Sunday, May 10, 2015

At the EMK Institute in Boston, Senator Mitch McConnell and bipartisanship

The new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate features an accurate replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Anyone who has read something of the history of the United States Senate probably knows that it is an institution which sees itself as playing a unique role in the history of the country, a place where time-honored traditions set the tone and rules. Recently, an organization devoted to the history and study of this venerable body, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, opened its doors in a spacious building on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, right next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. With a replica of the Senate Chamber at its center, the Institute feels like it was designed to accomplish 3 main goals: to honor the work of the Senate, to educate visitors, and to provide a venue for events and programs. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the first event in the Institute's Getting to the Point series, a talk by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). The senator was introduced by Victoria Reggie Kennedy, President of the Board of Trustees, who introduced him by recounting Senator McConnell's path to becoming Senate Majority Leader. Senator McConnell took the floor next, fondly recalling his late colleague Senator Edward M. Kennedy, offering his assessment that the replica of the Senate at the institute looks remarkably similar to the real thing, and reminiscing about his early days as a young senator.  

In this atmosphere of such intense partisanship it was frankly refreshing to hear a member of the United States Senate speak openly about bipartisan cooperation in a public forum. Senator McConnell talked about his love for the Senate as an institution, calling it the "... place where our country comes together to confront some of its most complex, intractable problems." Such sentiments are as important as they are rare these days, which is to say quite important and all too rare.

Senator McConnell also reflected on the impact that the Civil Rights movement had on his life and decision to continue his pursuit of a career in public service, recounting his experience of being in the room when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and his decision at the time to invite both Republicans and Democrats to the ceremony.

Toward the end of the event Senator McConnell sat down with New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes to answer audience questions on a wide range of topics. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Overall Senator McConnell's remarks highlighted the degree to which bipartisan cooperation was easier in an earlier era in the senate. In his remarks McConnell also mentioned how in his view the image presented by 24-hour cable news channels, with a strong emphasis on partisanship, makes it seem as though political leaders view their colleagues across the aisle in a completely negative light, which he insisted is not true. In my mind, from the outside it's hard to tell how much the 24-hour news cycle  does distort our image of politics and the degree of partisanship which actually exists in Congress, but I suspect that there is more than a kernel of truth in Senator McConnell's remarks.  At the same time, media reports of partisan gridlock are clearly not constructed out of whole cloth. The program drew to a close with Senator McConnell sitting with New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes and answering audience questions on topics ranging from the Patriot Act and wiretapping, to the national debt and government shutdowns.

Boston has no shortage of august venues or important institutions that host speakers on nearly every topic under the sun, from the JFK Presidential Library next door to university campuses to Symphony Hall. What sets the EMK Institute apart is clearly its focus on the United States Senate and its role as an educational resource designed to encourage enthusiasm for the legislative process and the difference it can make in the real world. If it can achieve this worthy goal it will make a significant contribution to the lives of those who visit; better still, if it can play a role in encouraging bipartisan or non-partisan cooperation on the most important challenges of our time, then its impact will do much more, contributing to the vitality and well-being of our democracy itself.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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