He is the patriarch of his family and one of the patriarchs of the Senate, where the 68-year-old statesman has been serving Massachusetts since 1962. It's no secret where he stands on the issues, but the personal parts of Ted Kennedy's life remain a mystery.
How have the tragedies affected him? How has he found the will to go on? Last summer when his nephew John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed, the family gathered in Hyannis to try to cope with the loss. 60 Minutes II went back with the senator 10 days ago.
"Well, that was a very difficult time," the senator says. "We've had, you know, the difficult losses in the family. I remember the Friday night - I guess night, actually, that he was lost, and we gathered at Ethel's house....I better walk along."
Talking about loss is not the way Kennedy gets through it. He just moves on.
"You try to live with the upside and the positive aspects of it," he says. "The happy aspects and the joyous aspects. And try to muffle down the other kinds of concerns and anxiety and the sadness of it. And know that you have no alternative but to continue on. And so you do."
He explains what consoles him: "the prayers, the notes make a great deal of difference to me." He adds, "And they did last summer. I suppose I don't do as well as maybe others in being able to sort of talk about those inner feelings and emotions that have been very close to my - deep in my heart and soul. And I don't do that terribly well."
"It's hard for me to realize that people don't see Teddy the way that we in our family do," says Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. She almost never gives interviews, but she sat down with CBS News at her home in Manhattan to talk about her uncle as the family knows him.
"The thing that really sets him apart for anybody is his thoughtfulness, and his sort of huge heart," says Schlossberg of her uncle. "And he is just there for all of us, all the time. He has been, really for my whole life. He loves kids, and he is really a pied piper. And he was that way for me and my brother growing up and all my cousins. And now he's doing it all over again with another generation of great-grandchildren."
He tells the kids what it was like for him growing up. "Being able to look at it through him and through generations, they really begin to get a sense of history," she says. "What Boston was like, and it's just a fantastic way for them to learn about their family and the past."
The past always leads back to Grampa Fitzgerald, the irrepressible mayor of Boston known as Honey Fitz. And Ted Kennedy does a mean Honey Fitz impression:
"He'd get up very early in the morning, and he'd call Clem Norton, who was a figure in The Last Hurrah," Kennedy recalls. "And he'd go down to the fish pier in Boston to find out what fish was a pound. And then he'd say to Norton, 'Norton, let's go over and watch the boys row over in Cambridge.'"
"And Norton said, 'Fine, Honey Fitz.' And the two of them would get in the car and they'd go over and watch the sculls row along," Kennedy continues.
Honey Fitz would point to different rowers, the senator explains: "'Oh, that's young Tarrington, isn't it? Father in the insurance business. Write that down.' And Norton would write the names down."
"'Who's that No. 3?...Isn't that young Givens boy?'" he continues.
"And Grandpa would go on down and meet these presidents of insurance companies or banks, impress them, tell them how their boy was doing," he recalls.
The family patriarch also has a day job. Kennedy is a full-fledged Senate baron. He's third in seniority and first in dmand on the stump in Iowa - at least on the day CBS News was there with him - for Vice President Al Gore.
"Ted is the most effective member of the United States Senate," says Sen. Al Gore. "And I think admire his long-term commitment, his stamina, his effectiveness."
"Keep talking. Keep talking. I like the way the other part of the conversation was going," interjects Sen. Kennedy amid laughter.
For Ed Kennedy, politics and family are inseparable. And he is very much his mother's son.
"Our children were always told they have been given unusual opportunities,"Rose Kennedy once declared. "And so they have unusual obligations."
Teddy was extremely close to Rose Kennedy, says his niece Caroline Schlossberg.
"They learned a lot about politics from her," Schlossberg says of Rose Kennedy. "She was really the person who made it fun and got everybody off on that track, more than a lot of people realize."
What people also don't realize is how many of Kennedy's issues have a family story behind them: health care, minimum wage, civil rights, voting rights and immigration.
"I look at all the causes which I'm involved in through a human face," the senator says, adding that he's seen the difference that long-term care can make, particularly with his own parents. "I had a son who had cancer, lost his leg to cancer, and had that treatment every three weeks for three days. I know what parental leave is really all about."
When Sen. Kennedy opened his Hyannis home to CBS News, it was like being in a museum. The images of the Kennedys at play here are easy to recall. Carefree, young, athletic, the brothers remain frozen as they once were. There is no model for an aging Kennedy brother, no road map for the later years.
The sunroom is filled with images of Teddy, the youngest of nine and the family favorite, the child of privilege. In another room, there's a photo of his new wife. On the piano in the living room, the pictures still breathe politics, with images of his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., ambassador to England; brother Bobby, attorney general; and brother Jack, the president. It's our history. It's his flesh and blood.
