BOSTON (Reuters) - Top Democrats and Republicans united on Friday to pay tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy, the powerful liberal from America’s pre-eminent political dynasty whose death has been treated like the passing of royalty.
Dignitaries from both sides of the political aisle and overseas attended an invitation-only memorial service at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum after a public viewing that drew more than 30,000 mourners -- so many that security had to turn people away.
Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was displayed before picture windows showing sweeping views of Boston Harbor.
“We disagreed on most issues. But I admired his passion for his convictions, his patience with the hard and sometimes dull work of legislating, and his uncanny sense for when differences could be bridged,” said Senator John McCain, the Republican who lost the 2008 presidential election to Barack Obama, in remarks prepared for the service.
Kennedy, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts for 47 years, died late Tuesday of brain cancer at age 77 after a remarkable career championing causes from civil rights, immigration and healthcare to the end of apartheid in South Africa, opposition to the war in Iraq and peace in Ireland.
His place in the Kennedy dynasty -- brother John was the last president slain in office and another brother Robert was gunned down while campaigning for the White House -- enhanced his stature as one of Washington’s most powerful politicians.
“If you ever needed to find Teddy in the Senate chamber, all you had to do was to listen for that distinctive thunderclap of a laugh, echoing across that hallowed hall as he charmed his colleagues -- and, more often than not, got them to vote for whatever it was he was pushing that day,” Democratic Senator Chris Dodd said in prepared remarks.
Despite his unabashedly liberal views, Kennedy won the respect of many conservative lawmakers through charm and political skill, though he was often a target of derision outside the capital or his home state of Massachusetts.
Conservatives disliked his politics and many Americans could never forgive him for the 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, in which Kennedy drove off a bridge and into the water, escaping while a female passenger drowned. He failed to notify police for nine hours.
POLITICS PUT ASIDE
Democrats sought to avoid turning his memorial events into a liberal political rally and to guarantee instead a solemn tribute to the fallen statesman.
Obama was to give a eulogy on Saturday during a funeral Mass at a Roman Catholic basilica in Boston, and aides promised Obama would not use the occasion to rally support for healthcare reform, Obama’s top domestic priority and an issue Kennedy called “the cause of my life.”
With Kennedy’s death Obama lost a crucial ally in his struggle to overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. health care system in which nearly 46 million people go uninsured. Kennedy, a consummate deal-maker, could have helped Obama through what has become a contentious debate across the country.
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh, one of the most influential voices on the U.S. right wing, predicted Democrats would politicize Kennedy’s death.
“They can’t help themselves because this is their religion,” Limbaugh said on his national radio show. “This, liberalism, is their religion, and they are burying their pope.”
But the White House had already sought to end speculation that Obama would link Kennedy’s death to the healthcare debate.
“Our country lost a beloved leader and the politics and implications of that are the last thing on the president’s mind right now,” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told a news briefing on Thursday. “This is going to be a very personal statement that he makes on Saturday.”
Obama will be joined by three former presidents among the dignitaries -- Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush. The other living former president, George H. W. Bush, 85, was said to be unable to travel.
Afterward his body will be flown to Washington for a motorcade through the capital and the burial at nearby Arlington National Cemetery, where he will be laid to rest near the graves of his slain brothers, former President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy.
Additional reporting by Scott Malone and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston, Tabassum Zakaria, Vicki Allen and Donna Smith in Washington, Ed Stoddard in Dallas and Ellen Wulfhorst in New York. Writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by Jackie Frank and Phil Stewart
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