August 12, 2009 -- Today at a White House ceremony, President Obama awarded Sen. Edward Kennedy a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Kennedy did not attend the ceremony. His oldest child, Kara Kennedy, accepted the award on his behalf. Also present were his other children, Ted Jr. -- with his wife Kiki, Patrick, Caroline Raclin and Curran Raclin.
"This is a chance for me, and for the United States of America to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country, and of all countries," the president said in his opening remarks this afternoon.
In honoring Kennedy, the president recounted a story he said Kennedy sometimes tells about a little boy who sees an old man collecting stranded starfish on the beach and throwing them back into the sea.
"'There are so many', asks the boy. 'What difference can your efforts possibly make?'" Obama said, recounting the story. "The old man studies the starfish in his hand and tosses it to safety, saying, 'It makes a difference to that one.'
"For nearly half-a-century, Ted Kennedy has been walking that beach, making a difference for that soldier fighting for freedom, that refugee looking for a way home, that senior searching for dignity, that worker striving for opportunity, that student aspiring to college, that family reaching for the American dream," the president said.
"The life of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has made a difference for us all."
Kennedy remained at home in Hyannis Port, Mass., where he is fighting brain cancer. He was diagnosed in May 2008.
Kennedy is among 16 recipients this year, who have made an "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors," a July 30 White House announcement read. "This year's awardees were chosen for their work as agents of change.''
After being named for the award, Kennedy's office immediately released a statement saying he was "profoundly grateful to President Obama for this extraordinary honor."
"My life has been committed to the ideal of public service which President Kennedy wanted the Medal of Freedom to represent. To receive it from another President who prizes that same ideal of service and inspires so many to serve is a great privilege that moves me deeply," Kennedy's statement read. The senator threw his support behind Obama in the 2008 presidential elections, speaking at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008.
Since the diagnosis, Kennedy has made few public appearances. It is unknown whether he will appear at the funeral of his oldest sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Tuesday at the age of 88. The funeral will be held Friday at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis, Mass.
Kennedy has returned to the Senate only a few times since Inauguration Day. On his first post-diagnosis appearance last July, he surprised the Senate by showing up to supply the added vote needed to break a Republican filibuster against a bill to preserve Medicare fees for doctors.
Universal health care has been a life-long goal of Kennedy's, and one he has devoted his Senate career to, as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
Kennedy is Missed on Both Sides of the Aisle
"He has worked tirelessly to ensure that every American has access to quality and affordable health care, and has succeeded in doing so for countless children, seniors, and Americans with disabilities," the awards citation read, "He has called health care reform the 'cause of his life,' and has championed nearly every health care bill enacted by Congress over the course of the last five decades."
While his illness has sidelined Kennedy from taking an active role in shaping a senate health care bill on the committee, colleagues say the Democrat's presence is there in spirit, and sometimes in writing – the senator wrote a July 18 op-ed for Newsweek that argued for universal health care, entitled "The Cause of My Life."
Known as the "Lion of the Senate," his presence is missed on both sides of the aisle in a health care reform debate that has become largely partisan. When his committee approved a health care bill in July on party lines, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican colleague from Utah and a close friend of Kennedy's lamented, "It is a very one-sided, very liberal bill...I know that Ted would not have done that had he been able to be here."
First elected in 1962, Kennedy has served in the United States Senate for forty-six years.
Obama presented the medals today for the first time in his presidency. Other recipients of the award include physicist Stephen Hawking, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the late congressman and housing secretary Jack Kemp, antiapartheid leader Desmond Tutu, tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, the late gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, Race for the Cure founder Nancy Brinker, and actors Sidney Poitier and Chita Rivera.