President Obama recalled Edward M. Kennedy’s powerful ability to forge compromise. Senator John McCain remembered arguing with him on the Senate floor, after which the Democrat warmly put his arm around him. And Elizabeth Warren spoke about her first meeting with the liberal lion, and how it changed her life.
Obama and a parade of other top officials, Democrat and Republican, descended on Dorchester Monday to dedicate the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. They paid tribute to Kennedy’s personal touch and ability to build coalitions in the chamber he loved, and they offered hope the future might be more like the past they fondly recalled.
Gathered under a tent on a windy, cold day, the speakers delivered more than two hours of meditations on Kennedy and the chamber. At a time when Americans have soured on Congress, the pols praised the late senator’s ability to craft bipartisan agreements and told anecdotes about how he influenced them over the course of his long career in elected office.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke of Kennedy’s friendship, mentorship, and his understanding that consensus comes through the cumulative effect of personal relationships.
“Forgive me for saying in the city of Tip O’Neill, but I think he was wrong that all politics is local. All politics is personal!” Biden said. “And no one, no one in my life understood that better than Ted Kennedy.”
In one of the lighter moments of the day, Biden told the story of Kennedy taking him, as a new senator, to the Senate gymnasium and introducing him to his colleagues — some of whom were nude. The audience roared.
McCain, an Arizona Republican, told the story of two freshman senators, Democrat and Republican, engaged in a parliamentary dispute on the Senate floor. When McCain and Kennedy came to the aid of their party colleagues, they got into a “yelling” debate themselves. The freshmen fled.
“After it was over, we walked out, Ted put his arm around me and said, ‘[We did a] pretty good job, didn’t we?’ ” McCain told the crowd.
Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, said it seems like only yesterday she stood with her husband at a window on the seventh floor of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum looking over the adjacent plot of land, where the institute now stands.
“It was an empty, low-lying field,” she said. “But he had a vision that something extraordinary could rise from it.”
The $78 million interactive museum, devoted to civic education and centered on a life-sized replica of the Senate chamber, opens to the public on Tuesday. It allows visitors — guided by Google tablets and docents — to become “senators-in-training” and learn about, debate, and vote on issues of the day.
Another major exhibit of the institute, which is funded by private donations as well as taxpayer dollars, is a replica of Kennedy’s Senate office in Washington, filled with decades of memorabilia from his life. Kennedy served in the Senate from 1962 until his death in 2009.
Elizabeth Warren, her voice sometimes weighted with emotion, recalled her first meeting with Kennedy, in 1998, about a push, backed by credit card companies, to change the law so fewer people would be able to file for bankruptcy.
Warren remembered talking in Boston with the senator — whose seat she now holds — about her opposition to the bill. She said the meeting, set for 15 minutes, turned into an hour and a half. Kennedy agreed not only to oppose the credit card companies’ effort, but also to lead on the issue.
“Senator Kennedy changed my life that day,” said Warren, her voice breaking. “I hadn’t liked politics. All the lobbyists and cozy dealings and special favors for those who could buy access. But I stood in the lobby outside Ted Kennedy’s office and I felt clean.”
Governor Charlie Baker recalled, years ago, his then-elementary-school-aged daughter picking up the phone one Friday evening and telling him “there’s some guy on the phone who says he’s Senator Kennedy.”
Baker remembered his family joking about which one of his friends might be pranking him, and then picking up the phone to find it was the real Kennedy, calling to thank Baker for agreeing to serve on a board.
Obama, whose 2008 campaign for president was given a huge boost by Kennedy’s endorsement, gave a speech anchored by a somber take on today’s politics but optimistic that it can improve.
“Fear so permeates our politics, instead of hope,” Obama said. But “Ted understood the only point of running for office was to get something done — not to posture; not to sit there worrying about the next election or the polls — to take risks.”
Among the other speakers at the ceremony were Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston; Senator Edward J. Markey; former senators Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, and Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota; and Kennedy’s sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. and Patrick J. Kennedy.
Many other members of the state’s most famous political family were also there, from the senator’s first wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy, to Caroline Kennedy, now US ambassador to Japan.
After the outdoor ceremony, Biden inaugurated the replica Senate chamber, joined by a host of senators, current and former, and students from across the country.
An undercurrent of the day, sometimes referenced directly, often indirectly, was how most Americans feel about Washington and how it works — or doesn’t. The president acknowledged that reality.
“We live in a time of such great cynicism about all our institutions. And we are 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.”
But, ever hopeful, Obama added, “This place can help change that.”