CHILMARK, Mass. — A grieving President Barack Obama paid tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy Wednesday, calling him a colleague, counselor and friend who etched his place in history as a “singular figure” on the American political landscape.
“Even though we knew this day was coming, we awaited it with no small amount of dread,” Obama said. “For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was a defender of a dream.”
Wednesday morning’s brief remarks by Obama, appearing tieless and coatless at a makeshift podium on the grass outside his rented compound on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, were delayed several times as he and aides polished it. Obama had been awakened at his vacation home on this island off Massachusetts by a top aide just after 2 a.m. EDT and told of Kennedy’s death. He spoke with the senator’s widow, Victoria, around 2:25 a.m. and ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings.
The Massachusetts senator died late Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod, Mass., after a yearlong struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.
“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.
Vice President Joe Biden diverged from planned remarks at an Energy Department event to talk at length — fighting tears the whole time — about his friend and colleague of many decades in the Senate.
“I truly, truly am distressed by his passing,” Biden said haltingly. “You know, Teddy spent a lifetime working for a fair and more just America. And for 36 years, I had the privilege of going to work every day and literally — not figuratively — sitting next to him and being a witness to history. … I don’t think we shall ever see his like again.”
The president cited Kennedy’s counsel during Obama’s short time serving as a senator from Illinois.
But probably Kennedy’s greatest gift to Obama came during last year’s presidential race. Kennedy, and his niece Caroline, shook up the Democratic establishment in January 2008 when they endorsed Obama over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton at a critical point in the campaign. Kennedy lit up the Democratic base with his comparisons between young contender Obama and former President John F. Kennedy.
Then, risking his own health, Sen. Kennedy traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Obama accepted the presidential nomination, to give a rousing speech on Obama’s behalf. It was almost exactly one year before Kennedy’s death. The senator also returned to the Capitol in January to see Obama sworn in as the nation’s first black president, suffering a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
“I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the presidency,” Obama had said earlier in a written statement.
Obama pointed out many people — seniors, children, families — whose lives have been improved by Kennedy’s work on key legislation, saying many can now “pursue their dreams in an America that is more equal and more just, including myself” because of him.
“The outpouring of love, gratitude and fond memories to which we’ve all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives,” the president said. “His extraordinary life on this Earth has come to an end. The extraordinary good that he did lives on.”
Kennedy had been away from the Senate for much of this year, leading to speculation about the impact of his absence on Obama’s health care proposals. Still, Obama said, “even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I’ve profited as president from his encouragement and wisdom.”
Obama last met with Kennedy in late April, when he signed a a $5.7 billion national service bill that tripled the size of the AmeriCorps service program over the next eight years and carries the senator’s name. Kennedy championed the legislation with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, an example of Kennedy’s work across party lines for his hallmark issues.
The pair spoke on June 2 about the health care overhaul effort and again on July 10, after Obama delivered a letter from Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI during the president’s visit to the Vatican, according to the White House.
“An important chapter in our history has come to an end,” said Obama. “Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.”
White House aides were in contact with the family to coordinate details on final resting arrangements for Kennedy. His two brothers, President John F. Kennedy and former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.
The White House said there were no plans for Obama to visit the Kennedys at their compound on Cape Cod. Instead, Obama took his family to a private beach after his remarks.