Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy brothers and one of the longest-serving members of the U.S. Senate, has died at age 77 after a long battle with brain cancer. After John F. Kennedy was elected President, Ted won a special election to fill his seat as a Senator representing Massachusetts. He won a full Senate term in 1964, and was re-elected for seven more six-year terms. Kennedy was sometimes dubbed “the lion of the Senate” because of his seniority and his strong personality. As a Senator, he was often seen as an unusual combination: a very liberal legislator (more liberal than either of his brothers on many issues) who was also a bipartisan deal-maker. He was one of the Senate’s most liberal members—he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq while his Senate colleague, John Kerry, supported it—and was distrustful of Presidents like Reagan, Bush, and even Jimmy Carter. Feeling that Carter was too far to the right, Kennedy ran an unsuccessful but high-profile primary challenge in 1980 (which may have inadvertently helped Reagan win the election by damaging Carter politically). But he was always willing to cut deals with conservative Republicans to get something he wanted, and convince his fellow Senate liberals that he had gotten a good deal that they should go along with. In 2002, he worked with President Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind Act.
One of Kennedy’s signature issues was health care. As chairman of the Senate’s health committee, he helped develop many important pieces of health legislation. He also played a leading role in many attempts to pass a universal health care system in the U.S. But his health problems meant that he was unable to take the lead in the current health care negotiations, and his death may make it even harder to pass a health care bill. Though Massachusetts has a Democratic Governor, the state no longer allows the governor to appoint a temporary replacement for a Senator (due to a law they passed to prevent Republican Governor Mitt Romney from making an appointment). Instead, Kennedy’s seat will remain unfilled until a few months from now, when there will be a special election to fill his spot. Without Kennedy, the Democrats will not have enough votes to break a filibuster of President Obama’s health care package. Or, if you want to look at it more cynically, it will give the Democrats a built-in excuse for delaying reform yet again.
Another key Kennedy issue was immigration; he worked on a great deal of legislation that liberalized U.S. immigration laws, starting with his vocal and influential support for the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened up the U.S. to more immigrants from Africa and Asia.
In his personal life, Kennedy has been married twice, and his son Patrick went into the family business, becoming a U.S. Congressman. But he may be most famous, or infamous, for the Chappaquiddick incident. In 1969, Kennedy’s car fell off a bridge and into the river; Kennedy survived, but the young woman in the car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Kennedy failed to contact the police for several hours, and pled guilty in court to the crime of leaving the scene of an accident. The incident permanently damaged Kennedy’s reputation and may have wrecked his chances of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972.