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Edward Kennedy, Influential U.S. Senator, Dies At 77

U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy

U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy

(RFE/RL) -- Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the most illustrious figures in the United States Senate, has died of brain cancer at the age of 77.

The last of a generation of famous brothers who included the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, Edward Kennedy grew to be a commanding actor on the American political stage over decades.

In 1969, he was a rising young Senator from Massachusetts, when his moral standing was forever tainted by what came to be known as the Chappaquiddick incident.

After a car crash, he fled the scene, leaving the submerged body of a young woman whom he had been driving home from a party. The woman died, and Kennedy later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and was handed a suspended sentence.

He easily won another Senate term the following year, but from then on appeared the weakest link in the Kennedy chain of famous brothers.

His older brother John had made an indelible mark on U.S. history as the charismatic president who was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Another brother, Robert, was shot dead while campaigning for the presidency five years later.

But in fact, Edward did possess the famous Kennedy magic, even if in less spectacular doses than either John or Robert. Through almost half a century of public service, he gradually emerged as a towering figure tirelessly devoted to liberal causes.

Whether the subject was health care, civil rights, education or immigration, almost every piece of social legislation enacted by Congress over decades bore his imprint. And he was considered the consummate dealmaker, able to forge bipartisan agreements even with conservatives to whom his liberalism was anathema.

Veteran conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch was among those paying homage to the Democrat. Hatch described Edward Kennedy as a "great elder statesman," and a "treasured friend."

Kennedy was also known as a moving orator. At the Democratic Party National Convention in New York in 1980, he acknowledged defeat in his bid to win the party's nomination for president.

"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," he said.

Jimmy Carter won that nomination, but it was Kennedy who stole the attention that evening for his gracious words in defeat.

Another of his famous speeches was the eulogy he gave in June 1968, at the funeral in New York of his brother Robert, who was assassinated after winning the California primary for nomination as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate.

Robert had served with distinction as attorney-general in the administration of John Kennedy.

"My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it," Kennedy said.

Health care for all Americans was Edward Kennedy's special concern. Despite his failing health, he strongly endorsed for president, Barack Obama, who is now battling to get a health reform bill through Congress.