Event at Boston's JFK Library celebrates senator's life

In death as in life, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on Friday brought together political rivals — this time to celebrate his life and half-century of service to his country.

A who’s who of politics gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston for the private service featuring music, laughter and plenty of anecdotes about Edward Kennedy’s ferocious sense of humor and kindnesses shown to strangers who soon became friends.

Nephew Joseph Kennedy says his uncle was the rock for the family in dealing with so many other deaths, including the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He says Uncle Teddy was like a father for “every single one of my brothers and sisters.”

The event, billed as “a celebration of life,” contrasted with the solemnity of the motorcade that carried Kennedy’s body from Cape Cod to Boston a day earlier and the sobriety of the public viewing, where an estimated 50,000 people filed past the senator’s flag-draped coffin at the presidential library named for one of his slain brothers.

The event honors Kennedy’s love of family and friends and his commitment to public service. Scheduled speakers included Vice President Joe Biden; Sens. John McCain, Orrin Hatch, John Kerry and Christopher Dodd; and niece Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy.

“He suffered from the constant pain of a shattered back, and he bore more hurt and heartache than most human beings are ever asked to endure, but at every opportunity he brought hope and joy and optimism to more people than we will ever know,” said longtime friend Paul Kirk Jr., chairman of the library’s foundation.

Performances were to include Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell singing Kennedy’s favorite song, “The Impossible Dream” from the musical “Man of La Mancha,” for which Mitchell was nominated for a Tony Award. Also on tap was a video tribute directed by renowned documentarian Ken Burns and Mark Herzog.

The speakers, many of whom worked for years with Kennedy in the Senate, were sharing stories of his congeniality and knack for compromise as they recalled his congressional successes — and the ones he had yet to achieve when he died this week of a brain tumor at age 77, most notably the struggle for health care reform.

Health care for all

The health care bill on which Kennedy took the lead has been among the most controversial pieces of legislation considered by Congress in recent years. Protests have erupted around the country, and opponents have called it a nationalized, socialized program.

Anyone addressing the health care bill at the service would tread a fine line between taste and politics, especially since conservative commentators have already objected to proposals to name the measure The Kennedy Bill.

The dangers of politicizing a memorial event were illustrated by a 2002 memorial for Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who was killed in a plane crash. The event became a political pep rally that turned off many voters, and some observers attributed it to Republican Norm Coleman’s victory over Wellstone stand-in Walter Mondale in the special election.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said Friday that he planned to touch on Kennedy’s blend of a “larger-than-life quality and his down-to-earth quality.”

“He had such a lovely touch with people and did things, acts of real grace, that were out of public view, that were incredibly transformative and meaningful for the individual,” the governor told reporters Friday during a visit to Martha’s Vineyard.

Plans for the private memorial picked up speed Friday afternoon after officials ended the two-day public viewing at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Maureen Conte, 44, rode her bike 40 minutes to the library and was one of the last people allowed in the viewing.

“I did it for my parents,” Conte said. “My mom called me and was so sad. She said, ‘It’s the end of an era.’ I came to pay homage to Ted for all he’s done for our country.”

Greeting visitors were members of the Kennedy family, including daughter Kara Kennedy Allen, nephew Tim Shriver and the senator’s sister and the last surviving Kennedy sibling, 81-year-old Jean Kennedy Smith.

Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, choked back tears.

“This is a hard time for me,” she said when asked to talk about her brother.

A five-person military honor guard stood at attention around the casket in a high-ceilinged room with a spectacular view of Boston Harbor. Large photos greeted mourners on their way into the room, including one of Kennedy as a boy with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, and a 1960s-era shot of Kennedy with his slain brothers, John and Robert.

A funeral Mass is scheduled for The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, better known as the Mission Church, in Boston on Saturday. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and tenor Placido Domingo will perform, and President Barack Obama is delivering the eulogy.

All the living former presidents are expected to attend except for George H.W. Bush. Spokesman Jim McGrath said Friday that the 85-year-old Bush feels his son’s presence will “amply and well represent” the family.

Kennedy will be buried Saturday evening near his brothers at Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia.

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