Boston philanthropist and power broker Jack Connors recalls being a bit puzzled by the call he got from his state’s senior senator in May 2008.
He did not consider himself part of Edward M. Kennedy’s inner circle, so when Kennedy started enthusing about his plans for a grand tribute to the U.S. Senate to be built next to his brother’s presidential library, Connors thought: “I wonder why he’s telling me all of this?”
It turned out Kennedy wanted Connors to head up a massive fundraising operation to bring the project into existence.
“Senator, I have absolutely no idea how to raise $90 million to $100 million, but I have less of an idea how to say no to you,” Connors said. He accepted on the spot.
Three days later, Kennedy suffered a seizure — the first warning of the brain cancer that would kill him 15 months later.
His idea, however, lived on, and will soon become a reality.
In about nine months, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate will open next to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum on Columbia Point in Boston.
The irony, of course, is that it will launch at a time when few Americans find much to celebrate about the Senate.
In a recent Gallup poll asking the public’s opinion of 16 major institutions of American society, Congress ranked dead last, with only 7 percent saying they had much confidence in it.
And that’s no wonder. These days, it is considered a legislative achievement if the House and Senate can agree to simply keep the government open and avoid a debt default.
Kennedy, on the other hand, is considered one of the most accomplished senators ever to serve — a liberal partisan, but also a pragmatic dealmaker.
In his 46 years in the chamber, he left his mark on scores of major pieces of legislation, from the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to the Affordable Care Act, which marked the culmination of what he had called “the cause of my life” but which he did not live to see signed into law.
On Thursday night at the Newseum, Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, held what she called a “pre-celebration” of the institute.
It felt more like a reunion. Among those in attendance were about 100 alumni of Kennedy’s highly regarded Senate staff, a dozen or so current and former senators, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer and a sprinkling of Kennedy kin.
When she asked her husband what he wanted his legacy to be, Vicki Kennedy said, he told her: “I just want people to love the Senate as much as I do.”
The senator used to joke that his own fingers were too chubby to use a keyboard, but he was fascinated by technology. In the dial-up era 20 years ago, his Senate office launched the first congressional Web page, and he was among the earliest members to accept e-mails from the public. Much the technology that the institute expects to use did not even exist when Kennedy first started planning it in 2002; visitors will be issued digital tablets to guide them through the exhibits. The institute’s centerpiece will be a full-scale replica of the Senate chamber.
The endeavor has not been without controversy — or Kennedy family drama.
Two years ago, the Boston Globe reported that Kennedy’s sons, Ted Jr. and Patrick, believed his widow was “jeopardizing the senator’s legacy and mishandling the creation of the $71 million institute that bears his name.” The paper quoted unnamed sources, “authorized to speak to the Globe,” who raised questions about the financing and complained that Vicki Kennedy had shut his children out of the planning.
Patrick, a former congressman from Rhode Island who now sits on the board of the institute, was at Thursday’s reception and lavishly praised the endeavor as something that can help return the Senate to its role as “the last bastion for real debate.”
Watchdog groups have been critical of the fact that much of the institute’s initial funding came from the government, in the form of more than $32 million in earmarks to appropriations bills. The institute’s most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service, for 2012, showed assets of nearly $90.6 million.
Were it not for Ted Kennedy’s name being attached, federal funding for “an institute for the study of the Senate would never have gotten through,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Not surprisingly, some of the institute’s biggest fans are ex-senators of both parties who worked with Kennedy and feel some nostalgia for a different kind of Senate.
Former majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined the board about a year ago.
The Senate “is reviled, and maybe this will change that” by altering the public’s perception of how it can work, Lott said.
“It’s going to change,” he predicted. “It’s going to change pretty soon — because how low can you go?”