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Leader: The Lion of the Senate . . .

He reminded the world why the Kennedy family's tradition of public service was so cherished

For progressives the world over, Edward Kennedy, who died on 25 August, was so much more than the "grand old man of American politics". Senator Kennedy was the keeper of the Camelot flame, upholder of the hope so nearly extinguished by the assassinations of his two brothers Jack and Bobby.

Taking on President John F Kennedy's Massachusetts seat in the Senate in 1962, he soon emerged from his brothers' shadow as a bold voice for liberalism and change. It was universal health care that became, in his own words, "the cause of my life". And it is poignant that, in the week of his death, the forces of progress, led by President Obama, are locked in battle with the forces of reaction over this very matter. In fact, on a host of issues, from civil liberties to nuclear disarmament to labour rights, Senator Kennedy challenged the conservative consensus in Washington. But, above all else, he was one of only 23 senators bravely to oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 from the beginning.

The death of the Democrats' "Lion of the Senate" leaves a timely legacy. In recent years, his most lasting achievement was to hand over the torch to Barack Obama. The significance of Senator Kennedy's endorsement of Senator Obama over his own friend Hillary Clinton cannot be understated. In January 2008, in spite of his illness - and in one of the most memorable speeches of the US election campaign - he reminded the world why the Kennedy family's tradition of public service was so "cherished" in the hearts of Americans.

It was, he said, "time again for a new generation of leadership".Today, having inherited the Kennedy mantle, President Obama has an even greater responsibility on his shoulders. The historic words of Senator Kennedy, on withdrawing from his own presidential bid in 1980, endure: "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."

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years