President Barack Obama led the nation Saturday in mourning and remembering "the greatest legislator of our time," celebrating the indelible impact of Edward M. Kennedy as a senator for nearly a half-century and leader of America's most famous family during tragedy and triumph. Delivering an emotional, simple eulogy for Kennedy that capped a two-hour Roman Catholic funeral Mass, Obama employed humor, his own experiences and timeless anecdotes to memorialize the senator, who died Tuesday at 77 after battling brain cancer for more than a year.
The country may have viewed him as "heir to a weighty legacy," Obama said, but he was playfully known by the youngest Kennedys less grandly: as the big cheese, "The Grand Fromage."
"Ted Kennedy's life's work was not to champion those with wealth or power or special connections," Obama said. "It was to give a voice to those who were not heard, to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity, to make real the dream of our founding." The president said that "though it is Ted Kennedy's historic body of achievements we will remember, it is his giving heart that we will miss."
The service drew to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica three of the four living former presidents, dozens of Kennedy relatives, pews full of current and former members of Congress and hundreds of others affected by the senator in ways large and small. No fewer than seven priests, 11 pallbearers and 29 honorary pallbearers took part. Mournful performances came from tenor Placido Domingo and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Earlier, Kennedy's flag-draped casket — carried by a military honor guard of eight — was wrapped tightly in plastic to guard against a steady rain as it was removed from his brother's presidential library and placed in a hearse for the drive to the church. His widow, Victoria, closed her eyes slowly and appeared to choke back tears as she watched under cover of an umbrella. The family had held a brief and private prayer service at the library in the morning.
The motorcade route was lined with people, some holding "Kennedy-Thanks" signs and one person waving a lone red heart.
"We welcome the body of our friend," said a priest as the casket entered the church.
Under the soaring dome and saint-covered arches of the basilica, a church Kennedy had frequented almost daily while his daughter, Kara, battled cancer at a nearby hospital, over a dozen Kennedy family members accompanied the casket — now covered by a white cloth — down the church aisle, each straining to touch it.
Kara Kennedy was the first family member to speak at the service, reading Psalm 72. Ten of Kennedy's grandchildren, nieces and nephews offered a set of brief prayers.
Ted Kennedy Jr., the eldest son, told a story from shortly after he lost a leg to cancer at age 12, when his father helped him up a snow-covered hill with an arm around his waist and words of encouragement. "There's nothing you can't do," he said his father told him. Choking back tears, Kennedy Jr. said: "My father taught me that even our most profound losses are survivable."
He and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., Kennedy's other son, cried during a long embrace in between their two addresses.
The unseasonable cold outdoors, the result of Tropical Storm Danny's path up the Eastern seaboard, was not felt inside the church, which grew warm from the packed crowd. The church's stained-glass windows were opened, and rain could be heard beating down on the cantilevered ceiling and metal gutters.
The invitation-only service included Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, actor Jack Nicholson and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, once an aide to Kennedy. Reflecting the prominence of the attendees, all levels of local, state and federal security personnel lined the church's walls.
Obama met with Mrs. Kennedy privately for about 10 minutes early in the morning, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, a hotel frequented by the Kennedys for generations.
Kennedy's career spanned the assassinations of his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy; the civil rights era and Apollo moon landings; and battles over health, education and immigration. Obama noted that Kennedy's name "graces nearly one thousand laws" and that he penned more than three hundred himself.
But in his address, the president focused as much on Kennedy's impact on the nation since first being elected in 1962 as on his individual outreach to those in need, whether relative or stranger, and his resilience through terrible personal trials — "more pain and tragedy than most of us will ever know."
The president, born roughly 18 months before Kennedy first took office, noted that Kennedy lost two siblings by the age of sixteen and saw two more assassinated later. Another sibling, his sister, Eunice, died exactly two weeks before Kennedy himself.
"He narrowly survived a plane crash, watched two children struggle with cancer, buried three nephews, and experienced personal failings and setbacks in the most public way possible," Obama said. "It's a string of events that would have broken a lesser man … But that was not Ted Kennedy."
"Ted Kennedy was the baby of the family who became its patriarch, the restless dreamer who became its rock," the president said.
The final page of the program for the service featured a photo of a smiling Kennedy on the shores of Cape Cod, with a setting sun and a sailboat in the background. True to Kennedy's political roots — the page had a union print shop bug.
The somber service concluded four days of public and private mourning.
Kennedy's family has marked his passing at an elaborately organized series of services and events: a Mass at Kennedy's beloved home on Cape Cod on Thursday, a somber motorcade carrying his body from the compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., past sites in Boston sentimental to the Kennedy family, and to his brother's presidential library. There, he lay in repose for two days as thousands of people streamed by.
A rotation of friends, former staffers and others Kennedy touched took turns for a 24-hour vigil by his casket, including the parents of a murdered lifeguard, the family of an Iraq war soldier and the widow of a Sept. 11 terror victim. Friday night, Kennedy was remembered at a bipartisan memorial service whose speakers included Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, JFK's daughter.
Saturday's ceremony evoked the funerals of Kennedy's slain brothers. It was at RFK's rites in 1968 that Edward Kennedy famously memorialized Robert.
"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."
After the Boston funeral, Kennedy's body was being flown to Andrews Air Force Base, which also received JFK's body after his 1963 assassination. There was to be a prayer service at the base, and another at the U.S. Capitol for Senate staffers. The entourage then was to proceed along the National Mall and into Arlington National Cemetery.
As evening was falling, Kennedy was to be buried there on a hillside near his brothers.