CBSN

What today's senators can learn from Ted Kennedy

The United States Senate has changed since Ted Kennedy passed away, and not necessarily for the better, Kennedy's former Senate colleagues said Monday in Boston at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

"The place hasn't been the same without him," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, one of Kennedy's favorite sparring and negotiating partners. "I have no doubt the place would be a little more productive and a lot more fun if he were there."

"It's a more diverse, more accurate reflection of America than it used to be, and that is a grand thing," President Obama said of the new Senate. "But Ted grieved the loss of camaraderie and collegiality, the face to face interaction. I think he regretted [that] arguments [are] 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."

Vice President Biden, who served alongside Kennedy for 36 years in the Senate, called his late friend the "anchor" of the institution. He suggested Kennedy's lesson that "all politics is personal," that relationships with colleagues can have a real impact, has been lost on too many serving today.

Despite those grim assessments, each man also argued that the Senate can work once again, if those serving in it can heed the example of "the lion of the Senate" -- if they can build camaraderie and trust, if they work to find common ground even amid profound disagreements.

"He understood that consensus is arrived at from the cumulative effect of personal relationships...the little things that you did for the other over time. That's what generated the trust and the mutual respect and the comity that only Teddy was able to do," Biden said. "It's hard to be petty when the man or woman you're debating is being grand and magnanimous."

The institute dedicated on Monday includes a full-scale replica of the Senate chamber. It was born out of Kennedy's desire to teach Americans, particularly young Americans, about the history and importance of the legislative branch, and about the role of compromise in governance.

"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 todays' politics, the possibilities of our democracy -- our capacity, together, to do big things," President Obama said. "This place can help change that. It can help light the fire of imagination."

"Imagine a gaggle of school kids clutching tablets, turning classrooms into cloakrooms," he added. "Imagine their moral universe expanding as they hear about the momentous battles waged in that chamber."

The event was peppered with each speaker's fondest memories involving Kennedy. McCain, R-Arizona, recalled the time he and Kennedy drove a frightened pair of freshman senators from the floor with a fierce and voluble dispute over parliamentary procedure.

"I miss fighting with him, to be honest," McCain added. "It's getting harder to find someone who enjoys a good fight as much as Ted did."

Biden drew big laughs by recalling the first time he stepped into the Senate gymnasium's locker room with Kennedy, who insisted on introducing the fresh-faced newcomer to a parade of naked colleagues.

"I felt guilty I was fully clothed," the vice president joked. "True story."

While Kennedy's loss is felt acutely in the Senate, Biden said he's "confident" the institution will once again become an institution worthy of its rich heritage.

"The pundits say that we are divided today," he said. "That's simply not true. Look at every major poll on every major issue there's a consensus in America. It's the political process that has been broken."

In time, Biden said, the United States Senate can "work as it was designed to work."

"The point is, we can fight on almost everything, but we can come together on some things," Mr. Obama said. "And those some things can mean everything to a whole lot of people."

The president said he has a lot of policy suggestions for how the political system and legislative process in this country can work again, but the dedication ceremony wasn't an appropriate venue to offer them.

Instead, the president posed a simple question policymakers should ask themselves: "What if we carried ourselves more like Ted Kennedy?"

Following his remarks, the president visited privately with members of the Kennedy family and saw the replica of Kennedy's senate office, according to White House spokesperson Eric Schultz.