HYANNIS PORT, Mass. -- The greatest heights eluded Ted Kennedy over a lifetime of achievement and pain. No presidency. No universal health care, chief among his causes.
Instead, Kennedy built his Washington monument stone by stone, his imprint distinct on the Senate's most important works over nearly half a century. He toiled across the Potomac River from the graveyard of his fallen brothers.
The last of the Kennedys who fascinated the nation with their ambition, style, idealism, tragedies -- and sometimes sheer recklessness -- Edward Moore Kennedy died late Tuesday night at 77. A black shroud and vase of white roses sat Wednesday on his Senate desk, which John Kennedy had used before him.
So dropped the final curtain on "Camelot," the already distant era of the Kennedy dynasty.
The Massachusetts senator's extended political family of fellow Democrats and rival Republicans, steeled for his death since his brain tumor diagnosis a year ago yet still jarred by it, joined in mourning. Kennedy was the Senate's dominant liberal and one of its legendary dealmakers.
Just last year he jumped into a fractious Democratic presidential nomination fight to side with Barack Obama, giving the Illinois senator a boost that had the air of a family anointment.
"For his family, he was a guardian," the president said Wednesday. "For America, he was a defender of a dream."
Obama, vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, was awakened after 2 a.m. and told of Kennedy's death. He spoke soon after with the senator's widow, Victoria, and ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings.
To Americans and much of the world, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of the nation's most glamorous political family. Of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith is the only one alive.
To senators of both parties, he was one of their own.
"Even when you expect it, even when you know it's coming, in this case it hurts a great deal," said Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Politicians also calculated the consequences for Obama's push for expanded health coverage. For several months, at least, Kennedy's death will deprive the Democrats of a vote that could prove crucial for his signature cause of health reform.
His illness had sidelined him from an intense debate that would have found him at the core any other time. Conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, his improbable Republican partner on children's health insurance, volunteerism, student aid and more, said the Senate probably would have had a health care deal by now if Kennedy had been healthy enough to work with him.
"Iconic, larger than life," Hatch said of his friend. "We were like fighting brothers."
Born in 1932, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Edward Moore Kennedy was part of a family bristling with political ambition.
He was the last of the famous Kennedy brothers: John the assassinated president, Robert the assassinated senator and presidential candidate, Joseph the aviator killed in action in World War II when Ted was 12.
Round-cheeked Teddy was thrown out of Harvard in 1951 for cheating, after arranging for a classmate to take a freshman Spanish exam for him. He eventually returned, earning his degree in 1956.
He went on to the University of Virginia Law School, and in 1962, while his brother John was president, announced plans to run for the Senate seat JFK had vacated in 1960. A family friend had held the seat in the interim because Kennedy was not yet 30, the minimum age for a senator.
Like Obama, Kennedy was a master orator. But the words that live for the ages seem to be those he uttered in tragedy or defeat.
Older Americans remember his eulogy of Robert Kennedy, when he asked history not to idealize his brother but remember him "simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."
Remembered, too, is his speech conceding the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination to the incumbent Jimmy Carter. "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die," he said.
By then, his hopes of reaching the White House had been damaged by his behavior a decade earlier in the scandal known as Chappaquiddick.
On the night of July 18, 1969, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha's Vineyard, and swam to safety while companion Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the car. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident; a judge said his actions probably contributed to the young woman's death. He received a suspended sentence and probation.
Kennedy's legislative legacy includes health insurance for children of the working poor, the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, family leave and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He was also key to passage of the No Child Left Behind Education law and a Medicare drug benefit for the elderly, both championed by Republican President George W. Bush.
"I think that once he realized he was never going to be president -- that that was not the legacy he had to follow -- he really worked at becoming the best senator he possibly could," Leahy said. "And he did."
Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
He made a surprise return to the Capitol last summer to cast a decisive vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He made sure he was there again in January to see his former Senate colleague sworn in as president but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen; two sons, Edward Jr. and Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island, and two stepchildren, Caroline and Curran Raclin.