Obama Mourns Passing of 'a Colleague, a Counselor and a Friend'
Updated 11:09 a.m.
By Michael D. Shear
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. -- Looking grim and sad, President Obama called the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy "a colleague, a counselor and a friend" and hailed a man of public service whose "ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws, reflected in millions of lives."
For Obama, Kennedy had been an important mentor whose early persuasion helped nudge him toward a long-shot presidential bid, and whose endorsement was critical in securing the Democratic nomination.
Speaking from the vacation home he has rented here, Obama spoke briefly about his personal feelings for the senator and the country's connection to the last member of a remarkable trio of political leaders.
"His fight [with cancer] has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us -- the blessing of time to say thank you, and goodbye," Obama said.
The president called Kennedy "one of the greatest senators of our time and one of the most accomplished citizens to serve our democracy." He added that Kennedy was "synonymous with the Democratic party" and a "singular figure in American history."
Obama learned about Kennedy's death early Wednesday morning, woken by an aide around 2 a.m. with news that Obama said this morning was no easier to hear despite expectations that it would soon come.
"Even though we have known this day was coming for some time now, we awaited it with no small amount of dread," Obama said.
It was an unlikely pairing for a friendship. But in Obama, Kennedy apparently saw a politician whose leadership could inspire a new generation, break barriers of discrimination and help advance the agenda he had been fighting for all of his life.
"With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion," Kennedy said in his endorsement speech on Jan. 28. "With Barack Obama, we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay.... He offers a strategy for prosperity -- so that America will once again lead the world in better standards of life."
That endorsement provided an immediate boost to Obama, giving the junior senator's campaign the heft of history. Obama smiled broadly as he stood next to a vigorous Kennedy to accept what may have been his campaign's most important endorsement.
A book on the campaign co-written by The Post's Dan Balz described the behind-the-scenes efforts by Obama and former president Bill Clinton to woo Kennedy. The book says Kennedy decided to endorse Obama despite repeated calls from Sen. Hillary Clinton's husband.
"He told Obama that at the beginning of the campaign he was looking for somebody to inspire the nation, and how impressed he had been by Obama's emphasis after his Iowa victory on the importance of ending the longtime divisions within the country," Balz and co-author Haynes Johnson wrote. "Obama's inspiration was what the country needed."
Six months later, when Obama officially claimed the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, an already ailing Kennedy invoked the rhetoric of his earlier speeches and his elder brother to honor Obama's victory and to urge the country to elect him president.
"This November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause," Kennedy said. "The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."
In the year since, Obama's relationship with Kennedy strengthened as the new president launched an aggressive effort to complete Kennedy's long-running bid to revamp the nation's health care system -- a condition of the endorsement according to Balz and Johnson.
This week, as Obama vacationed just minutes from where Kennedy lay gravely ill, there were repeated questions about whether the president would visit the ailing senator on his death bed.
Presidential aides repeatedly said there were no plans for a visit, concluding that the disruption of a visit by the president -- with the accompanying entourage of security and media -- would not be welcomed by the Kennedy family.
White House officials said there are no plans for the president to go to the Hyannis Port compound, and there are no details yet about the funeral. But aides said they expect the president to eulogize his former colleague when the time comes.
The flag at the White House flew at half staff this morning in honor of Kennedy's death after Obama ordered all federal buildings to lower their flags to mark the senator's passing.
"In the United States Senate, I can think of no one who engendered greater respect or affection from members of both sides of the aisle," Obama said. "His seriousness of purpose was perpetually matched by humility, warmth and good cheer."
A transcript of Obama's full remarks can be read here.
Shortly after making his statement about the death of Sen. Kennedy, President Obama and his family took a short motorcade to a private beach, where aides say they will spend some time today.
Posted at 10:34 AM ET on Aug 26, 2009
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