Ted Kennedy Institute Gushed Over By NYT, But Bush Library a 'Disturbing' Threat to 'Academic Freedom'

Ted Kennedy, the late liberal "Lion of the Senate" (as he's invariably called) had his hugely exaggerated bipartisan reputation polished to a gleam in a story in the New York Times Arts section by Robin Pogrebin, "In the Mold of a Senator Who Bartered -- Edward M. Kennedy Institute Aims to Teach Collaboration." Next month the institute will open in Boston as a legacy of the Massachusetts senator who died in 2009.

Yet the George W. Bush Presidential Library was considered by the Times "disturbing" and a possible threat to academic freedom when it opened.

Pogrebin included some inter-family differences as the project emerged, but provided only gushing handling of the senator's legacy itself, without a breath of scandal or how his own personal behavior at Chappaquiddick may have "damaged" the reputation of Congress that she laments.

Nor was there anything about how awkwardly Kennedy's ruthless personal attack on conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork sat with his alleged lack of "personal animosity" toward ideological foes.

At least the Times now feels free to label Kennedy a "staunch liberal," which it consistently failed to do when Kennedy was pushing liberal legislation in the U.S. Senate.

When it opens next month in Boston, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate will be aiming to restore respect for Congress at a time when rancor and partisanship have seriously damaged its reputation.

As if to lead by example, the Kennedy family seems to have patched up its own reported differences over the $79 million institution, which with a full-scale replica of the Senate chamber will seek to educate the public about the legislative process.

The senator’s two sons, who were said to be at odds with their father’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, over issues of cost and control, are by all appearances now supportive of the project and Mrs. Kennedy, who leads the institute’s board.

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Patrick J. Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, added that his father “believed in a Senate that advanced the national interest, not partisan interest.”

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Mr. Kennedy, a staunch liberal who died in 2009, was often credited for reaching across the aisle to forge compromises with more conservative Republicans.

The institution, which opens March 30, has worked to mirror that sort of bipartisan camaraderie though its 17-member board includes just two Republicans: the former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, who was majority leader, and Ralph C. Martin II, a former district attorney in Suffolk County, Mass. In 2010, the chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, Jennifer Nassour, criticized the use of so much public money for the project, which has received $38 million in federal funds.

“Obviously, it has to be scrupulously nonpartisan, academic and historically accurate,” Edward Kennedy Jr. said, “beyond any political bias.”

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said he would welcome the institute provided that it did not take partisan positions.

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Edward M. Kennedy helped plan the institute and had a model of it on his dining room table before he died. “Teddy was totally enamored of the idea to teach and engage and inspire a whole new generation of young people,” Mrs. Kennedy said.

“In all the conversations we had, he said, ‘We have to feel the sense of place -- that hallowed ground,’ ” she added.

After two paragraphs on family squabbles over the direction of the institute, more praise from Pogrebin:

Today such issues seem long settled as the family discusses what it hopes the institute can add to the discussion of American politics.

“The system is broken, and the only way to fix it is to get citizens engaged,” Patrick Kennedy said. “We’re really in a crisis, so these kinds of institutions are so critical.”

Mrs. Kennedy said that making personal connections was crucial to her husband’s way of working, and that he would walk down the hall to a colleague’s office when he could easily have picked up the phone. “He wanted to go talk face-to-face,” she said.

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In remarks at his father’s funeral, he added, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a Republican, warmly recalled how he had come to Washington to fight Mr. Kennedy “and ended up being his legislative partner in every major initiative that they successfully saw implemented.”

“Just because you have ideological differences,” Patrick Kennedy said, “doesn’t mean you have to have personal animosity.”

That gushing praise for Kennedy is quite far from how a similar institute, the George W. Bush presidential library, was greeted when it was built on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Times used far-left professors at SMU to deride the "disturbing" library with silly questions about academic freedom.

After SMU became the likely home for the Bush presidential library, a January 2007 article by Ralph Blumenthal, "Faculty at S.M.U. Voices Concern About Bush Library, " passed along without comment professor concerns that "the school's academic freedom and political independence might appear compromised by an association with not only the Bush library but also a museum that would accompany it." (News flash: Every presidential library includes a museum.)

Contributor James Traub covered the same ground in hostile fashion in a March 2009 story for the paper's Sunday magazine.

And in an October 2010 story, reporter Michael Brick handed Bush-hating SMU professors a megaphone to complain about the megaphone Bush used to address rescue workers from the rubble of the World Trade Center in moving fashion, three days after the attacks:

The choice of mementos, emphasizing some of the more controversial foreign policy aspects of the Bush presidency, has reinvigorated opposition to the center's presence at the university.

"It's the approach they've taken all along; it fits their worldview," said the Rev. William K. McElvaney, a professor emeritus of preaching and worship at the university. "It's a tragedy for S.M.U. to hitch its star to this."

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The new opening exhibit, some Methodist leaders said, provides a disturbing first glimpse into the presidential center's priorities.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.