"This piano was the piano my mother played. And she played very, very well," the senator says. "One of her wonderful songs that toward the end that I used to...sing to her was 'Sweet Rosie O'Grady.'"
He breaks into song:
"Sweet Rosie O'Grady, my dear little rose.
She's my special lady, most everyone knows.
And when we are married, how happy we'll be.
I love Sweet Rosie O'Grady, and Rosie O'Grady loves me."
He likes to reminisce about his brothers. When he first became senator in 1962, Boston-based Northeast Airlines was about to lose its route. He had a little talk with the president.
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg
His other brother, Bobby, was a senator from New York when Ted was still learning the ropes. A little family competition developed over naval bases in their states. They were called in to see Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara.
"He said, 'I have to close one of the two of them,'" Sen. Kennedy says. "And Bobby just roared with laughter on that kind of thing. He said, 'You brought me all the way over here. You and I are close, Bob, we've just gone through the Cuban missile crisis. And you bring me over? Close Teddy's.'"
With his brothers gone, he has been the one to fill the void for a generation of Kennedys. "He's just been just sort of a godfather, grandfather all rolled into one," says Schlossberg. "And he's done that for all my kids. And actually the stuffed animal that Rose sleeps with is called Uncle Teddy....So he's just, you know, an incredibly active presence in their lives. And someone that they think of as, you know; they know whenever he comes around, it's going to be fun. "
He is now the patriarch of this family and the role model for his children and grandchildren. But it hasn't always been that way. There was the accident at Chappaquidick, and there were other events over the years that he probably would rather forget.
"Well, I'd made mistakes in my past, but I've always tried to learn from them," the senator says. "And I've always tried every day to be a better person, and being down here reminds me of all the forces in my life that were just so powerful and continue to be inspirational to me. The great sense of family that I have being here....And they remind me of those important forces, the importance of faith in my life."
Last July, when John Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed, his faith was tested again.
"Nobody was more amazing than Teddy last summer," Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg recalls. "If there was anything that came out of that, I think it was a kind of appreciation that I got for how lucky I am to be in our family....You know he was everywhere; he took care of everything. He really brought people together - in an amazing way."
Of course everyone wants to know how he does hold things together.
"Well, I'm not so sure I - I do, all the - you know, all the time," the senator admits.
"That's the thing about Teddy," says his niece. "That you just don't kow where he keeps finding the strength to do that, but he really does."
Faith has grown to mean more to him, says Schlossberg.
"With Teddy, it's just something that I have become more aware of," she says. "Maybe it is because there've been sort of some hard times and some sad times. And I think he has really gotten him through those times and (can) be there and be a source of strength for the rest of us."
Still a picture of his nephew on his office wall proves too tough for him to handle. It reads: "To Teddy. I could have gone on forever, but no introduction could match the eloquence of your example. You're always been there for all of us, and I'm proud to let the world know. Love, John Kennedy. "
Other pictures evoke other memories. The senator was closer to Jackie Kennedy than some might realize.
"They really had a special affection," Schlossberg says. "And I think I probably saw it the most. When Ed and I got married and Teddy gave me away, and I think it was really you know obviously a big day for my mother as well. He just really helped her through all that."
"It was touching in so many different ways," Sen. Kennedy says. "Her gown had the - the little shamrocks on it, that it was a - something that I think, you know, her father would've been very, very touched by....And I know underneath it all is the fact that you're missing a person that you - we all loved and would've been very proud of her, and that's her father."
The first time people mourned with his family was when President Kennedy was shot.
"That was really one of the occasions and obviously the one that's had the most sort of public aspect," Sen. Kennedy. "But I'd lost my brother Joe when I was a boy, a small boy, and he'd been a great hero of mine, and my sister Kathleen. And now other members of the...family. And it's just a day doesn't go by where I'm not thoughtful...and don't miss them."
"(Those) raw occasions are very close to the surface in terms of my life, I think, and for all of the members of our family," he adds.
They are raw, because it never ends. Most of us are allowed to grieve privately. Not Ted Kennedy. He's the family eulogizer. He delivers the memorials.
Some say there's a curse on the Kennedy. He disagrees. "In many respects, I've been very, very fortunate and very lucky," the senator says.
"I'm a basically, a hopeful and optimistic person. I believe deeply in hope. I believe, you know, in the love, the power of love," he says.
Is he sentimental?
"I think he is," Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. "He's just got such a big heart....His family is so important to him, his parents, his sisters, and all his nieces and nephews that I think that's very much part of his personality."
He has a new and happy marriage to second wife Vicki. He's comfortable as senator, as console, as patriarch.
Here is something that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote to the senator in a thank-you note after he gave her daughter away at her wedding: "On you the carefree youngest brother fell a burden a hero would beg to be spared."
"Because you are always there with your love. Jackie," the note concludes.
"Yeah," says the senator. "Well, that's about as nice as you can get."