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BOSTON – President Barack Obama led the nation Saturday in mourning and remembering “the greatest legislator of our time,” celebrating the indelible impact of Edward M. Kennedy as a senator for nearly a half-century and leader of America’s most famous family during tragedy and triumph.

Delivering an emotional, simple eulogy for Kennedy that capped a two-hour Roman Catholic funeral Mass, Obama employed humor, his own experiences and timeless anecdotes to memorialize the senator, who died Tuesday at 77 after battling brain cancer for more than a year.

The country may have viewed him as “heir to a weighty legacy,” Obama said, but he was playfully known by the youngest Kennedys less grandly: as the big cheese, “The Grand Fromage.”

“He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect — a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots,” Obama said.

“And that’s how Ted Kennedy became the greatest legislator of our time. He did it by hewing to principle, but also by seeking compromise and common cause — not through deal-making and horse-trading alone, but through friendship, and kindness, and humor.”

The service drew to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica three of the four living former presidents, dozens of Kennedy relatives, pews full of current and former members of Congress and hundreds of others affected by the senator in ways large and small. No fewer than seven priests, 11 pallbearers and 29 honorary pallbearers took part. Mournful performances came from tenor Placido Domingo and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Earlier, Kennedy’s flag-draped casket — carried by eight servicemen — was wrapped tightly in plastic to guard against a steady rain as it was removed from his brother’s presidential library and put into a hearse for the drive to the church. The senator’s widow, Victoria, closed her eyes slowly and appeared to choke back tears as she watched under cover of an umbrella. The family had held a brief and private prayer service at the library in the morning.

The route to the church was lined with people, some holding “Kennedy-Thanks” signs and one person waving a lone red heart.

Under the soaring ceilings of the basilica, a church Kennedy had frequented almost daily while his daughter, Kara, battled cancer at a nearby hospital, over a dozen Kennedy family members accompanied the casket down the church aisle, each straining to touch a piece of the cloth covering it.

Kara Kennedy was the first family member to speak at the service, reading Psalm 72.

Ted Kennedy Jr. remembered his father as “an idealist and a pragmatist,” and noted that he was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. “I love you, Dad. I always will. I miss you already,” he said tearfully.

Notables attend service

The unseasonable cold outdoors, the result of Tropical Storm Danny’s path up the Eastern seaboard, was not felt inside the church, which grew warm from the packed crowd. The church’s stained-glass windows were opened and fans turned on to quell the heat.

Attendees at the invitation-only service included Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, actor Jack Nicholson and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, once an aide to Kennedy.

Reflecting Kennedy’s role as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland was a delegation from the troubled province: Shaun Woodward, secretary of state; Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister; and Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, also attended.

Kennedy’s career spanned the assassinations of his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the civil-rights era and Apollo moon landings, and battles over health, education and immigration, as well as the country’s election of Obama, its first black president, who was born roughly 18 months before Kennedy took office.

The emotional funeral concluded four days of public and private mourning.

Kennedy’s family has marked his passing at an elaborately organized series of services and events: a Mass at Kennedy’s beloved home on Cape Cod on Thursday, a somber motorcade carrying his body from the compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., past sites in Boston sentimental to the Kennedy family, and to his brother’s presidential library. There, he lay in repose for two days as thousands of people streamed by.

A rotation of friends, former staffers and others Kennedy touched took turns for a 24-hour vigil by his casket, including the parents of a murdered lifeguard, the family of an Iraq war soldier and the widow of a Sept. 11 terror victim.

Bipartisan memorial

Friday night, Kennedy was remembered at a bipartisan memorial service whose speakers included Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, JFK’s daughter.

“Now Teddy has become a part of history,” said Schlossberg, “and we are the ones who will have to do all the things he would have done, for us, for each other and for our country.”

Saturday’s ceremony evoked the funerals of Kennedy’s slain brothers. It was at RFK’s rites in 1968 that Edward Kennedy famously memorialized Robert.

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

After the Boston funeral, Kennedy’s body was being flown to Andrews Air Force Base, which also received JFK’s body after his 1963 assassination. There was to be a prayer service at the base, and another at the U.S. Capitol for Senate staffers. The entourage then was to proceed along the National Mall and into Arlington National Cemetery.

As evening was falling, Kennedy was to be buried there on a hillside near his brothers.

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