BOSTON — In death as in life, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on Friday brought together political rivals – this time to celebrate his ferocious sense of humor and unwavering dedication to family and country.
A who's who of politics gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston for the more than three-hour tribute featuring spirited musical performances, hearty laughter and calls to continue to fight for Kennedy's last political wish – health coverage for all Americans.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called Kennedy "the best ally you could have" when they agreed on issues, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, another GOP colleague, said he'd battled like a brother with Kennedy for 33 years and "loved every minute of it."
"I miss fighting in public and joking with him in the background. I miss all the things we could do together," Hatch said. He recalled that Kennedy once dressed as an Elvis impersonator at a staff holiday party, would frequently blow cigar smoke in his direction during their early years of political committee debates, and "just knew how to push people's buttons."
The speakers, many of whom worked for years with Kennedy in the Senate, shared stories of his congeniality and knack for compromise as they recalled his congressional successes and the ones he had yet to achieve – most notably the struggle for health care reform – when he died this week of a brain tumor at age 77.
His closest friend in the Senate, Democrat Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, made note of the relationships he developed across the aisle, and singled out Hatch and McCain.
"It is to their great credit that they so often supported Teddy's efforts. And, I say in some jest, it is to Teddy's great credit that he so rarely supported theirs," Dodd said to an eruption of laughter.
The "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.
Kennedy's niece, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, said traveling in the motorcade reminded her of the family history trips her Uncle Teddy would organize for her and her cousins when they were children. Over the years, they would visit the Washington monument, Valley Forge, the Brooklyn Bridge and Bunker Hill, among other sites.
"Now Teddy has become a part of history and we are the ones who will have to do all the things he would have done, for us, for each other and for our country," Schlossberg said.
Vice President Joseph Biden said Kennedy became a "big brother" to him when he first joined the Senate 36 years ago, and encouraged him to keep his seat after his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident. He called Kennedy a "historic figure, a heroic figure" and said the Kennedy era would live on in the next generations.
Kennedy's nephew and former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, called on the hundreds of invited guests gathered there to dedicate themselves to causes Kennedy had championed throughout his 47 years in the Senate. And he recalled a lesson he learned from his uncle one time when it appeared certain they were destined to lose a sailing race.
"He was telling me, never, ever, ever, ever give up. You stay in the race. And if people don't have health care, you stay in the race. If people don't have adequate housing, you stay in the race. If people aren't being treated properly you stay in the race," he said.
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 – even socialized – program.
Many of the speakers made clear they would continue his fight.
"He labored with all his might to make health care a right for all America, and we will do that in his honor," said Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic colleague from Massachusetts for decades.
Dodd, who has taken over Kennedy's key role on Capitol Hill on the health care bill, said Kennedy had called him two weeks ago when he was coming out of surgery for prostate cancer.
"'Well,' he roared, 'between going through prostate cancer surgery and doing town hall meetings, you made the right choice!'" Dodd recalled. "And though he was dying, and I was hurting, believe me, he had me howling with laughter in the recovery room as he made a few choice comments, I cannot repeat, about catheters."
At moments, the event took on the feel of an Irish wake, though it always returned to Kennedy's commitment to family and country.
In a tender family moment, Joe Kennedy thanked his cousins – Kennedy's children – for sharing him with so many, particularly after the assassinations of Kennedy's brothers.
"Every single one of my brothers and sisters needed a father, and we gained one through Uncle Teddy. Caroline and John were no different," he said. "The truth of the matter is that for so many of us, we just needed someone to hang onto, and Teddy was always there to hang onto. He had such a big heart, and he shared that heart with all of us."
Kennedy's friend, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, sang Kennedy's favorite song, "The Impossible Dream" from the musical "Man of La Mancha," for which Mitchell was nominated for a Tony Award. And a video tribute directed by renowned documentarian Ken Burns and Mark Herzog was played.
The private memorial, which was nationally televised, came hours after officials ended the two-day public viewing of the flag-draped casket 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."
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.
Associated Press writer Glen Johnson contributed to this report.