Dedicating Ted Kennedy institute, Obama recalls senator as consensus builder


President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Ted Kennedy Jr. attend the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston on Monday.

(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama called the work of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy a positive example for a country increasingly weary of politics, saying Monday that he hoped a new institute devoted to Kennedy’s work and the Senate he served in could “help plant the seed of noble ambition in future generations.”

At the dedication ceremony in Boston for the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute, Obama and others remembered the late senator as a liberal champion just as eager to challenge as to collaborate with his ideological opponents. The tributes often doubled as commentaries on what Vice President Joe Biden referred to as today’s broken political system.

Obama recalled how Kennedy could “howl at injustice on the Senate floor like a force of nature” one day and find common cause with his opponents the next. Republicans were among those in Boston to honor Kennedy, Obama noted, not because they agreed with him but because they knew him as somebody who “was not afraid” to partner with them.

“Fear so permeates our politics instead of hope,” Obama said. “People fight to get into the Senate and then they’re afraid. We fight to get these positions and then don’t want to do anything with them. Ted understood that the only point of running for office was to get something done. ... He understood that differences of party or philosophy could not become barriers to cooperation or respect.”


Obama noted how he served only briefly with Kennedy, but still considered him a friend. Kennedy’s endorsement in 2008 helped launch Obama to the presidential nomination. And it was Kennedy’s lifelong fight for universal healthcare that Obama ultimately took a major step toward with the Affordable Care Act, but only after Kennedy’s death in 2009.

Among those also on hand Monday was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said the Senate was “a little more productive and a lot more fun” with Kennedy a part of it and that he missed fighting with him. “It’s gotten harder to find people who enjoy a good fight as much as Ted did,” McCain said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who holds Kennedy’s former seat, said Kennedy “changed my life” when he agreed to help fight for a bankruptcy reform bill she was advocating. While she had distaste for the political process at the time, she described herself as awed that Kennedy would take up a cause with no clear political payoff for him.

“I stood in the lobby outside Ted Kennedy’s office and I felt clean,” she said. “Sen. Ted Kennedy, the lion of the Senate, agreed to lead this fight because it was the right thing to do.”


Biden, recalling Kennedy as his “tutor” and “guide” as a young senator, said he watched how Kennedy challenged every one of the eight presidents who held the office while he was in the Senate, while “never demeaning” the presidency.

The creation of an institute for the Senate that could meet the standard of traditional presidential libraries was one of Kennedy’s final causes. While many presidential archives include full-scale replicas of the Oval Office, the Kennedy Institute has an exact representation not just of his former Senate office but of the entire Senate chamber, in which visitors could play the part of one of its 100 members.

Kennedy’s institute stands near the presidential library of his brother John F. Kennedy. The library, Obama said, was a “symbol of our American idealism,” while the Senate institute stood as “a living example of the hard, frustrating, never-ending but critical work required to make that idealism real.”

“We live in a time of such great cynicism about all our institutions, and we’re cynical about government and about Washington most of all,” Obama said. “It’s hard for our children to see, in the noisy and too often trivial pursuits of today’s politics, the possibilities of our democracy -- our capacity, together, to do big things.”

“And this place can help change that.”

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