Sen. Edward M. Kennedy made his last journey through the nation’s capital on Saturday as thousands cheered the Massachusetts Democrat during the slow, winding trip to a final resting place next to his two brothers at Arlington National Cemetery.
A crowd of at least 5,000 gathered at the Capitol for a last public tribute to Kennedy, including hundreds of current and former staffers who worked for him during his 47-year Senate career.
The crowd, which had stood patiently for hours during a hot, muggy August day, broke into loud applause as the motorcade with Kennedy’s body turned onto the Capitol Plaza from Independence Ave., a round of cheering that lasted for more than four minutes.
When Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow, stepped from the limousine, the crowd burst into a loud roar.
Mrs. Kennedy shook hands with Kennedy aides and lawmakers in the crowd, including 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), mourning the passing of his colleague of more than four decades, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Mass.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), and former Sens. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho).
Other lawmakers in attendance included Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), as well as former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver.
The Kennedy family was feted with rounds of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful,” and Father Daniel Coughlin, the House chaplain, thanked the Kennedys “for sharing the senator and so much of his life with us.”
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), joined by the senator’s two other children, Kara and Edward Kennedy, Jr., said his father’s success was as much due to the quality of people who worked for him as his own considerable abilities as a legislator.
“He was only great because he had such great people surrounding him,” the Rhode Island Democrat said of his father.
“He’d be very proud to see all out here paying a final respect and tribute to his family,” the younger Kennedy added.
The outpouring of support for the late senator – the Capitol event was a rare honor for a sitting lawmaker, more typical of a memorial for a deceased president than a member of Congress – was both moving and poignant. Spectators held signs saying, “We Love You, Ted,” and “Sail On Ted.” There were American flags galore, and the occasional Irish flag, and many spectators wore shirts bearing tributes to the late senator.
As the long afternoon wait stretched on – Senate officials had expected the ceremony to take place in early afternoon, but the funeral procession didn’t arrive at the Capitol from Andews Air Force Base until nearly 6 p.m. – Capitol Police officers distributed bottles of water to the crowd, and paramedics treated several people who took ill from the 80-plus degree heat of an August afternoon in Washington.
Then, with a final wave from Vicki Kennedy and other members of the vast Kennedy clan, the funeral procession left the Capitol grounds, and made its way slowly down Constitution Ave., past the White House, Lincoln Memorial and Kennedy Center to the nation’s most hallowed cemetery.
Following a 20-minute ride to Arlington, Kennedy was buried exactly 100 feet from his brother Robert, the third member of a Kennedy “grave arc” that stretches from the tomb of the late President John F. Kennedy – lit by the Eternal Flame – to Robert F. Kennedy to Ted.
As the sun set over the 200-acre cemetery, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a good friend of the senator, read from a recent letter from Kennedy to Pope Benedict 16th, hand delivered to the Vatican by President Obama.
“I am writing with deep humility to pray for me as my own health declines,” Kennedy told the pope. “Although I continue treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old and preparing for the next passage of life.”
Kennedy added: “I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path.”
In a response to Kennedy, the pope said he “was saddened to hear of your illness,” and blessed the late senator and his family.”
McCarrick completed the burial rites, a thee-volley rifle salute was fired by Army soldiers – Kennedy served two years in the Army after being kicked out of Harvard – and a bugler played “Taps.”
Then one of the senator’s grandchildren, Kiley Kennedy, described her early morning moments with her grandfather, the two of them sitting quietly on the porch of Kennedy’s home in Hyannis Port as the sun rose.
“It would be just us on the porch for a while, and we talked and talked, and I would get a feeling that the world was just right,” Kiley said. “It was me and him, sitting on a porch watching a new day unfold as we stared into the sea of freedom and possibility. I love you so much, grandpa, and I always will.”
Her emotional comments were the last in an extraordinary day that began in Boston rain but ended 500 miles and 10 hours later on the calm banks of the Potomac.
Four presidents, dozens of members of Congress, hundreds of congressional aides, and thousands of ordinary Americans ended up taking part in the three-day funeral proceedings for a man who dominated the Senate in a way that few others in U.S. history have matched.