To paraphrase Joe Biden: The press is entitled to its own opinion, but it’s not entitled to its own selective memory on the history of that august body known as the U.S. Senate.
We were unlucky enough to be working from home yesterday and have CNN on when the network no one watches anymore aired President Barack Obama’s speech from Boston and the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
There’s a glowing recap, courtesy of the Washington Post, in today’s Chicago Tribune. Here are a few of the highlights of the news story:
Obama, the keynote speaker at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, said Kennedy “waited more than a year to deliver his first speech on the Senate floor in 1964. That’s no longer the custom.” Obama, who served a sole term in the Senate, was quick to admit that, like others in the current generation of senators, he didn’t wait to speak or take action either.
“The Senate was somewhere you pulled yourself up a little bit straighter, where you tried to act a little bit better,” Obama said in Boston. “It fills you with a heightened sense of purpose. That’s the magic of the Senate. That’s the essence of what it can be.”
Obama has tangled with Senate lawmakers from both parties this year. Democrats and Republicans are pressing him to guarantee congressional review if a nuclear deal is struck with Iran. Senate Republicans approved a budget that Obama declared untenable, and his pick for attorney general is waiting for confirmation after being nominated in November.
Obama recalled Kennedy working across the political aisle with Republicans when there was room for agreement, and relishing a debate that avoided getting personal.
If you’re having trouble remembering the past six bipartisan years, we’ll refresh your memory:
“Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.”
And so what we’re not going to do is put ourselves in a position where in order to pay for spending that we’ve already incurred, that our two options are: we’re either going to profoundly hurt the economy, and hurt middle-class families, and hurt seniors, and hurt kids who are trying to go to college, or alternatively we’re going to blow up the economy.”
“I have no more campaigns to run. I know because I won both of them.”
Sadly, Obama singing the praises of bipartisanship wasn’t the worst of it. It was his remembrance of Ted Kennedy – the man, we’ll remind you, who was behind Anita Hill (something that could be said of the Massachusetts Senator when it came to most women) and the smearing of Clarence Thomas.
So here are some excerpts from Obama’s speech that were even too much for a highly partisan press corps that worships him:
“Being a senator changes a person,” Ted wrote in his memoirs. As Vicki said, it may take a year, or two years, or three years, but it always happens; it fills you with a heightened sense of purpose.
That’s the magic of the Senate. That’s the essence of what it can be. And who but Ted Kennedy, and his family, would create a full-scale replica of the Senate chamber, and open it to everyone?
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. 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.
And this place can help change that. It can help light the fire of imagination, plant the seed of noble ambition in the minds of future generations. Imagine a gaggle of school kids clutching tablets, turning classrooms into cloakrooms and hallways into hearing rooms, assigned an issue of the day and the responsibility to solve it.
Imagine their moral universe expanding as they hear about the momentous battles waged in that chamber and how they echo throughout today’s society. Great questions of war and peace, the tangled bargains between North and South, federal and state; the original sins of slavery and prejudice; and the unfinished battles for civil rights and opportunity and equality.
Imagine the shift in their sense of what’s possible. The first time they see a video of senators who look like they do — men and women, blacks and whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans; those born to great wealth but also those born of incredibly modest means.
Imagine what a child feels the first time she steps onto that floor, before she’s old enough to be cynical; before she’s told what she can’t do; before she’s told who she can’t talk to or work with; what she feels when she sits at one of those desks; what happens when it comes her turn to stand and speak on behalf of something she cares about; and cast a vote, and have a sense of purpose.
It’s maybe just not for kids. What if we all carried ourselves that way? What if our politics, our democracy, were as elevated, as purposeful, as she imagines it to be right here?
It’s interesting that President Obama uses as his example a young girl who will come and marvel at Kennedy’s political career.
Of course, that young girl won’t be Mary Jo Kopechne, who made the mistake of getting in Ted Kennedy’s car on that fateful night in July 1969.
We also doubt it will be one of the many waitresses from La Brasserie, the Washington, D.C., watering hole where Kennedy and Sen. Chris Dodd, after a hard day of fighting for “women’s rights” would make one of their famous “waitress sandwiches” after a few rounds.
Towards the end of his life, Ted reflected on how Congress has changed over time. And those who served earlier I think have those same conversations. It’s a more diverse, more accurate reflection of America than it used to be, and that is a grand thing, a great achievement. But Ted grieved the loss of camaraderie and collegiality, the face-to-face interaction. I think he regretted the arguments now made to cameras instead of colleagues, directed at a narrow base instead of the body politic as a whole; the outsized influence of money and special interests — and how it all leads more Americans to turn away in disgust and simply choose not to exercise their right to vote.
Now, since this is a joyous occasion, this is not the time for me to suggest a slew of new ideas for reform. Although I do have some. (Laughter.) Maybe I’ll just mention one.
What if we carried ourselves more like Ted Kennedy? What if we worked to follow his example a little bit harder?
For more memories of the good old days when Ted Kennedy went off his leash on Capitol Hill, you may want to read the New Yorker piece, “Washington’s Sexual Awakening.” It gives a little bit different rendering of Sen. Kennedy’s tenure and impact on the Senate.
In the meantime, we’ll keep watching…and reporting.