Senate 'pillar' Kennedy gets Medal of Freedom

Among the 16 people who received the presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony Wednesday was a Democratic lawmaker whose political significance has been made all the more conspicuous this year by his absence.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, battling brain cancer and now mourning his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Tuesday, was not on hand to receive the nation's highest civilian honor from President Obama. His daughter, Kara Kennedy, accepted the award for him.

In the tightly knit club where the Massachusetts Democrat has spent almost 47 of his 77 years, other senators can't stop thinking about the void Kennedy has left.

"We miss him every day," Senate deputy Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois said just after Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Kennedy was the only senator to miss the vote — the first time during his Senate tenure that a presidential nominee had been elevated to the nation's top court without Kennedy's insistent tenor voice in the debate.

As senators labor for a deal on health care — Obama's top legislative priority, and an issue that Kennedy has called "the cause of my life" — they find themselves yearning for the Senate's jovial, enthusiastic and patient dealmaker.

"A lot of times I've asked myself, 'What would Teddy do?' " said Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is filling in for his friend at the helm of the Senate's health committee. In the Senate, Kennedy "is one of the pillars," said former senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican who retired last year.

Since being diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in May 2008, Kennedy has been carefully husbanding his energies. After attending Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, where he suffered a seizure, he spent most of the winter in Florida.

This spring and summer, he has been at his family compound at Hyannis Port, Mass., trying to balance work with his debilitating treatments. In June, the senator completed his memoirs, True Compass, scheduled for publication in October with a first printing of 1.5 million.

Last month, he was photographed being pushed in a wheelchair to his beloved sailboat, Mya. On July 31, just after Dodd announced his own impending surgery for prostate cancer, Kennedy phoned him, Dodd said.

"I knew he was in great shape when he called, just ribbing me about this, doing what we've been doing to each other for years," Dodd said. "That was the best sign I've had in weeks that he's doing OK."

Kennedy hasn't been seen in Washington since April 27, when he voted on a bill to crack down on financial fraud. A week earlier, he watched Obama sign at the White House a national service law — legislation that, at the insistence of its Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, was named the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act."

It was another indication of the affection his colleagues have for Kennedy. In an April survey of senators by The Hill newspaper, Kennedy was named the chamber's "most bipartisan" member.

"It's a personal touch," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, explaining how Kennedy has charmed so many of his political opponents.

Three years ago, McConnell said, Kennedy accepted his invitation to speak at University of Louisville, "wowed the students" and brought his host a framed photograph of Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky Republican for whom McConnell had worked as an intern.

Despite their deep philosophical differences, "I genuinely like the guy," said McConnell. "He's fun to be around."