The last of Joe Kennedy's boys is gone, and as terrible as it is to die of brain cancer, it is a blessed thing to reach the age of 77, when two brothers have been assassinated in their forties, and a third was killed in war at age 29. There was no better-known political family in the world. It has stood for America - its promise and its excesses. And Edward Kennedy lived up to the family name.
He served 46 years in the U.S. Senate and became a towering figure, known for his consistent defence of liberalism when "liberal" was a dirty word in America, and for his effectiveness as a legislator. President Barack Obama, in paying tribute yesterday, said that virtually every piece of important social-justice legislation in the past five decades bore his imprint.
It is probably not a stretch to say that Mr. Obama's presidency itself bears Mr. Kennedy's imprint. He encouraged Mr. Obama to run for the presidency, rather than bide his time in the Senate. And his endorsement during the Democratic primaries helped turn the tide against Hillary Clinton: "He is a leader who sees the world clearly, without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view." In effect, he passed the family torch on to Mr. Obama.
He was an unrepentant liberal, but he was a pragmatist, too. As a liberal, he launched a tirade against President Ronald Reagan's 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The nomination was not confirmed. His first speech on the Senate floor was in support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Beginning in 1969, he backed national health insurance, and under Mr. Obama chaired a Senate committee that approved health-care reform legislation. He co-sponsored the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which made accommodation of disabled people the law of the land. He opposed the Iraq war.
But as a pragmatist open to bipartisanism, he gave his support to President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, an education bill. He worked with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch to expand health care for poor children, and with Republican Senator John McCain on immigration reform. A biographer, Adam Clymer, said he was "one of the greats" in Senate history, "wise in the workings of this singular institution, especially its demand to be more than partisan to accomplish much."
In his personal appetites and his yen for the political life, he was a true Kennedy, except that he proved to be a survivor - of a 1964 plane crash that broke his back, and of the 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and injured his political career. Edward Kennedy, the baby brother, lived in the generations-long shadow of John and Robert, and ultimately proved himself a worthy successor.