BOSTON — "Lord. What an amazing day this has been," Senate Chaplain Barry Black said, offering an opening prayer for a session of a replica chamber constructed as the centerpiece of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., presided over the session, leading the senators (real or not) in the Pledge of Allegiance. But unlike in the real Senate, the presiding officer got the opportunity to speak.
"It's good to be almost home," Biden said. "This replica looks like the actual Senate chamber, and it feels like the real one with Rev. Adm. Black opening us, and once again sitting in front of the Senate parliamentarian who I looked to for guidance for so many years."
"Having been No. 100 in seniority, I remember how I realized I would be absolutely, totally lost were it not for the fact that this gentleman here to my right, sitting in front of me, telling me exactly what to do when I presided, and even then I got some of it wrong," Biden said.
Of course, the current vice president and Kennedy were friends and allies, and Biden recalled a familiar story about the influence Kennedy had on his very first election to the Senate. And Biden left the audience at the outdoor ceremony that preceded the chamber dedication with what might be best described as an unexpected visual image.
"He introduced me to other senators who I had never met. I'm the first United States senator other than him I ever knew, and so it was new," Biden said. "In the Senate gym, like in a YMCA they, the men, walk around between the shower and the stalls with nothing on."
Kennedy, Biden said, introduced him to the likes of Jacob K. Javits of New York and Jennings Randolph of West Virginia — in the nude.
"I felt guilty I was fully clothed," Biden said.
Perhaps appropriately since President Barack Obama served in the Senate for less than one term, vaulting from politics in Illinois to the presidency with only a brief stopover in the real chamber, he paid only a brief visit to the chamber facsimile. He walked in before the start of the more formal proceedings, and spoke briefly to students gathered on the floor, actually introducing them to Black before the opening prayer.
But Obama too was in a mood to reminisce, particularly about the role of the institute's namesake Kennedy brother.
"Any of us who have had the privilege to serve in the Senate know that it’s impossible not to share Ted’s awe for the history swirling around you — an awe instilled in him by his brother, Jack. Ted waited more than a year to deliver his first speech on the Senate floor. That's no longer the custom," Obama said. "It's good to see Trent [Lott] and Tom Daschle here, because they remember what customs were like back then."
The two former majority leaders, a Republican from Mississippi and Democrat from South Dakota, serve on the board of directors for the institute, and both spoke before Obama Monday morning. Daschle even spent the mock chamber ceremony seated in the Democratic leader's chair that he occupied in Washington until losing his seat to Republican Sen. John Thune in 2004.
Both men offered introductory remarks, with Lott recalling how he got on board with the project as soon as he heard what Kennedy's vision had been.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., remembered her first meeting with Kennedy in Boston, about one of her research specialties as a professor: bankruptcy law and its effect on more vulnerable populations. Warren was interested in trying to help individual bankruptcy filers, not a group likely to have much lobbying clout.
"They were miserable and so humiliated they probably wouldn't have shown up for a political rally if they'd been invited," Warren said.
But after a meeting between Warren and Kennedy in Boston, Kennedy agreed to take the case in a battle against credit card companies over bankruptcy protections, even if it would prove ill-fated. Warren said it was only after that meeting that she became particularly interested in the political business.
When Kennedy agreed to vote with Warren's side, against easing bankruptcy protections, Warren said she asked Kennedy for more leadership. It was just the kind of issue that was bread-and-butter for the liberal lion, a fight that he could wage in spite of lobbyist pressures or prevailing winds.
"He looked over at that big satchel of papers that he always carried, the satchel full of a zillion other commitments that he had already made. A zillion other fights that he had already agreed to fight. He looked at it and looked back at me, looked again, and then he just said: 'I'll do it,'" Warren said. "He kept his word, and he led that fight for 10 years. I left his office, and I went out to the elevator bank, and put my head against the wall, and I cried. Sen. Kennedy changed my life that day."
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