“To say that I love the Senate does not begin to convey what that institution means to me.” My late husband, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, wrote those words in his memoir, “True Compass.’’ And it’s true. Ted didn’t just love the US Senate. He revered it. He believed in it. He knew that, within that chamber, our leaders have the power to make a difference for citizens in every corner of this country and to impact lives throughout the world.
On Tuesday, following our dedication ceremony, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate will open its doors to the public. At a moment when civic knowledge is at an all-time low, this institute is a reminder of everything the Senate was designed to be — and everything it can be again.
Today, only one-third of graduating high school seniors even knows that we have three branches of government. The Institute seeks to change that with a hands-on, interactive experience. Visitors will have the chance to be senators for a few hours — to debate issues, to vote, and, most important, to come together face-to-face to try to find common ground.
The heart and soul of the institute is a full-scale recreation of the Senate chamber. This was Ted's vision — something he imagined when he first thought about the institute 12 years ago. Ted believed that the majesty of the Senate chamber — the carved wooden desks; the magnificent ceiling; the fabric-covered panels on the walls — inspired awe and a sense of duty in those privileged to serve in that hallowed space. He believed that those surroundings naturally stirred people to serve the national interest — to do the right thing.
In Washington, when the Senate is in session, visitors aren't allowed on the Senate floor. But in Boston, Kennedy Institute visitors will have the chance to walk onto the floor, cast a vote, and have their voices heard.
The institute is a fitting tribute to a centuries-old institution — but its approach is cutting-edge. Everyone will be issued a computer tablet when they enter, so that, as they pass through the exhibits, they will have information literally at their fingertips. All the exhibits are projected on the walls so they can remain current.
As new generations of Americans pass through its doors, they'll have a chance to learn, engage, and, hopefully, be inspired. That's the aim of our unique Senate Immersion Module, which allows up to 100 visitors, primarily students, to become senators for a fast-paced two-hour simulation. They'll have the chance to make floor speeches, pass amendments, even filibuster. But the overarching goal is for the participants to pass legislation by finding common ground — despite their differences.
The response to the simulated Senate experience has already been extraordinarily powerful. Young people take on the personas of senators from different states and different parties, and in the process they learn about different points of view. They learn how to respect and understand the contrasting views of their colleagues, while still forging agreement and winning a vote.
That search for consensus is one of Ted's most important legacies — and it permeates every aspect of the Institute that bears his name. But, as was his wish, this institute is not about one man; it is about the nearly 2,000 men and women who have served in the Senate since it first convened in 1789 and those who will serve in the future. It's about the hopes and dreams of Americans — and people around the world — who look to that chamber for guidance and leadership.
It's no secret that many Americans seriously doubt whether our leaders can work together – or whether our governing institutions can even function anymore. In times like these, it's more important than ever to remember that we have faced and overcome difficult periods since the founding of the republic. Ultimately, throughout history, men and women of good will, have come together across the party divide to address the great challenges facing our nation.
Ted once said: "We are Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again." The Edward M. Kennedy Institute's mission is to inspire a new generation of leaders. Because we know that we Americans can do it again.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy cofounded the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate along with her late husband. She is president of the board of trustees of the institute.