In her President’s Forum Series talk, “Dysfunction in Washington and Bi-Partisan Politics,” Victoria Reggie Kennedy urged the audience, regardless of personal political beliefs, to be open to other perspectives and to participate in the democratic process.
“What does a government of the people require?” she asked. “People. The involvement of the people, the knowledge of the people, the participation of the people, the voting of the people, the holding of their leaders accountable by the people.”
In her reflection on governmental gridlock and bipartisanship, the legal strategist, financial attorney, and widow of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy reminded the audience that, “it’s very tempting to get our information from places that agree with us. That’s what’s happening in Washington. People are only reading papers that are their papers. Democrats are watching MSNBC, Republicans are watching Fox, and they’re listening to the echo chambers.”
She recalled a time “[not] so long ago that Democrats and Republicans in Washington actually did come together. Six years ago the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was passed for national service, overwhelmingly, by Republicans and Democrats on something they could agree upon.”
The question now, Kennedy said, is “how was that kind of thing done and how can we do it again?”
The answer is equal parts compromise, participation and respect, she said, using her time with the Commission on Political Reform as an example: “We were 29 or 30 people, Republicans and Democrats, former elected officials, former members of the cabinet, people in the non-profit world, people from the clergy, college presidents, people who cared about government, different perspectives, and we talked about issues. We had town hall meetings across the country and we listened to each other. At the beginning of it, I’d say were in very, very different places on the issues. But as time went on, we got to really like each other. We had lunch, we’d have breakfast the next morning, we’d have a glass of wine, we’d joke, and we got to know each other as people. You could watch the change in how people reacted to each other. The questions were hard. Some things we couldn’t reach an agreement on, but we talked civilly and we really, really kicked it around, and at the end of the day, with great respect, we issued a white paper.”
In that white paper were the Commission’s three recommendations to encourage a more functional and participatory government: service, electoral reform and congressional reform.
Service, Kennedy said, “is as old as Benjamin Franklin, our founding father, who said the noblest question that we can ask in our country is, ‘what good may I do in it?’ Our founding was based on how can we give back. By giving back, you bridge a divide between people. You understand the differences between people. You start to see that you don’t have all the answers. You start to see a different perspective. You’re invested in the country in a different way by service. And that was our recommendation: that there be a year of service for everyone between 18 and 28.”
On electoral reform, the Commission decided that “the most important thing is the exercise of the franchise: make it easy to vote,” Kennedy said. “Extend the period of time for people to cast a vote. Have a national primary date. Get rid of conventions, get rid of caucuses, increase voter participation. Have a long period leading up to voting day to maximize people going to the polls.
As for congressional reform, the recommendations “were recommendations you’d hope [Congress] would make themselves,” Kennedy said, “things like: coordinate the schedule of the House and the Senate so they’re both in at the same time; actually be in session for three solid weeks, Monday through Friday, together, at the same time, so that you actually are with each other so you get to know each other and are spending time with each other.”
As HWS President Mark D. Gearan noted in his introduction of Kennedy, “In the past five years she’s devoted her considerable energies to the development of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, an educational center that will open in Boston this March and will educate the public about the unique role of the Senate in our democracy.”
Scheduled to open its doors in March 2015, the Institute — a 65,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building on the campus of University of Massachusetts Boston, adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Library — is designed, Kennedy said, to fulfill the legacy of her late husband, who “wanted people to love the Senate as much as he did and wanted people to learn about the Senate and through the Senate to understand our government. He wanted young people in particular to be inspired and have the chance to become Senators.”
Addressing the future of American democracy, Kennedy reflected on the ways in which HWS students are engaged in public service. “It is wonderful to meet our neighbors from Geneva, wonderful to meet the members of the faculty, but in a very special way I’m happy to meet the students and to be here with the students because you inspire me. You’re the reason I wanted to be here this evening,” she said. “Before I got here I was impressed with what I knew you were doing, the hours of service, 80,000 hours a service a year that you do, that all of you are involved in service, but then meeting so many of you and having the opportunity to talk with you, to see how involved you are, how much you care…Oliver Wendell Holmes said we should all be involved in the actions and passions of our time or risk not to have lived. You live. You’re involved. And I have great hope and optimism for the future of our country because of you.”
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty and staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. The most recent guest of the President’s Forum Series was William A. Galston, the Ezra Zilkha chair at the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow.
Other recent speakers include Dr. Kathy Platoni ’74, clinical psychologist, author and retired U.S. Army Colonel; Todd S. Purdum, senior writer at POLITICO and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair; Gus Schumacher, executive vice president of policy and co-founder of Wholesome Wave; and Former Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress.