It was, indeed, a last hurrah.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy took the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night for what likely was his final appearance in a familiar setting. His name itself has become the cue for an ovation from Democrats when they convene every fourth year.
So it was this time, but with an edge of sadness, as the senator from Massachusetts is suffering from brain cancer. After surgery and intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he had kept to himself, his family and his sailboat in Hyannis Port, Mass., but for a brief appearance in the Senate to cast a decisive vote for Medicare legislation on July 10.
That was, until the convention, already programmed for a video tribute to Kennedy. He flew to Denver Sunday night, and went from the airport to a hospital for a check on his condition. His doctors were said to be worried about exposure to crowds because of the frailty of his immune system.
Conventions are, by definition, crowds, but Kennedy told the Democrats that "nothing, nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight."
He spoke for seven minutes, his voice firm, his message about the future, promising that he will be in the Senate next January to help begin a new Democratic era.
A DNC regular
He's been at every Democratic convention but two in the past 48 years.
Kennedy is, after all, a politician who has reveled in the crowds, all those conventions and campaigns, overcoming falls born of his own failings to become, at 76, almost a symbol of his party. It is a story line akin to Edwin O'Connor's classic novel of Boston politics, "The Last Hurrah," about the final campaign of an aging politician.
A young Edward Kennedy worked the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles for his brother who would be president. Kennedy was recovering from injuries suffered in an airplane crash when his brother Robert paid convention tribute to the assassinated John F. Kennedy at the 1964 convention. In 1968, after Robert was shot and killed as he campaigned for president, Edward Kennedy stayed away from the Chicago convention, and even his absence had an impact, blunting the efforts of his brother's supporters to draft him to take up the challenge and seek the nomination.
He'd wait. Surely 1972 would be a more promising year for another Kennedy campaign. Until Chappaquiddick, off Cape Cod, where Kennedy crashed the car he was driving and a young woman passenger drowned. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident.
Still, his impact was telling at the Democratic convention of 1972. He spurned Sen. George McGovern's appeal to accept the vice presidential nomination, which was no surprise. More significantly, he vetoed McGovern's preference for Boston Mayor Kevin White, not a friend of the Kennedys, as a running mate. So McGovern turned to Thomas Eagleton, a choice that turned to disaster when the Missouri senator dropped from the ticket because he'd been hospitalized for psychiatric treatments and had undergone electric shock treatment. Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, wound up running on the doomed ticket,
By 1976, there were new calls for a Kennedy candidacy. But the senator, still dogged by Chappaquiddick, cited family concerns and the fate of his brothers in declaring in late 1974 that he would not run but would seek another term in the Senate. He got 70 percent of the vote.
Up against Carter
But first, he got snubbed by Jimmy Carter's convention managers, who denied him a major speaking role at the 1976 convention.
When he finally did run in 1980, Kennedy did so against the odds favoring the renomination of President Carter. He lost to Carter in the presidential primaries, but didn't quit. Instead, he challenged Carter at the convention with an attempt to overturn a rule binding Carter's primary-won majority to support him. Losing that, Kennedy ended his candidacy but kept up his pressure by forcing Carter to accept platform provisions he didn't want.
The crescendo of that convention came not for nominee Carter but for the defeated Kennedy. "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign ended," Kennedy said. "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." That ignited a 40-minute demonstration, a time of high emotion in an otherwise dutiful convention.
In the ritual close of a convention, party leaders, winners and losers, gather on stage for a unity show with the nominee. The loudest roar that night came when Kennedy arrived on stage, belatedly, to pay perfunctory respects to Carter. They shook hands and Kennedy moved away, while Carter tried to catch him for a more effusive display of solidarity. He didn't get it.
In conventions since, Kennedy has had a featured role as a speaker, always a draw, always a cheerleader for the tickets. He would have done that and more in Denver but for his illness. He endorsed Barack Obama early this year and campaigned for him in the primaries.
Then he collapsed, in May in Hyannis Port, and was diagnosed with the malignant brain tumor.
So for him, the 2008 campaign is done. With this final convention hurrah.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Walter R. Mears has covered national conventions for The Associated Press since 1964.