. Kennedy will lie in repose for two days at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, and a memorial service is scheduled there Friday night. Kennedy’s funeral was scheduled for Saturday morning at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston, followed by his burial Saturday afternoon with his brothers at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
Both men had giant personalities and inspired a generation of Americans with similar themes of service and idealism. They became comrades in the Senate over their opposition to the war in Iraq and nurtured a relationship from there.
When Kennedy’s brain cancer kept him from delivering his stepdaughter’s college commencement address, Obama left the campaign trail and stood in for his then-Senate colleague.
Returning the favor, Kennedy traveled to the Democratic National Committee’s nominating convention in Denver a year ago — one year to the day of his death — at great risk to his health. He delivered a heartfelt, seven-minute speech that brought many to their feet and some to tears.
“The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on,” Kennedy said, an echo of the concession speech that ended his 1980 presidential bid.
The senator returned to the Capitol in January to see Obama sworn in, suffering a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
They were bound on a lighter note, too. When Obama was faced with the much-watched choice of a dog for his two daughters, it was Kennedy who gave him “Bo,” a Portuguese water dog like the pair of dogs that have been a fixture in Kennedy’s Capitol Hill offices.
Since becoming president, Obama has gone out of his way to pay tribute to Kennedy. He invoked him during a joint session of Congress in February, led a “Happy Birthday” sing-along during a tribute at the Kennedy Center and hand-delivered a letter from the senator to Pope Benedict XVI.
Most recently, Obama awarded Kennedy the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Early Wednesday morning, Obama was awakened by a top aide just after 2 a.m. EDT to learn of the death of the man he fondly called “a colleague, a counselor and a friend.” The president spoke with the senator’s widow, Victoria, soon afterward and ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings.
“Even though we knew this day was coming, we awaited it with no small amount of dread,” Obama said, tieless, coatless and grim-faced at a makeshift lectern outside his rented island compound. “His extraordinary life on this Earth has come to an end. The extraordinary good that he did lives on.”