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The Kennedy brothers' special bond

John F. Kennedy, center, and his brothers Edward

John F. Kennedy, center, and his brothers Edward Kennedy, left, and Robert F. Kennedy attend the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 1958. Credit: AP File

Americans know the image of the hypercompetitive Kennedy brothers playing touch football together. But there was another image - an unquestioning love and loyalty among Joseph Jr., John, Robert and Edward.

"People use the term brotherly love almost as a cliche now, but with those brothers love was palpable," said John Seigenthaler, a former journalist who worked as a special assistant to Robert Kennedy.

Photos: Kennedy family tree, 1888 to 2009

Photos: Ted Kennedy through the years

Edward Kennedy's death late Tuesday marked the passing of the last of the Kennedy brothers, the sons of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Three died violently - Joseph Jr. in a plane crash in World War II in France, and John and Robert in assassinations in 1963 and 1968. Historians say the Kennedy father groomed each of his four sons for a role. Joseph Jr. was the leader and the natural politician who would reach for the White House, John was the quiet intellectual, Robert was the striver and Edward the jester.

"Those are stereotypes, but the father didn't hesitate to typecast his boys," said Peter Canellos, editor of the "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy."

Edward idolized his brothers. "I don't think a day went by when they didn't talk to each other," said Adam Clymer, author of "Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography."

When Joseph Jr. died in World War II in 1944, the mantle passed to John, and the family felt it was a matter of time before he became vice president or president. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Robert and Edward campaigned for him.

"There was no rivalry among them," Clymer said. "Ted wanted to emulate his brother."

After campaigning out West for John, family friends say, Edward Kennedy briefly considered going his own way. He and his wife, Joan, talked about moving to New Mexico and buying a newspaper. As the story goes, Joseph Sr. said no, and Edward was elected to the Senate representing Massachusetts in 1962.

Seigenthaler remembers sitting in meetings in Washington, D.C., and Boston with the three brothers, listening to them refer to "he" or "she."

"They spoke in pronouns and code words, so that only the three of them knew what they were referring to - that's how much they thought alike," Seigenthaler said.

After Robert Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964, Edward found himself a mentor to his older brother. At one committee hearing, Robert passed a note to Edward asking how long they'd have to sit around. Clymer's book reports that Edward responded with the phrase that became his mantra in the Senate: "As long as it takes."

Bill Kovach, who worked for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968, watched Robert emerge as a statesman after John was killed in 1963. "The same thing happened to Teddy after Bobby was killed," in 1968, Kovach said.

While Edward became known as the "Lion of the Senate" for his legislative work, he embraced his nieces and nephews - Robert's 11 children and John's two children, along with his own three children.

They came to talk to him about drinking and drug and marital problems. When Caroline Kennedy was interested in becoming a senator last year, she sought his advice. And when three generations of Kennedys considered whom to endorse for president last year, it was Edward who announced that they supported Barack Obama.

"If his father was a patriarch who ruled by fear," Canellos said, "Ted was a benevolent patriarch who united by love."

Photos: Sen. Ted Kennedy through the years

Photos: Sen. Ted Kennedy mourned

Photos: Kennedy family tree, 1888 to 2009

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