It was an eye-rolling moment of sticky sentimentality: Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell serenading a stocky white-haired man with "The Impossible Dream."To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear the unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go." The audience was A-list -- former Vice President Al Gore, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- and A-listers wear their cynicism as naturally as a nicely knotted silk tie.
"This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far."
But no one celebrating Ted Kennedy's 70th birthday in a heated tent behind his D.C. mansion seemed to think it was hokey. Because the senior senator from Massachusetts and the man who personifies liberalism in American politics still dreams dreams many politicians think are impossible, and, much to the chagrin of conservatives, frequently gets his way.

Hard to believe but the youngest of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy's nine children turned 70 on Feb. 22, 2002, and marks his 40th year in the U.S. Senate this year.

He has served in the Senate longer than all but five others in the history of the United States. The celebration has been under way for weeks.

On Feb. 26, the Senate paid tribune to Kennedy. Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, spontaneously rushed to the floor to tell their own stories of the last surviving Kennedy brother, many intensely personal and some poignant.

A Republican senator, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, said, "His reputation for kindness and thoughtfulness is legendary."

At this point in his sometimes-tumultuous life, Kennedy is beloved by his friends and respected by his foes.

It has been awhile since Kennedy provided juicy fodder for the gossip columns -- although some late-night talk show hosts continue to skewer his reputation, especially as a drinker.

You rarely hear a mention of the accident at Chappaquiddick when a young female campaign aide to his brother Bobby died in his car when he drove it off a bridge late one summer night in 1969, a scandal that some say cost him the White House.

He is a grandfather four times over, married for 10 years to his second wife, Victoria Reggie, a 48-year-old lawyer, and a stepfather to her two children.

Of late, Kennedy has taken to joking he can run for re-election to the Senate four more times and still be younger than Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 99-year-old Republican from South Carolina. (Thurmond is so feeble he lives at the Walter Reed Army Hospital during the Senate session.)

Kennedy has spent more than half his life in the U.S. Senate but is still going strong. After he shelved his own presidential ambitions, sometime after his unsuccessful primary challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, he decided the Senate would be the place for his life's work.

Most observers would agree his legislative record far exceeds that of his brothers. But Kennedy still labors in their shadow of legends. They are never far from his thoughts. His office is a shrine of Kennedy memorabilia, including many photographs of his lost brothers.

During a briefing on border security issues at his office, he mentions Bobby was the last attorney general to actually visit the Immigration and Naturalization Service office.

Kara, his daughter, turned 42 the day before, and he remembers she was born during the New Hampshire presidential primary campaign in 1960, the year his brother John was elected president.

Part of American culture

Later in the day as he stage-managed two dozen elementary school children from Maryland's Prince Georges County and encouraged them to display handmade paper dolls, he made a sotto voce reference to being accustomed to large families. Stories about the Kennedy clan are so much a fixture in American culture, everyone in the hearing room understood the cryptic reference and erupted with laughter.