Edward Kennedy's 15-month battle against brain cancer gave his supporters a chance denied to them when his brothers John and Robert were assassinated: "the blessing of time to say thank you and goodbye".
These were the words of Barack Obama, who broke from his Martha's Vineyard holiday to pay tribute to a man he called "one of the greatest senators of our time, and one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy". The president led an outpouring of praise for the last of the Kennedy brothers, whose longevity, heft and personal popularity in the Senate allowed him to build a legacy of legislative achievement in pursuit of liberal causes.
But the death of the "Lion of the Senate" – late on Tuesday at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, at the age of 77 – leaves others to pursue the goal of his political life. Achieving universal healthcare coverage in the US now appears at once desperately close and horribly precarious.
"The outpouring of love, gratitude and fond memories to which we've all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives," President Obama said. "For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic wellbeing of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.... An important chapter in our history has come to an end."
Kennedy's office, one of the best-staffed legislative engines on Capitol Hill, claims 2,500 bills, 500 of which have been signed into law, over a 47-year Senate career that began at the earliest moment the rules allow, when he turned 30.
Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, said Kennedy's achievements are unlikely to be replicated. "Over time he became a very effective legislator, which was something that nobody had expected him to be when he was chosen for the Senate solely on the basis of who his brothers were. He had tremendous tenure in an organisation that is at least partly built on seniority, which got him the chairmanship of powerful committees. But he was also effective because he was able skillfully to cross the aisle and bring in support from opposition legislators."
In Barack Obama, Kennedy had seen an inspirational figure who might finally be able to rally the country to support universal healthcare, and he shocked the political establishment by switching his patronage from Hillary Clinton to the freshman senator early last year. His barnstorming speech at the Democratic National Convention signaled his intention to keep fighting for that cause, even as his health failed in drafting healthcare reform laws that now lie at the heart of a political inferno.
The passage – or the failure – of universal health insurance will now be the responsibility of others, but Kennedy leaves behind important incremental improvements to healthcare coverage. He was a driving force behind the children's health insurance program, which extended state benefits to minors in 1997, and an important negotiator for free prescription drugs for senior citizens. He fought for and won funding for Aids treatments, and sponsored legislation that allows laid-off workers to keep their health insurance for a time. His 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act outlawed discrimination against people with physical disabilities, while a mental health parity bill, which forces insurers to treat mental illness on a par with other conditions, was finally passed last year.
"He kept a constant drumbeat of actions that have won more protection and more money for minorities and for poorer people", Mr Hess said.
Supporters yesterday hailed achievements in education and in foreign relations, too. Kennedy was a key negotiator for George Bush's No Child Left Behind education reforms, although he later attacked the president for reneging on funding. He negotiated for Ronald Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Eighties. And he visited South Africa in the Apartheid era and returned to pass legislation that forced tougher sanctions on the regime there.
But there is an irony in Kennedy's Senate legacy. For all his personal bipartisan work, his successful effort to block President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 – he feared the right-winger would undo civil rights legislation –, changed the way Congress approaches Supreme Court nominations, acting as a template for the bitter clashes of claims and counter-claims over a candidate's judicial record.
And Kennedy will be remembered, too, for ambitious goals unfulfilled and for a public legacy that often incites intense partisan reaction outside Congress. His immigration bill, penned with Senator John McCain, could not overcome public hostility to giving America's 12 million illegal immigrants an amnesty. And comprehensive healthcare reform remains unachieved.
Kennedy's body will lie in repose at his brother's presidential library in Boston. His funeral will take place in Boston on Saturday, and his body will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, near his two brothers, John and Robert.
Teddy Kennedy: The tributes
"Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest US Senator of our time."
"Teddy taught us all that public service isn't a hobby or even an occupation, but a way of life."
"He will be mourned not just in America but in every continent... He led the world in championing children's education and health care."
"He taught us how to fight, how to laugh, how to treat each other, and how to turn idealism into action, and in these last 14 months, he taught us much more about how to live life, sailing into the wind one last time."
"Given our political differences, people are sometimes surprised by how close Ronnie and I have been to the Kennedy family... but Ronnie and Ted could always find common ground, they had great respect for one another."Reuse content