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EDITORIAL - Kennedy's service: He championed the cause of ordinary Americans

Written by Susan Mannella on .

The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at age 77 closes a chapter for the nation and the one extraordinary family whose service graced it. Other members of the Kennedy clan may yet rise to greatness, but the senator-patriarch was the last of a generation who put their stamp on history.

With Ted Kennedy no less than his fated brothers, accomplishment and grief went hand in hand in the Greek tragedy of their lives. It was thus from the beginning. While Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed in World War II before his promise could bloom, the talents of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy were in full flower by the time they were cut down by assassins.

In the shadow of those tragedies, it was left to Ted Kennedy to carry on bravely in the family tradition of public service. His tragedy was of a different order, a terrible mistake of judgment and character that cost the life of a young Pennsylvania woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, at Chappaquiddick in 1969. As others might not have been, he was treated leniently by the law and forgiven by a majority of Massachusetts voters. Their judgment ultimately would be vindicated.

That Sen. Kennedy overcame his failure, which ultimately cost him the chance of becoming president, is part of his story of redemption -- and it would be wrong not to mention it even in the full flood of sorrow. Eventually, Chappaquiddick became a footnote on an illustrious page that he wrote every time he rose in the Senate on behalf of ordinary Americans who never had his advantages. The lion of the Senate roared for them.

President Barack Obama in his tribute may have said it best: "For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well-being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts." His presence will be sorely missed in the health-care debate, a cause to which he was deeply -- and characteristically -- committed.

The president went on to say that after Sen. Kennedy picked up the torch of his fallen brothers, he "became the greatest United States senator of our time." That is not a flourish of oratory; it is simply the truth. All Americans understand that they have seen the passing of a giant. May he rest in peace.

  

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