Farewell to a Lion: Obama acclaims Senate giant

The US President leads 1,500 at funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy and pays tribute to the 'greatest legislator of our time'. David Usborne reports from Boston
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In a final eulogy to Edward Kennedy, a sober President Barack Obama told mourners at an overflowing funeral service in Boston yesterday that the man known as the Lion of the Senate – or, he noted, "The Grand Fromage" to his multiple nieces and nephews – had been the "greatest legislator of our time".

The two-hour mass was the high mark of a three-day celebration of the senator's life. Later, his body was being flown to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, which 46 years ago received the casket of John F Kennedy from Dallas. Thereafter, it was to be conveyed, first, for a brief and final service on Capitol Hill before being interred at last alongside both his slain siblings in Arlington National Cemetery.

"We do not weep for him today because of the prestige attached to his name or his office," Mr Obama said with three former US president's looking on. "We weep because we loved this kind and tender hero who persevered through pain and tragedy – not for the sake of ambition or vanity; not for wealth or power; but only for the people and the country he loved."

Few public figures in the United States – save, in fact, for a president – could expect a farewell such as that accorded these past few days to Senator Kennedy. That was clear even from a scan of the faces seated in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in the working-class Roxbury neighbourhood. Jimmy Carter shared a pew with George W Bush. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived moments before Jack Nicholson. Tony Bennett listened to the tenor voice of Placido Domingo.

For the senator was larger than most. He embodied the triumphs and the tragedies of a political dynasty that has at times attained the status of quasi-royalty. He was surrogate father to the children of Jack and Bobby, and in politics his career of nearly five decades spanned the civil rights struggle, the Moon landings, battles over all the causes that meant most to him – the minimum wage, education, opposition to the Iraq war and health care among them – as well as the election of the first black president.

A hard rain fell in Boston as the hearse pulled up a few minutes late at the Romanesque basilica, also known as the Mission Church, after the short journey from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum where the senator had been laid for two days to allow thousands of his constituents, friends and former colleagues to pass his casket and pay their respects.

The library was the scene on Friday evening of a more light-hearted celebration, complete with songs and a video tribute, arranged for members of the enormous Kennedy family and close friends. "For so many of us, we just needed someone to hang on," said Joseph Kennedy, one of those to whom Teddy became a surrogate father. "Now Teddy has become a part of history and we have become the ones who have to do all the things that he would have done," added Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of JFK.

Among dignitaries at the funeral from across the Atlantic were Sarah Brown, deputising for the Prime Minister, and Gerry Adams, whose presence was a reminder of the role played by Senator Kennedy in forging peace in Northern Ireland and of his own Irish roots. In a quirk of history, it was in the same church that Eamon de Valera, who was to become the first prime minister of Ireland, met in 1918 with many of the Boston Irish to raise money. "Ted Kennedy was full of craic," Mr Adams said, before noting, "I know that has a different meaning here."

The mass was celebrated by 1,500 guests invited by Vicki Reggie Kennedy, the second wife and widow of the senator. Among them was Yo-Yo Ma, who played the cello after the youngest members of the family read short tributes. He later accompanied Placido Domingo.

No fewer than seven priests celebrated the service, helped by 11 pallbearers and 29 honorary pall-bearers. Among those in the first pew were Vicki and Edward Kennedy Jr, their faces composed but clearly coursed with emotion.

Felled by brain cancer, Mr Kennedy leaves behind an enormous political void first of all in Massachusetts, which has not had an open US Senate seat for nearly a quarter of a century. The coming week will see the start of an effort by Democrats in the state to change the law to allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an interim replacement pending a special Senate election early next year.

Filling the seat quickly is of prime importance to the Democratic leadership in Washing- ton and to President Obama. The urgency arises because the loss of Mr Kennedy has robbed them of the 60-vote majority in the Senate that protects the effort to pass healthcare reform from Republican filibuster.

But it was not the struggles of today that informed the tributes in the Basilica, but the glories of the past.

"I, like so many others in the city where he worked for nearly half a century, knew him as a colleague, a mentor and, above all, a friend," noted Mr Obama, who came from his holiday on Martha's Vineyard, accompanied by his wife, Michelle. "We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers' rights or civil rights. And yet, while his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did."

The President paid tribute especially to the senator's record of party bipartisanship. He recalled one story of him egging on a Republican chairman who was reluctant to support a particular bill in committee. "Teddy walked into a meeting with a plain manilla envelope, and showed only the chairman that it was filled with the Texan's favour-ite cigars," the President said. "When the negotiations were going well, he would inch the envelope closer to the chair-man. When they weren't, he'd pull it back."