Can the Edward M. Kennedy Institute Save Democracy?

It's sure going to try. And in the meantime, this institution on the rise is making an impact on the national stage.

Illustration by Dale Stephanos

In early June, black cars ferrying 10 former U.S. senators—five Republicans and five Democrats—rolled past weathered wooden fences and old salt-box houses that line the streets of Hyannis Port. One after another, they turned onto a dead-end road, where in the distance sailboats plied the gentle waves of Nantucket Sound, and pulled up in front of the Dutch Colonial mansion that the Kennedy clan has called home since the 1920s. Each of the former senators in those cars—including Republican Mel Martinez from Florida, Democrat Russ Feingold from Wisconsin, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas, and Democrat Tom Daschle from South Dakota—had descended on the Kennedy Compound with a singular purpose: to figure out how to save the U.S. Senate from fully succumbing to dysfunction in the face of unprecedented partisan rancor.

As each former senator stepped out of their cars, Bruce A. Percelay, the chairman of the board of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, warmly ushered them inside. Once everyone was settled in the dining room, he offered a toast. Standing in front of cupboards stuffed with a collection of fine china, Percelay pointed through a doorway to the adjacent living room, where the fireplace was surrounded by chairs upholstered in a vivid floral print. “We’re going to be meeting in the room where John F. Kennedy decided to put a man on the moon,” Percelay said. “Where he dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Percelay paused, studying the men and women who had spent decades on Capitol Hill. “We want you to make your own history here this weekend.”

The next day, Daschle says, the senators went to work, debating three essential questions: “What are the norms we ought to shoot for and restore? What are some of the changes in Senate rules that might help expedite greater consensus around legislation? And how can we deal with the extraordinary polarization and divisions we find in the country today?” After breaking off into groups for brainstorming sessions, the 10 senators reconvened in the living room to share their ideas. The monumental quest to restore what used to be called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” was officially under way.

To date, the group’s prescriptions still aren’t quite finalized, and it remains to be seen whether they will accomplish their ultimate goal. What seems certain, though, is that by pulling off an event as consequential and historic as the Hyannis summit, the once under-the-radar Kennedy Institute had a watershed moment.

Founded with a mission to provide civic education to schoolchildren, the institute, over the past decade, has effectively served as a museum commemorating Ted Kennedy’s 47-year tenure in the Senate. Today, though, it is much more. In just the past 12 months, in addition to serving its core mission, the institute has thrust itself into the forefront of national politics, addressing the venomous existential threat that partisanship represents to American democracy.

Percelay is the one leading the change and the charge. His day job as a developer and chairman of the Mount Vernon Company now comes second to his work with the institute, he says, since saving the republic is “a lot more important than real estate development. At one of our events, I recited Lincoln’s quote that ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Now, here we are, 165 years later, a country divided. If the system breaks down, we have nothing.”

Patrick Kennedy, who is one of Ted Kennedy’s sons and spent 16 years as a U.S. Congressman from Rhode Island, sees Percelay as “someone who stepped up because he saw this institute as a calling to do something for his country.” He believes the current moment requires the institution that bears his father’s name to refocus on the question of “how we save the Senate itself.” It’s an ambitious goal, to say the least. Yet, in rising to that challenge, the Kennedy Institute is undergoing its own seismic transformation. “Never,” Percelay says, “has the institute been more relevant than now.”

In addition to serving its core mission, the Kennedy Institute has recently thrust itself into the forefront of national politics.

On a recent afternoon, three young employees of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, dressed like congressional aides in crisp white blouses and navy blazers, led a group of rambunctious fourth graders from a Roxbury summer camp into the institution’s replica Senate Chamber, where the blue carpeting and marble rostrum are virtually identical to the original in DC, 450 miles south of Boston. Inside, kids wearing tie-dye T-shirts bounded around the concentric semicircles of mahogany desks, one for each of the country’s hundred senators.

These nine- and ten-year-olds were among the roughly 100,000 students who have visited the institute’s facility in Columbia Point since its doors first opened in 2015. These tours have long been the focal point of the Kennedy Institute, whose stated mission is “educating the public about the important role of the Senate in our government…and inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the civic life of their communities.” And while its mission is not changing, the institute now has its eyes on an even bigger prize.

During a pivotal board conference call in early 2021, the vision for what the institute could accomplish began to expand. At the time, Daschle—who is now a lobbyist and a member of the institute’s board—was still reeling from an afternoon he’d spent on Capitol Hill with Chris Dodd, the former Democratic senator from Connecticut, several days earlier. Daschle told board members how he and Dodd had watched as two senators—one Republican and one Democrat—stepped into the elevator, rode to the next floor, and walked out without uttering a single word to one another. Daschle said he and Dodd were shocked.

When the board meeting ended, Percelay’s mind lingered on that scene in the Senate elevator. There’s got to be something we can do to play a role here, he thought to himself. Why don’t we try to bring the right and the left together and find common ground?

