Back in 1980, I was in Puerto Rico on a newspaper assignment when Ted Kennedy arrived to campaign in the island's first presidential primary. Kennedy's bid was controversial because he was challenging incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, and Kennedy already had earned a reputation for carousing on Capitol Hill. Those were not exactly ideal starting points for mounting a White House campaign.
Moreover, this was only 11 years after the outrage on Chappaquiddick Island, where he abandoned Mary Jo Kopechne as she drowned in a car he drove off a bridge. Despite the still powerful feelings for his two assassinated brothers, John and Robert, the incident cast serious doubts on Ted's electability and fitness to be President.
Those observations were part of a conversation I was having with a top official of the Puerto Rican government when he uttered a line that instantly put the Kennedy presidential bid into a context. "When it comes to Ted and his brothers," I remember the official saying, "it's good to realize that every litter has a runt."
I've often thought back on that moment, and did again yesterday when the news broke that Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The sad news provoked a recognition of how far Ted has come in the quarter century since that unsuccessful 1980 campaign, his last for the Oval Office.
Partisanship aside, Kennedy has grown to become the kind of senator every American should want as his representative. He is a fierce fighter for the causes he believes in, yet, in the best traditions of the Senate, has built a long record of working with Republicans to gather bipartisan support for major pieces of legislation.
He has partnered with leading members of the GOP on a list of laws that includes President Bush's signature education effort, No Child Left Behind. He and John McCain, now the GOP nominee for President, co-authored the huge immigration bill last year that was defeated despite Bush's support.
Crafting that one involved tight deadlines and last-minute changes to satisfy both Democrats and Republicans. At the finish, two Bush cabinet secretaries - both of whom Kennedy had criticized in the past - called him the key to the bipartisan deal and lavished praise on a man who is often their adversary.
"He's awesome," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff gushed to The Boston Globe. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told The Globe it was "a real privilege" to work with Kennedy.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose relationship with Kennedy became strained after the Massachusetts Democrat endorsed Barack Obama, echoed a thought she expressed to me two years ago when she lauded him yesterday as "one of the greatest legislators in Senate history."
Such genuine admiration reflects that Kennedy became a master of arcane Senate procedural rules that can make or break the best plans for legislation and funding. He also earned the trust and respect of a generation of Republican colleagues, many of whom count him as a personal friend despite ideological differences.
All these attributes are routine in most lines of work, but Kennedy's ability to practice the best traditions of the Senate as a cool deliberative body stand in stark contrast to the hyperpartisanship that has left Washington in a state of gridlock. His theory, one colleague said, was to approach problems and differences with the spirit of "let's get something done."
Ultimately, that pragmatic approach is the only way government can function. Compromise does not necessarily mean abandoning principles. Rather, it's a determination to solve problems despite those clashing principles.
Ted Kennedy embodies that understanding.