Washington Pays Tribute to the Senate’s ‘Lion’

by kevin_chaffee

President and Mrs. Obama headline an ‘Enchanted Evening’ of festivities honoring Senator Ted Kennedy

By Kevin Chaffee

Michelle Obama leads the applause for Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Michelle Obama leads the applause for Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Sen. Ted Kennedy didn’t need a cake blazing with 77 candles to illuminate his belated birthday celebration Sunday night. There was enough electricity in the house to make the Kennedy Center visible from Mars.

The ailing Massachusetts senator and Kennedy clan patriarch got a roaring welcome and numerous ovations from his congressional colleagues, friends and family members who turned out for the star-studded “Some Enchanted Evening” musical salute in his honor. Adding further oomph was the presence of First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden alongside Kennedy and his wife, Victoria, in the Concert Hall’s presidential box.

“I’ve never seen a birthday party like this,” host Bill Cosby told the crowd after the lights dimmed. “I’ve never had this kind of money.”

The aging comedian’s vintage dental office shtick (novocaine! numbness! drills!) might or not have been just what the doctor ordered to lift spirits, but there was plenty more in store for the 2,400-strong crowd who gathered to cheer the “Lion of the Senate” on as he battles brain cancer.

Boldfaced names from the entertainment world who lauded the senior solon for his commitment to children and education included Lauren Bacall, Phyllis Newman and Frederika von Stade. Playwright Hal Prince spoke of Kennedy’s devotion to the arts and James Taylor played “Belfast to Boston” to commemorate his “doing so much to solve the problems in Ireland.” John Williams and Joseph Thalken conducted the Kennedy Center Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture” from Candide; a tap-danced version of “I’ve Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy; “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” sung by opera star Denyce Graves; and “America the Beautiful” by jazz singer Lizz Wright.

President Barack Obama leads the cast in singing "Happy Birthday" to Sen. Kennedy. From left: Bill Cosby, Lizz Wright, Denyce Graves, and James Taylor.

President Barack Obama leads the cast in singing "Happy Birthday" to Sen. Kennedy. From left: Bill Cosby, Lizz Wright, Denyce Graves, and James Taylor.

Big-time Show-Stoppers of the Night: Brian Stokes Mitchell’s goose-bump-inducing “Some Enchanted Evening” and “The Impossible Dream” – said to be among the guest of honor’s favorite hits, and a supremely slinky “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” by the pulchritudinous Bernadette Peters that reminded more than one gawker of Marilyn Monroe notorious rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1963.

Biggest Laugh of the Night: Caroline Kennedy telling the audience that “I never thought I’d be in a room with so many senators” before presenting her uncle with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s “Profiles in Courage” Award.

Biggest Birthday Surprise: President Barack Obama’s 90-second cameo appearance to greet the cast and wave to the man who did so much to help him win the highest office in the land. His equally brief appearance in the presidential box included the usual smiles and handshakes plus a truly special treat when he briefly boogied in place to the gospel sounds of the NEWorks Tribute Choir.

The several hundred guests who attended the reception on the box-tier level of the Concert Hall were mostly disappointed if they hoped to greet Sen. Kennedy after the show. He remained sequestered in the presidential box alongside family and close friends with a velvet rope drawn across the closed door. “You know it’s a Kennedy party if there’s a VIP event within the VIP event,” one guest noted.

Among those spotted in the crowd were about 30 members of the U.S. Senate, two of whom were event sponsors along with their spouses (Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blum and Sen. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz) plus Sens. John McCain, Harry Reid, Christopher Dodd, Thad Cochran, Daniel Inouye, Daniel Akaka, Pat Roberts, Orrin Hatch, Olympia Snowe, Herb Kohl, Max Baucus, Susan Collins, Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Lindsay Graham, Benjamin Cardin, Barbara Mikulski, Mark Warner, Kent Conrad, Tim Johnson, Mary Landrieu, Patrick Leahy, Joe Lieberman, and Claire McCaskill. Former Senate colleagues included James Sasser, Tom Daschle, Tom Harkin, Pete Domenici, and John Culver.

The Obama Administration was represented by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, Budget Director Peter Orczag, White House Communications Director Ellen Moran, Domestic Policy Council chief Melody Barnes, and White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers.

Media guests included Mark Shields, Al Hunt, Chris Matthews, Christopher Wallace, Cokie Roberts, Eleanor Clift, and Wolf Blitzer.

Among the Kennedy family members present were the senator’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy (both in the presidential box); his children Kara Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy Jr., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy; nieces and nephews Christopher and Victoria Lawford; Timothy, Mark, and Maria Shriver; and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Douglas Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joseph Kennedy, Matthew Kennedy, Courtney Kennedy, and Christopher Kennedy.

Other guests included Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. Colin Powell, Rep. John D. Dingell and Deborah Dingell; Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Kennedy Center Chairman Steve Schwartzman, former Kennedy Center Chairmen James Wolfensohn and James Johnson, Richard Holbrooke, Nina Auchincloss Straight, George and Liz Stevens, and William vanden Heuvel.

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