Magazine

Joe Biden recalls Ted Kennedy as mentor who made a difference

With the Kennedy Institute for the US Senate ready to open in Dorchester, the vice president says his influence is missed.

Vice President Joe Biden served in the US Senate for 36 years alongside Ted Kennedy.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden served in the US Senate for 36 years alongside Ted Kennedy.

Ahead of the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on Tuesday, the Globe Magazine is exploring the history of the project and Kennedy’s vision for it.

I would not be vice president, and I would not have been a United States senator, but for Ted Kennedy.

He helped me win my first Senate campaign as a 29-year-old kid. He picked me up in my darkest days after the fatal accident which took my wife and daughter. He was there for me years later and visited me at my home in Wilmington, as I recovered from surgery for an aneurysm. And as we worked together through the years for a more just and fair America, Teddy was always there.

He was my tutor, introducing me, a young Irish Catholic kid from Scranton, to a world I had never seen. When I arrived in the Senate, he would stop by my office, would take me to the Senate gym to meet the other senators, and helped me get on important committees.

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We sat in the same aisle when the Senate was debating the most important issues of the day, from Vietnam to Iraq, from Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act to the Violence Against Women Act. We sat next to each other on the Judiciary Committee overseeing Supreme Court nominations. We ate together at caucus lunches mapping legislative and grass-roots strategy.

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I think of Teddy when I see women standing up in the workplace and demanding exactly what they’ve earned. I think of Teddy when I see people young and old embrace their sexual orientation and gender identity. I think of Teddy when we protect the rights of students, seniors, voters, workers, veterans, immigrants, and people with disabilities. And I think of Teddy whenever I meet a family that now has the peace of mind of health insurance in a nation where we’ve finally declared that health care is a right, not a privilege.

But with Teddy, it was never about him. It was always about serving others. That’s what drove his idealism and optimism. You could just see it in the nature of his debate and demeanor. He was never defeatist. Never petty. Never small. In the process, he made everybody he worked with better, allies and adversaries alike.

Teddy was the embodiment of what I believe the Senate best represents. It’s remarkable that one of the most liberal senators of the last century had so many of his adversaries ultimately respect him. They knew he made them better — and made the institution of the Senate better — by the dignity and grace with which he conducted himself.

That’s what I hope students learn most from the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. We can use more of that today. Debate policy judgments, but not personal motives. See the world from another’s perspective.

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That’s Teddy’s legacy — measured as a consequence of how we look at one another, and, in turn, how we look at ourselves and our system of self-governance. He was a man of unyielding faith in the limitless possibilities and greatness of our people, and I miss him.

Related coverage:

- Obamas to attend Edward M. Kennedy Institute dedication in Boston

- Ted Kennedy honored for labor efforts

- Joan Vennochi: Can Elizabeth Warren be the new Ted Kennedy?

Vice President Joe Biden served in the US Senate from 1973 to 2009, the year that Edward Kennedy died and Biden became vice president.