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Joan Vennochi

Kennedy’s costly legacy

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 25, 2010

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TED KENNEDY’S legacy is priceless to many Massachusetts liberals.

And now, that legacy will be partly underwritten by taxpayers of all political persuasions. Like it or not, they are footing part of the bill for a new institute dedicated to the memory of the legendary US senator, who died last August.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute is slated for construction, on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Boston, adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Already, $38.3 million in federal earmarks has been secured to construct what supporters stress will be a public building, located on the grounds of a public university.

Now, in the latest development, Senator John F. Kerry and Representative Edward M. Markey are working to secure another $20 million from the Defense Department budget.

Kennedy championed the little guy, and the now the little guy is paying to commemorate Kennedy. The broad plan is to limit public money to the cost of construction, but there’s no guarantee that the public contribution ends there.

Why is this a priority, at a time of widespread economic hardship and citizen anger at unrestrained government spending?

“It’s a fair question,’’ said Markey. He went on to say, “We did not stop building schools or libraries during the Great Depression. This will be a very important educational institution, attached to the most important educational institution in Massachusetts, UMassBoston.’’

“When people see what this institute does for young people and veterans and teachers and civil rights, no one will use the term waste,’’ added Kerry.

A private fund-raising effort headed by Boston businessman Jack Connors has so far raised $45 million for the institute. It is expected that private contributions will help finance programming for the institute. Plans call for a museum and exhibit space, ceremonial and reception spaces, a library, research area, and several classrooms.

Peter Meade, president of the planned institute, said it will be dedicated to the study of the US Senate, an institution Kennedy loved. Kennedy did not want this living memorial in Washington, said Meade. He wanted it in Boston, at UMass, where a diverse community of young people would benefit from its programs. As Meade describes it, it is not a shrine or temple to Kennedy; instead, it will be “one of the great civic centers in this country’’ and a major tourist attraction. According to Meade, Kennedy relatives have contributed and will continue to contribute an amount he declined to specify.

“There is always a legitimate question about the use of public funds,’’ acknowledged Meade. “Since we’re getting public money, we expect a public discussion about it.’’

But, that’s part of the problem: Funding this institute through earmarks means there is no public debate. The money is tucked into a huge appropriations bill, and requires no specific up or down vote. Channeling money in the defense budget for this purpose — as Kennedy’s colleagues have done — represents everything that is wrong about the Washington budget process.

Beyond process comes the question of priorities. Average American citizens have been forced to downsize their dreams. At the same time, government is taking their money and spending it on the hopes and dreams of one rich, powerful man. It doesn’t seem fair.

This monument to Kennedy’s legacy is also moving forward at a curious time for the Kennedy family.

On one hand, they still have clout. Ted Kennedy’s family will be given what the Globe recently described as “a rare opportunity’’ to raise objections before the public disclosure of thousands of pages of Kennedy’s secret FBI file. It’s an uncommon accommodation.

But their political power has ebbed.

The Senate seat held for decades by a Kennedy is now occupied by Senator Scott Brown, a Republican. Declaring it “the people’s seat,’’ Brown won a historic special election that shook the nation. Ted Kennedy’s son, Patrick, is not seeking reelection as a congressman from Rhode Island. Various Kennedy offspring have opted out of running for political office, and there is a real question about the political future of this storied political family.

But one thing hasn’t changed, as the funding plan for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute makes clear.

It’s propelled by the usual Kennedy attitude: The people should want what the Kennedys want.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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