BOSTON – Between doctors’ appointments, Edward Kennedy has been working the phones, urging Senate colleagues to pass a health care bill. He’s trying to finish his memoirs. And he’s overseeing the design of a namesake building to stand next to his brother’s presidential library.
A year after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the 77-year-old last surviving Kennedy brother has defied some doctors’ expectations and worked steadily to cement his personal and political legacies.
“He’s taken about every bit of human tragedy you could and nothing has stopped his human purpose for what we are all here to do,” said Paul Kirk, a longtime family friend and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Kennedy learned he had a malignant tumour called a glioma after suffering a seizure on May 17, 2008, at his home in Hyannis Port. The prognosis was grim: Median survival for the worst form of gliomas is 12 to 15 months, although the time depends on the type of glioma. Kennedy has not released the specifics of his diagnosis.
After he was diagnosed, Kennedy gathered top cancer specialists and slipped away to North Carolina to undergo an aggressive, risky surgery.
Just a month later, he returned triumphantly to the Senate to cast a dramatic and decisive vote on a Medicare bill. Then in January, Kennedy donned a fedora and fulfilled his promise to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration as president.
But his collapse at a celebratory lunch after the swearing-in was a vivid reminder of Kennedy’s frailty since the seizure.
Doctors blamed the senator’s collapse on fatigue from being outside in the cold for the ceremony, but the episode also underscored the urgency behind Kennedy’s efforts to secure his legacy during the past 12 months.
In addition to his memoirs, Kennedy has been completing the final phase of an oral history project for the University of Virginia. And he’s monitored the design of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which will seek to educate the public about the Senate. Groundbreaking is expected later this year on a site next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
“The intellectual pace and the energy pace in terms of his drive hasn’t changed that much,” Kirk said. “What has changed is he’s wisely conserving his physical energy.”
Despite Kennedy’s disease and chemotherapy, he has tried to project a business-as-usual demeanour. His office has refused all interview requests.
The famed orator has made only a handful of public statements since he was first stricken, including a surprise speech in August to the Democratic National Convention, a December address at his alma mater, Harvard University and brief remarks at a White House health care conference in March.
“I look forward to being a foot soldier in this undertaking,” Kennedy said at the March event. “This time, we will not fail.”
Kennedy has appeared in public only rarely. Last July, he made his first post-cancer visit to Capitol Hill to vote on the Medicare bill. In March, he smiled and waved from the balcony during a belated birthday celebration at Washington’s Kennedy Center. And in April, he chortled from his desk in the back row of the Senate chamber as his colleagues debated the federal budget.
Kennedy is expected to skip the annual Profile in Courage awards ceremony this month, and his office has not confirmed whether he will be able to sail in the annual Hyannis-to-Nantucket “Figawi” race Memorial Day weekend. He took the helm of his sailboat “Mya” last year, just days after returning home from his initial stay at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Meanwhile, Kennedy has pared his legislative commitments. A longtime fixture at Supreme Court nomination hearings, he will not be on the Senate Judiciary Committee this summer when it considers the replacement for Justice David Souter, who is retiring.
Kennedy surrendered his seat on the panel in December to conserve his strength and focus for the health care debate.
He continues to chair the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and hopes to strike a deal on a health insurance bill before Congress breaks for its traditional summer recess in August.
Recognition of his illness has helped advance the health care issue and other measures, including the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expands ways for students to earn money for college through their volunteer work. The president signed it into law last month.
“I think what people have come to realize is his significance in every national policy that’s important to people in Massachusetts, important to the country,” said Representative William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat whose congressional district includes Kennedy’s home on Cape Cod.
A senator since 1962, when he was elected to his brother Jack’s seat, Kennedy is trying to document his perspective on national affairs with his book, the oral history project and the institute being built on the University of Massachusetts campus next to the JFK Library.
“The brothers will stand together, equal in their stature,” said Boston advertising executive Jack Connors, who is leading the effort to raise $100 million for the building. “One a great president, and one a world-class U.S. senator.”