Farewell to Kennedy in funeral he helped plan

Barack Obama yesterday paid a poignant public farewell to Senator Edward Kennedy, the veteran Democratic powerbroker, whom he described as “the heir to a weighty legacy . . . a champion to those who had none”. After a sombre day of rare political unity in Washington, Kennedy was last night being buried in Arlington national cemetery, close to brothers tery, close to brothers John and Robert, after a moving funeral service in Boston at which the president led America’s mourning for the scion of one of its greatest political families.

His voice breaking as he paid tribute to “the baby of the family who became its patriarch”, Obama hailed Kennedy as “a force of nature” from an age “when adversaries still saw each other as patriots”.

He, three former presidents and politicians of all hues had gathered in Boston under dark clouds to mark the passing of a flawed but potent deal-maker whose life was marred by tragedy and self-inflicted folly, but who somehow survived to become a senatorial legend.

The president referred only obliquely to Kennedy’s troubled past when he spoke of a “string of events that would have broken a lesser man”.

Obama added that it would have been easy for Kennedy “to surrender to self-pity and regret, and retreat from private life. That was not Ted Kennedy”.

Beneath the vaulting arches of the Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Kennedy was also remembered as a Massachusetts hero, a loving father and grandfather and, in the minds of many of his colleagues, a final and irreplacea-ble link to the Camelot era of Kennedy greatness, when JFK was president.

Obama referred repeatedly to the burdens Kennedy had faced after the assassinations of his older brothers. It was because the senator had experienced so much suffering of his own that he was “more alive to the plight of others”, the president said.

“He was given the gift of time that his brothers were not . . . he became the greatest legislator of our time.”

Obama was joined by three former presidents — George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — and a host of current and past politicians from both sides of the political aisle. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California governor who is related to the Kennedys by marriage, led a strong contingent of Republican notables who included John McCain, the party’s former presidential candidate. Also in the church was Jack Nicholson, the actor.

In recognition of Kennedy’s often controversial interest in Irish affairs, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, and Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, attended. Britain was represented by Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, and Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland secretary.

For Obama, the occasion provided an opportunity to display his much-vaunted rhetorical skills, and most commentators judged his address to have been perfectly pitched.

It had been Kennedy’s early endorsement in last year’s presidential campaign that provided Obama with a crucial boost as he fought off Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Yet almost as if to prove that no hard feelings remain, the president sat next to Hillary, now his secretary of state, in the front row of mourners.

Obama avoided overtly partisan references and did not dwell on the healthcare issue that he and Kennedy championed, yet which has since became bitterly divisive. Instead the president talked simply and eloquently about “learning from our mistakes and growing from our failures”.

He also joked that when he once asked Kennedy how he had pulled off a voting majority for a difficult piece of legislation, the senator had “just patted me on the back and said, ‘luck of the Irish’.” The president concluded: “The greatest expectations were placed upon Ted Kennedy’s shoulders because of who he was, but he surpassed them all because of who he became. We do not weep for him today because of the prestige attached to his name or his office. We weep because we loved this kind and tender hero who persevered through pain and tragedy.”

Diagnosed with brain cancer 15 months ago, Kennedy had helped plan his own funeral before his death last Tuesday. He chose the Boston basilica because it was where he had often gone to pray after his daughter, Kara, was diagnosed with lung cancer aged 42 six years ago. She recovered and was yesterday among family members who gave readings.

Despite the forbidding weather , thousands of Kennedy’s former constituents turned out to watch a Cadillac hearse drive his flag-draped coffin to the basilica from the John F Kennedy presidential library. An honour guard of six military pallbearers carried the coffin into the church as Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, stood beneath a black umbrella, looking pale and tired.

Inside the church the flag was removed and replaced with a simple white shroud as the Rev Donald Mohan paid tribute to Kennedy’s “uniquely public life”. The two-hour service also featured performances by Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, and Placido Domingo, the tenor.

There was laughter too, as Kennedy’s son, Ted Jr, recalled his father as a fearless adventurer whose energetic ideas for family holidays “left us injured and exhausted”. He also remembered the senator saying: “I don’t mind not being president. I just mind that someone else is.”

In an oblique reference to the scandals that dogged his father, Ted added: “At times it hasn’t been easy to live with this name, but I’ve never been more proud of it than I am today.”

Yet there were few yesterday who wanted to dwell on Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who lost her life when Kennedy drove off a bridge on a small island off Martha’s Vineyard in 1969.

Although it was clear last week that some Republicans were biting their lips about Kennedy’s life of privilege and protection from political mishaps that might have sunk anyone without his connections, most preferred not to “speak ill of the dead”, as William Bennet, a former Republican cabinet secretary, put it.

Farewell to Kennedy in funeral he helped plan Farewell to Kennedy in funeral he helped plan Reviewed by Sopheap Chhin on 8:02:00 PM Rating: 5

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