DENVER – Caroline Kennedy choked up as she introduced her Uncle Teddy. Maria Shriver wiped away a tear. And the crowd went wild, waving signs embossed with the Kennedy name as the elder statesman of Democratic politics shuffled onto the stage.
“My fellow Democrats, my fellow Americans, it is so wonderful to be here,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a poignant statement given that the 76-year-old politician is battling brain cancer.
“And nothing,” he added, was “going to keep me away from this special gathering.”
The senator’s more than four decades in politics was honored with a Ken Burns documentary on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday. But to the delight of many, Kennedy then addressed the gathering – his voice strong and full of conviction.
“This November, the torch will be passed to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy said, alluding to the political dynasty that began with his brother, assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
Despite his battle against cancer, Kennedy promised to be on the Senate floor come January. And with Barack Obama as president, he said during his seven-minute speech, the country, too, would rise to meet the challenges it faces.
“Yes, we can; yes, we will,” Kennedy said, invoking a phrase often heard on the Obama campaign trail.
Kennedy arrived in Denver on Sunday and was examined by doctors here. His physicians were said to be concerned about exposing him to crowds because of his weakened immune system. Kennedy had brain surgery June 2 and has remained out of the public eye while undergoing chemotherapy.
In the past 48 years, the senator has attended all but two Democratic National Conventions and has spoken at the past eight.
In his 1980 speech, Kennedy conceded the nomination to Jimmy Carter after a nasty primary battle but urged Democrats to move back toward the party’s original values. The speech – which is known by its last line, “The Dream Shall Never Die” – encouraged a new generation of career politicians.
“In a lot of ways, a whole country of young people were inspired that day,” said Joe Trippi, who worked on Kennedy’s 1980 bid. “Hundreds of politicians who were in their 20s then have those words memorized.”
Susan Estrich, a law and political science professor at the University of Southern California who was a special assistant to Kennedy, said Monday’s tribute to the senator differed from his other speeches because of the reality of his illness.
“It’s the knowledge that it will take a miracle for this to not be his last convention,” Estrich said. “When it comes to Ted Kennedy, I don’t care if you are a die-hard Carter supporter, a die-hard Clinton supporter, every eye will have tears.”
Although they acknowledged the toll of his cancer, friends and colleagues rejected the idea that Monday’s speech marked the sunset of Kennedy’s career.
“I think he’s focusing on getting back to the Senate and being a part of a great progressive moment in this country,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime political consultant who helped write Kennedy’s 1980 convention speech. “He does represent for many Democrats the core values of the party.”
On Monday, Kennedy again challenged Americans to live up to the country’s ideals: “The work begins anew,” he said, “the hope rises again and the dream lives on.”
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