Don’t Send Vicki Kennedy One of These:
Inside the Café at the Taj Boston, there’s no question where Vicki Kennedy will be sitting. The round table tucked away in the back corner of the restaurant—that’s the Kennedy Table. Even the maitre d’ says so. There’s no sign or plaque with Boston’s most famous last name emblazoned in gold, but it was here that the late Senator Ted Kennedy spent hours brooding over political strategy and shoring up support for landmark legislation during old-school power lunches. It was also here that the Lion of the Senate wooed Victoria Reggie—before she was Vicki Kennedy—and introduced the Louisiana-born lawyer to the ways of his city.
When her husband lost his fight with brain cancer in 2009, Vicki Kennedy didn’t want to go into politics or coast on her last name. Instead, she fulfilled one of her husband’s final visions by building the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, a gleaming interactive museum with a full-scale replica of the Senate chamber located within eyeshot of the JFK Library. After getting the institute up and running last spring, she made waves by announcing that she was rejoining the supersize law firm Greenberg Traurig, where she worked nearly two decades ago.
Throughout their 17-year marriage, during chaotic campaigns, media frenzies, and partisan gridlock, the Taj (formerly the Ritz-Carlton) remained a favorite escape for the power couple—a private place to unwind over a juicy cheeseburger and a glass of wine. Now the 62-year-old Kennedy reflects on her husband’s fight with cancer, the promise of politics, and her disdain for emojis. And what better place than their old haunt, where her romance with Kennedy began?
I’ve heard that you and Senator Kennedy had your first date here.
Well, it wasn’t exactly our first date date, but it was our first time that I came to Boston. He had a speech and we had dinner here, and he took me for a walk right across the street. He showed me his Boston, showed me Boston through his eyes. It was quite wonderful.
Were you nervous at all coming up to Boston with him from Washington, DC?
It was very special. Yeah. It was important and nice. And we went to the Harvard-Princeton game the next day. And then to the Cape.
Do you remember what you had to eat the first time you came here?
I absolutely do not, but I have a suspicion that it was the hamburger. That is my very strong suspicion. We had an apartment down the street and we would walk here a lot later after we got married. We came here all the time.
All right, what are you having?
I’m just going with the clam chowder. It seems like a nice day for a bowl of soup.
Okay, I’ll do the same.
So you’re originally from Louisiana.
I’m originally from Louisiana. I went to Tulane undergrad and law school.
I want to do a quick lightning round. Gumbo or New England clam chowder?
They’re two totally different things. You can’t compare. I’m having chowder for lunch. But I had gumbo last week. If I had to pick one? I’m not choosing. And then you’re going to do the same to the Patriots. I’m not doing that either. You’re not catching me on that.
Clambake or crawfish boil?
Po’ boy or lobster roll?
What kind of po’ boy?
Oyster po’ boy.
Drew Brees or Tom Brady?
Oh, they are both fantastic. That one I would never…you are…that is bad. I knew you’d do that.
Are you a Patriots fan?
I adore the New England Patriots. I’m like a major, major fan. I watch every game on TV when I’m not there. I’m obsessed. I also love the Saints, because I watched their first game—the very first franchise game that was ever played.
I can’t believe you went to the first Saints game. That’s incredible.
The very first game of the franchise.
Were your parents big sports fans?
Big football fans. Big sports fans. We used to go when I was growing up. Now you understand—that’s why I have two teams. It’s part of my youth. We would drive from my little town—Crowley, Louisiana—to New Orleans and they used to play at Tulane Stadium, and we would watch Tulane play in the afternoon, on Saturday afternoon, and we would watch the Saints play on Sunday. And I actually thought all football teams did was lose in those days, because they were just—one would lose on Saturday, another would lose on Sunday, so it was just sort of an emotional connection, so it’s a loyalty that I feel from that.
Do you check your email from your phone before you get out of bed?
I check my phone before I get out of bed. But actually, it’s not my email. I check the breaking news overnight. I get headline news and I get headline reports and I get CNN. And that’s what I check.
Are you a bit of a news junkie?
Oh, total. Absolutely.
Do you like the advent of the 24-hour news cycle? Or do you think it’s gone too far?
I think it’s important. I believe in having as much information as you can have. I don’t think that you always get information in the 24-hour news cycle. I think a lot of times you just get a lot of repetition. But I do like the fact that we can have access to information 24 hours, if that makes sense.
Have you ever heard the term “inbox zero”? Are you an “inbox zero” person?
I’ve had multiple apps that were supposed to help me get to “inbox zero.”
Mission not accomplished?
Mission not accomplished.
As part of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute at the University of Massachusetts, you built an interactive replica of the Senate chamber at a time when Congress’s approval ratings hover around 15 percent. Are you crazy? Why are you building a full-scale replica of the belly of the beast?
I think there is no better time to do it. I think it’s just a renewal of our democracy and sort of a reminder of what we’ve been as a nation and what we can be and should be again. It’s so exciting, and if you haven’t been, I hope you’ll go. Because every single day inside that replica chamber something magical happens. Every day citizens, children—people who are eight years old, people who are 88 years old, you have this whole span of the age spectrum—walk in and they get a chance to vote, and to debate the issues that are happening that day. They stand up as the senator, they stand up and address the chair. We have children talking about whether police should wear body cameras. We’re talking about vaccinations, civil rights, and other issues that are compelling. And it’s really exciting.
How did the vision for this crystallize?
The whole idea of an institute for the United States Senate came out of a family dinner back in 2002, long before Ted got sick. He’d been in the Senate at that time for 40 years. I think we thought he’d be in the Senate another 40 years. But it’s sort of like looking to the future and saying, “What do you see the future being? What do you want to leave behind, what do you want your legacy to be?” And Ted said, “What about an institute for the Senate?” And it just started the idea in our minds and we started exploring it. If you knew Teddy, you’d know that once an idea is there, he’s not going to stop exploring it. And so he started calling meetings, regular meetings. He was a very organized man. He wanted it to be near his brother’s library, but he wanted it to be on the campus of the public university, where he could have access to the students there. So he met with UMass and kind of scoped out a plot of land and how it would be structured. So that was all really exciting, but it was all still just an idea.
Did his cancer diagnosis further his drive to make this vision concrete?
Absolutely. The week before he got sick, he called Hill Holliday cofounder Jack Connors and asked Jack if he would help him raise money for it. And Jack said yes. And that weekend Teddy was felled by a seizure and found out that he had cancer. It was unbelievable, but all the plans were in place. A lot of planning had gone into it up to that time. And the Senate chamber was so important to him. Teddy felt that you didn’t know what it was to be a United States senator until you could walk into those hallowed halls, until you could have that experience. He wanted students and people to have that feeling of awe.