Friends, relatives and political comrades, including Vice President Biden, are celebrating Sen. Edward Kennedy in an all-star Irish wake tonight, as the veteran Massachusetts lawmaker exits the national stage with all the pomp of the presidency that eluded him.
The ceremony, which features former presidential nominees from both political parties, will be followed Saturday with a funeral Mass where mourners will include two former presidents and more than 40 current and former members of Congress. President Obama will deliver a eulogy.
Afterwards, there will be a flight to Andrews Air Force Base and one last stately, sentimental procession to the U.S. Capitol where members of the public and Kennedy's staff will line up to bid him farewell. Then comes a hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery next to the slain siblings whose mantle he inherited.
The last of a trio of brothers whose tragedies, traumas and triumphs are intimately intertwined with five decades of American history, Kennedy died Tuesday after a 15-month fight with brain cancer. The youngest of nine children, he was the only one of four brothers to live out a natural life.
Joseph Kennedy, the oldest of financier Joseph Kennedy's sons, was killed in World War II; John was slain by an assassin when he was president; former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy also was killed by a gunman during his 1968 presidential campaign.
Tonight's invitation-only memorial at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library highlights the wide-ranging and unlikely friendships Kennedy made during his long public career, his love of music and members of the storied family who sustained him during his last illness.
Speakers run the gamut from Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.
They include Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who was one of Kennedy's favorite partying companions when they were younger, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican Mormon from Utah whose fierce ideological differences with Kennedy mellowed into an affectionate political partnership.
Also on the program: Kennedy's nephew, former Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts, a possible Senate successor, and his niece Caroline Kennedy, who became his chief surrogate on the campaign trail last year when cancer kept her uncle from stumping for President Obama.
Boston's Community Chorus and Brian Stokes Mitchell is the musical guest for the music-loving Kennedy, who would break into a capella song with little prompting and who, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, took a turn as guest conductor of his hometown Boston Pops orchestra.
Fellow citizens stood in line for hours Thursday and Friday for a chance to pay their final respects.
Kennedy aide Melissa Wagoner said Boston police estimated that 50,000 people attended the public viewing, which ended shortly after 3 p.m.
Among the mourners at Saturday's funeral Mass in the 1,400-seat Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, will be former presidents George W. Bush, a Republican whom Kennedy battled on Iraq but helped on immigration and education legislation, and Jimmy Carter, a Democrat whom Kennedy challenged unsuccessfully in the 1980.
For Kennedy the loss of the primary fight was a political failure that ultimately led to his redemption: It sent him back to the Senate where he became one of the chamber's best-liked members and an acknowledged master lawmaker.
During the course of his 47-year Senate career, Kennedy served with 10 presidents, beginning with his brother, John Kennedy, and ending with Barack Obama. The nation's first African American president, Obama has cited Kennedy's "momentous" assist as one of the reasons he was able to achieve his historic triumph.