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Obama calls Kennedy counselor, friend

From NBC's Athena Jones
CHILMARK, Ma. -- President Obama joined politicians and organizations from across the country and around the world in hailing "Lion of the Senate" Ted Kennedy, who passed away early this morning in nearby Cape Cod at the age of 77.

Calling Kennedy an extraordinary leader, a counselor, and a friend, Obama said he was "one of most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy" and that the "good he did lives on."

"The outpouring of love, gratitude, and fond memories to which we've all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives," the president said. "His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives."

Marvin Nicholson, the president's trip director, woke Obama up just after 2:00 am ET to tell him Sen. Kennedy had died. The president spoke with Mrs. Kennedy about 25 minutes later.

Obama -- who was born just before Kennedy entered the Senate -- said the Kennedy name was "synonymous with the Democratic Party" and that no one in the Senate engendered greater respect or affection on both sides of aisle. "His seriousness of purpose was perpetually matched by humility, warmth, and good cheer," he said. "He could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines."

Kennedy endorsed Obama on Jan. 28, 2008, a crucial time during the then-Illinois senator's presidential nomination battle against Hillary Clinton -- after Obama had won the contests in Iowa and South Carolina, and Clinton had won in New Hampshire and Nevada. 

President Obama last saw Kennedy in Washington on April 21, when he signed a national service bill named for the Massachusetts icon. The pair were also together to celebrate Kennedy's birthday at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on March 8, the White House said. They spoke on June 2 about health care and on July 10 after the President gave the Pope a letter from the senator.

Earlier this month, the president awarded Kennedy the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian medal. Kara Kennedy, his daughter, came to the White House to accept the medal on behalf of her father.

After his statement this morning, the First Family headed to a private beach here on the island of Martha's Vineyard where they are vacationing for the week.