President Barack Obama, formally dedicating on Monday an institute to the U.S. Senate and one of its legendary occupants, hailed the importance of the legislative body even while suggesting its best days have faded.
Speaking at the Boston waterfront site of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, Obama claimed too many current-day senators arrive in Washington only to be corrupted by private interests and campaign money.
“People get elected into the Senate and then get afraid,” he said. “Ted understood the only point of running for office was getting stuff done.”
Hailing the late Democrat as the embodiment of a different era of government, Obama said Kennedy placed clarity of purpose over party politics — and suggested his guidance was needed in a body that’s lost its way.
“I did not know Ted as long as some of the speakers here today,” Obama told the crowd that included a slate of current and former lawmakers who served alongside Kennedy during his nearly 50-year tenure.
“But he was my friend,” Obama said. “I owe him a lot. As far as I could tell it was never ideology that compelled him, except insofar as his ideology said you should help people.”
Obama was presiding over the official opening of a $78 million museum, conceived by Kennedy himself years before his death, whose centerpiece is a life-size replica of the Senate chamber.
The institute was dedicated at a moment when public opinion of Congress has sunk to new depths; organizers hope the museum will teach visiting students how the Senate works, thereby stoking interest in government and civics.
Obama said Monday the lessons imparted by the museum could also teach the men and women serving in the real Senate chamber in Washington — some of whom he said were governing out of fear, rather than a desire to advance the country’s interests.
“What if we carried ourselves more like Ted Kennedy? What if we worked to follow his example a little bit harder?” he said.
Kennedy, known as the “Lion of the Senate,” was the last of the country’s most famous political family to serve in the upper chamber (for now). He served for nearly half-a-century, at one point becoming the fourth longest-serving senator in history. His colleague for three of those years was then-Sen. Obama, who worked alongside Kennedy on the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
Kennedy’s crucial endorsement of Obama’s presidential bid in 2008, which came as the Democratic primary battle with Hillary Clinton was reaching its nastiest, gave Obama establishment backing against a rival with much of the party support behind her.
The ties between the two men went beyond politics: upon arriving at the White House in 2009, Obama hung a seascape Kennedy had painted in his private study off the Oval Office. Months later, after Obama’s Election Night vow to get his two young daughters a puppy, Kennedy delivered as a gift a Portuguese Water Dog — and took one of the dog’s litter mates as his own pet. He even sent the First Canine, Bo, to his preferred trainer in Virginia.
When Kennedy died seven months into Obama’s first term, the President delivered a deeply personal eulogy at a Boston funeral service that attracted hundreds of mourners, including four of the five living U.S. presidents.
Speaking ahead of Obama Monday, Biden said Kennedy’s power as a legislator lay not in his deep knowledge of the issues, but in his ability to develop friendships with fellow senators.
“Consensus was arrived at by the accumulative effect of personal relations,” Biden said. “That’s what generated the trust and mutual comity.”
Sen. John McCain, who served in the Senate for decades alongside both Biden and Kennedy, said he had “no doubt the place would be a little more productive and a lot more fun if (Kennedy) was there.”
Obama’s critics have accused him of eschewing that type of friendship-building on Capitol Hill they argue is necessary for success in Washington. During his remarks, Biden said the political process in Washington was “broken.”
The Republican-controlled Senate, only three months old, has already caused Obama headaches by refusing to bring the President’s nominee for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, up for a vote. Democrats in the chamber are stalling on his preferred Medicare reform plan. And neither party appears willing to go forward with a war powers resolution he drafted for going after ISIS.
Those issues, however, didn’t diminish Obama’s praise for Kennedy during Monday’s ceremony, which also featured members of the Kennedy family and former Senate colleagues of the late Democrat.
Included among the bipartisan list of speakers for Monday’s program were McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and former Sens. Tom Daschle and Trent Lott.
Kennedy’s longtime Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, was meant to attend the ceremony but was forced to cancel as nuclear talks continue with Iran in Switzerland.