Ted Talk

Over Labor Day weekend, I paid my first visit to the newest civic attraction in Boston:  The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

It was awesome.

This institution, which opened in March but was first conceived in 2003, is a great gift to the public and a noble step in the direction of fostering a more informed electorate.  And wouldn’t you know it:  In the way it has been planned and realized, it even stands a fair chance of being appreciated by the sorts of Americans it most vitally needs to reach.  Namely, young ones.

Let us begin with the center’s name, which is perhaps more revealing than it sounds.  It’s the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.  That is to say, it is a museum dedicated to the history and mystique of the Senate itself—our country’s most exclusive and powerful deliberative body—but is also, simultaneously, a loving and pointed tribute to a single member of that club—namely, the youngest brother of John F. Kennedy, whose presidential library sits just across the parking lot, overlooking Boston Harbor.

This means that, like a presidential library, this new civic tourist trap is a history museum with a point of view.  In this case, the view that the U.S. Senate has, in the end, been a force for good for the American republic.  That, for all its shortcomings, the Senate is the most indispensable and effective means of making life better for ordinary citizens.  And, finally, that Ted Kennedy—who represented Massachusetts from 1962 until his death in 2009—embodied all the best traditions of Congress’ upper house and is a sterling example of what can be achieved therein.

Considering Massachusetts politics and the extraordinary influence of the Kennedy family within the commonwealth and without, it is entirely predictable that such a place would exist.

However, I am sort of curious what Republicans and other conservatives might think about this temple to progressivism and its particular spin on the meaning of America.

On the one hand, right-wingers will presumably gag at the sight of “Lion of the Senate,” a roomful of Senator Kennedy’s greatest hits, from his support for the rights of women, gays and the disabled to his opposition to the Vietnam War to his lifelong pursuit of free healthcare for every man, woman and child.

For liberals, these issues and more are the essence of good government and what it means to forge a more perfect union.

But for conservatives, Ted Kennedy has always personified what they most fear and detest—namely, the idea that the central purpose of the Senate—and of the federal government as a whole—is to create a fair and equitable society and to spend lots and lots of money doing so.  Au contraire:  Republicans, as a rule, believe government should be as unobtrusive as possible and avoid meddling in issues that should be considered on a more local level.

There’s also the fact that, in the summer of 1969, Kennedy killed a 28-year-old woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, by accidentally driving his Oldsmobile off a bridge (Kopechne was in the passenger seat), then waited nearly 10 hours before notifying the authorities.  And yet, because of his illustrious last name, Kennedy was never arrested or charged with manslaughter.  He pleaded guilty only to “leaving the scene of a crash after causing injury” and didn’t spend a single night in jail.

For skeptics, this episode is Exhibit A in the charge that the Kennedys have always thought of themselves—and been treated by others—as being above the law.  The family remains “American royalty” not just because its members are so widely admired, but also because they seem to get away with things that mere mortals do not, from stealing elections to cheating on their wives to allowing young women to drown without calling the police.

If Ted Kennedy was able to redeem himself through 47 years of genuine hard work and accomplishment on Capitol Hill—a debatable but widespread view—so does the Ted Kennedy Institute justify its existence through its loving and meticulous treatment of the house in which Kennedy served.

However you might feel about Congress today, this museum takes great pains to explain how the Senate actually functions—pulling away the curtain to reveal what the day-to-day job of a senator entails.  For a certain chunk of wonky, nerdy right-wingers—the ones who quote Alexander Hamilton by heart and carry a miniature copy of the Constitution in their pockets—this joint may just win the day.

The literal and figurative centerpiece of the Institute is a life-sized reproduction of the Senate chamber itself, complete with 100 wooden desks and a visitor gallery above, and every so often, the museum’s PA system will summon everyone in to debate a bill.  Not a pretend bill, mind you, but an actual piece of legislation that has recently been introduced in Washington, D.C., and is being marked-up and argued about as we speak.  (The day I was there, the issue was whether to require vaccines for all children enrolled in Head Start programs.)

Here, as there, a suited-up museum employee reads a summary of the bill, after which two of his colleagues recite arguments for and against.  At this point, the mike is passed around the room for anyone else to add their two cents (upon being formally recognized by the presiding officer, that is).  Once that is done, everyone present whips out their tablets and clicks “Yea” or “Nay,” with the final tally emblazoned on a giant screen behind the podium.  (Admittedly, such a screen does not yet exist in the real Congress.)

The idea—simple but powerful—is that there is no more effective way to teach people the inner workings of government than to actually bring them along for the ride.  Legislating, like all activities, is best learned through active participation—rather than, say, reading a book or hearing a lecture—and democracy, of all things, should not be a spectator sport.

The people behind the Ted Kennedy Institute instinctively understand this, and their efforts at making the legislative process comprehensible to young (and old) audiences is commendable, not least because it is so rare and so desperately needed in our selfish, ignorant culture.

We are all well-aware of the abysmal attention spans of today’s youth, and I cannot imagine that a conventional museum about government—with long paragraphs of prose plastered all over the walls—would quite do the trick.

To be sure, the Ted Kennedy Institute contains a great many of those paragraphs—indeed, the sheer volume of information in this building is staggering—but you feel neither bored nor bombarded by them, thanks to the inspired idea of making everything electronic.

I mentioned that the mock Senate votes are done on tablets.  In fact, the entire experience is done on tablets, because every visitor is given one immediately upon checking in.  Like audio guides at more traditional museums, these devices allow you to wander the halls at your own pace and summon the sorts of information you are most interested to learn.

Yes, there is writing on the walls—with such predictable subject headings as “What is the Senate?” “Senate Milestones” and, of course, “How a Bill Becomes a Law”—but the words dance around and are interspersed with video and graphics so that your mind doesn’t wander too far before something new pops up.  The Institute’s designers realize that quick facts and choice anecdotes are the secret weapon for getting the average American interested in otherwise boring subjects, and they have been diligent in peppering these exhibits with plenty of both.

Will it work?  Will the hordes of field-tripping schoolchildren who visit the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate leave with an appreciably greater knowledge of how their country runs than when they arrived?

It is hard to conceive that they won’t.  If they do, it’ll be their own fault, because this place tries just about everything.

To be sure, it’s a crying shame that teaching civics in classrooms is such a dying art form that it needs to be exported to cultural institutions.  But at least those institutions exist, and this one in particular seems cognizant of how urgently its services are needed.  The opening of the Ted Kennedy Institute is not going to revolutionize the level of civic engagement in America, but it’s a start.

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