Tributes paid to Kennedy who understood bipartisan politics

Both Republicans and Democrats were at the dedication of the Edward M Kennedy Institute

Despite the freezing wind blasting Columbia Point near Boston, the occasion felt – as one high-ranking Democrat is said to have remarked of a recent prominent Irish-American event – like a warm bath.

Almost as many anecdotes dusted the crowd as snowflakes flew through the tent (think wind-tunnel) at the dedication ceremony for the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on Monday.

Vice-president Joe Biden recalled as a 29-year-old freshman senator being introduced by Kennedy to new colleagues in the Senate gym where they walked around the locker room naked. "I remember him walking in, 'I would like you to meet Jake Javits' and I remember going, 'how are you?'," said Biden of Kennedy, miming like he was shaking the Javits hand and trying not to look down. "I felt guilty I was fully clothed . . . oh God, was I embarrassed."

Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, one of three Republicans to speak, apologised for not being able to bring warm temperatures from his home state of Mississippi. “I now know why all the Kennedys have so much hair,” he said. “It’s to keep their heads warm.”


Thawing out the crowd with his southern charm, Lott recalled how he and Kennedy, a Democratic rival, reached across the aisle in 1997 to agree legislation to help people with disabilities in education. He wrote Kennedy a letter afterwards saying how much he enjoyed working with him on the bill.

As a "PS", Lott wrote in jest about how the two adversaries enjoyed working together. "If the world only knew. I didn't know it for many years but he framed that letter and hung it on his wall," said the four-term senator. "I didn't actually want the world to know," he added to laughs in "Kennedy country", as Boston's Irish-American mayor Marty Walsh described it.

In a way, the occasion was bizarre. Even presidents don’t enjoy this kind of attention. It takes quite a public occasion for both Obama and Biden to turn up, and here was the late veteran US senator being honoured with a building befitting a presidential library.

Saying that, some students encouraged to take up a career in politics by this institute – as is its aim – could make a strong case debating in its replica US senate chamber that Kennedy, the Liberal Lion of the Senate, had a greater impact on American public life than his brothers. Among the 1,963 people who have served in the US Senate, Kennedy (no 1,608) was one of only eight to serve more than 40 years.

In his 47 years there, he authored more than 2,500 bills. One that got away was lamented by Lott. The Republican said that he got “a couple of threats to my life” when he worked with Kennedy on an immigration reform bill. Lott told him: “Every time I work with you I get in trouble.” He added with regret, given how big a political issue it is now: “Just think how different things would be now if we had passed immigration reform in 2007.”

Ironically, Kennedy’s first major legislative initiative, the Immigration Act of 1965, had the unintended consequence of putting his own kind, the Irish, at a disadvantage that Irish-American immigration lobbyists are still trying to address a half-century later.

Monday’s stage was the perfect platform for Obama to encourage more of the kind of bipartisan spirit that Kennedy filled the Senate with and less of the poisonous rancour that has gridlocked Congress and blocked the president’s progressive legislative agenda.

The president bemoaned the demise of what now seems a bygone era where the likes of Kennedy and Republican Orrin Hatch, diametric opponents ideologically, could set aside the barbs – Hatch once called him “one of the major dangers to the country” – to agree on legislation.

He likened their unique relationship to that of John Calhoun and Henry Clay, rivals who dominated the Senate in the first half of the 19th century. He recalled what Calhoun once said of Clay: "I don't like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him but, by God, I love him!"

There was perhaps another, more personal, reason behind Obama's appearance. He owed the Kennedys one. The crucial endorsement from Ted and John F Kennedy's daughter Caroline in the 2008 presidential campaign helped put Obama over the top against Hillary Clinton. "He was my friend," the US president said. "I owe him a lot."

Not surprisingly, there was no sign of Hillary on Monday as she prepares her presumptive 2016 campaign. But local senator Elizabeth Warren, whom the left want to run in 2016, was there. The anti-Wall Street pro-consumer crusader gave one of the more emotional addresses of the dedication, noting (while choking up) Kennedy's support for her early efforts to change the bankruptcy code.

Warren looked at home there on that stage, in Kennedy country. Now that would be another interesting endorsement if she were to run.