09/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So Long, It's Been Good to Know You, Senator

An August Encomium -- I heard Edward Moore Kennedy sing that song once, leading everyone at his holiday party through the Woody Guthrie verses with unforgettable joie de vivre, while dressed in a lion's costume.

Senator Kennedy dearly loved to laugh, even at himself as the last liberal lion in the pride. He also loved to take his place on the Senate floor as an old-fashioned orator, roaring at the latest outrage. The sound filled the Capitol dome. Oxygen was sucked out of the chamber. Some ran for cover. Others were heartened to have such a force on their side.

Over 47 short years, the Senator from Massachusetts showed he was made of the same stardust as two others who held that office: Daniel Webster and his own brother, John F. Kennedy. In fact, Senator Kennedy's record as the author of major social legislation is unsurpassed.

As a rookie reporter roaming the halls, I inquired if it was lonely as a liberal under Republican rule in Congress. Said Kennedy: "I RELISH THE CHALLENGE."

Troubles in paradise, to be sure, yet Kennedy overcame tragedies and addressed flaws that would have broken or bent most of us.

Now as his light wanes on the sailing horizon, it is time to say goodbye when the senator is put to rest today close to his slain brothers in Arlington. Living his last summer, there was thankfully time to say good-bye to his circle of family, friends and fellow Americans.

Some of his foes "across the aisle" were awfully fond of him. The only Republican Kennedy couldn't abide was the late Jesse Helms. If you judge a man by his friends, Kennedy was the richest man in the land. John Lewis, a civil rights hero and congressman, loved him like a brother. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and President Barack Obama were a few among them. Kennedy played king-maker for Obama by choosing to endorse him early in 2008.

Leading figures in the arts, education, medicine, law, business, architecture, history and on the world stage could be called at any moment as friends and believers that "the dream shall never die." At the same time, Senator Kennedy seemed to know everyone in the Boston telephone book.

He was the most patrician man of the people who ever lived in the republic.

Working for The Hill newspaper, I gleaned a few facts about Kennedy. That he made many unreported hospital and deathbed visits. That not a day went by that he didn't think about his brothers -- all three who died young. That Jack asked in a letter to their mother Rose to be godfather to the baby -- namely, Edward, the youngest of nine. That he caught a touchdown pass to win a big game for Harvard. Everyone liked Teddy, who radiated the sunniest bonhomie among the brothers.

This winning way stayed with Kennedy as he developed the most ringing voice for social justice in Washington and never vanished, even at the end. That champagne-like charisma made all the difference to his body of work. Personal alchemy in politics, the relationships between all 100 senators, matters more to outcomes than we the people often know.

When one seasoned senator publicly weeps on the floor for another, as Byrd did for his Kennedy (upon hearing news of the brain tumor), you knew there was still a lion left in the forest. Now, not so much: perhaps a cub or two.

So long, it's been grand to know you, Senator.

Jamie Stiehm is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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