As a sticking point for holding a debate at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, the question of whether Vicki Kennedy will formally endorse a candidate is fairly academic. But in terms of establishing the institute as a neutral forum for discussion of the Senate, it’s reasonable to expect the widow of the late senator to stand apart from the fray. Kennedy should be thinking now about how best to serve the institution, and not about preserving her own political voice.
Kennedy endorsed Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago. She has been a public champion of Democratic causes. It’s not hard to divine how she’ll be voting in November. So it’s unfortunate that a proposal for a high-profile debate between Brown and Elizabeth Warren — to be held at the institute and moderated by Tom Brokaw — fell apart this week over Kennedy’s refusal to agree, as Brown demanded, that she stay neutral in the race.
Supporters of the Kennedy Institute — and, most likely, Kennedy herself — were clearly rankled by Brown’s ultimatum. They pointed out that political debates are frequently sponsored by newspapers, which make endorsements. And they noted that Brown made no similar demands two years ago, when he debated Coakley at an event sponsored by the institute — and that Brown had no problem inviting Warren to a debate moderated by conservative radio host Dan Rea.
But Brown is hardly obliged to accept a debate invitation from Vicki Kennedy, any more than Warren was obliged to sit down with Rea. And while newspapers and other media that make endorsements usually have walls of separation between their news reports and editorial boards, they don’t take federal grants and aren’t officially dedicated to nonpartisanship, as the Kennedy Institute is.
To claim that Brown is “silencing” Kennedy, as some critics are charging, is an overstatement: When she took on a leading role within the institute, helping to raise funds from private donors and the government, she implicitly agreed to make its success her primary mission. Since 2010, the institute has grown in profile and begun to publicize itself as a “center of nonpartisan learning and engagement.”
When she took on a leading role within the institute, she implicitly agreed to make its success her primary mission.
Brown has endorsed that mission in the past, praising both the institute and Kennedy herself at a groundbreaking ceremony in April 2011. A public gesture of nonpartisanship from Kennedy would be another way to reach across the aisle, and would make a strong statement about the institute’s relevance to people of all political persuasions.