It was a bold idea for an institution that essentially functioned as a living museum about the U.S. Senate. Still, Percelay believed the Kennedy Institute was uniquely poised to assume a bigger role in the nation’s affairs. “Our facility is nothing short of spectacular,” he says. “But not a lot of people knew about it. Is this just a monument to Ted Kennedy? How do you justify it? It has the potential of being much more impactful.”

A year later, the Kennedy Institute began staging a series of debates dubbed the Senate Project. The first event was a fiery dialogue between Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Sanders accused Graham of supporting the most authoritarian strains of Trumpism. Graham said, “The path charted by Senator Sanders is full-on socialism.” In the end, the rhetorical fireworks served to showcase how deep the divisions on Capitol Hill have grown.

Former Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who sits on the Kennedy Institute’s board, casts the Senate Project as a method of “engaging sitting senators on topics where there’s an ability for them to have conversations about policy and allow them space to disagree.” Fostering bipartisanship, he said, doesn’t necessarily equate to only promoting the most easily agreed upon topics. “I don’t want to be in a country, particularly one that’s as big and powerful and diverse as we are, and not have debate and discussion,” he says. “That’s the whole point of democracy.”

In June, the replica Senate Chamber in Dorchester once again fi lled with a crowd of Washingtonians and Bostonians, plus an array of cameras from Fox News. (Despite Fox’s conservative bias, Percelay says, “If you went another direction, it would seem like everyone kind of preaching to the choir.”) Under the watchful eye of Fox anchor Bret Baier, Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst and New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen prepared to debate one another about international relations.

Baier had moderated the first Senate Project event between Sanders and Graham, after which the Fox News star launched a podcast called Common Ground, aimed at avoiding what he called “partisan talking points” in order to focus on the issues about which it might be possible to bridge the ideological gap. As the crowd inside the institute took their seats prior to the debate, Percelay said, Baier leaned over and told him: “This is where our idea came from.”

A few moments later, Baier took his place in front of the ranks of Senate desks, wearing a dark suit and a red-and-blue-striped tie. Once the cameras started to roll, he said, “Our goal today is to foster a discussion based on principles, not politics.” Then he welcomed the two senators, who strode out in matching red blazers and hugged. In their opening statements, Ernst said she was looking forward to a “robust and respectful conversation,” while Shaheen affirmed, “Most Americans want us to work together.” In that moment, the institute sat front and center on the national stage.

To really make an impact, the Kennedy Institute’s leaders understood they needed to do more than merely host debates. Enter the Hyannis Port summit. An extension of the existing Senate Project, the meeting among former Senate leaders at the Kennedy Compound started as the brainchild of Adam Hinds, who fi rst fl oated the idea during an interview to become the institute’s CEO. Percelay and his fellow board members were immediately sold on his notion of a “Camp David for Congress,” and Hinds, who previously spent a decade working for the United Nations in the Middle East before being elected as a Massachusetts state senator representing the Berkshires, set the project in motion as soon as
Percelay and the board hired him last fall.

While working in Baghdad, Hinds had participated in a retreat where leaders from Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations were invited to a rural area to “roll up their sleeves and work on some big problems in the country,” Hinds says. That event was an example of what’s known in international circles as a “Track Two” negotiation, where, rather than immediately engaging the principals in a disagreement, Hinds explains, “you gather a group that can be more open because they don’t have the same political pressures. A group that has knowledge of the issue and they have the networks to the folks who are the decision makers today.”

Nine months after Hinds joined the institute, the former senators arrived on Cape Cod. While the first Hyannis Port summit helped the panel of ex-senators come up with some basic ideas for reform, it will be a major undertaking to actually implement those changes in the Senate, one that will require the ex-senators to build bridges with younger legislators who may not take kindly to the old guard telling them how to run the country. To help, another debate will be held this month in Washington as part of the Senate Project, adding two more active politicians to the Kennedy Institute’s growing network of allies.

For Percelay, failure is not an option. he says that the current lack of comity between the parties represents a “clear and present danger” to our system of government.

For Percelay, failure is not an option. He says that the current lack of comity between the parties represents a “clear and present danger” to our system of government. “We don’t profess that we’re going to solve the nation’s problems all at once. However, we do believe we can move the needle. We may already be doing so.”

Setti Warren, who directs the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, which runs its own suite of programs aimed at bridging the nation’s partisan divide, has taken note of the Kennedy Institute’s expanded mission. “I really salute the institute,” he says. “When you look at the polling numbers on confi dence in politicians in Washington, they’re really, really tough. To the extent that they can bring former and current members of the Senate together to talk about how to solve some of these diffi cult problems, it certainly is in the spirit of Senator Ted Kennedy—but then also what we need to do today.”

Percelay says this is only the beginning of the Kennedy Institute’s ambitious new era on the national stage. He and other members of the institute are aggressively soliciting donors from the C-suites of major corporations in hopes of scaling up the organization’s programming—staging both debates and Hyannis Port summits more frequently—to help foster real reform. “Our goal is to become the leading voice in bringing bipartisanship back to the Senate,” Percelay says, expressing a succinct new mission statement for the institute. “Quite frankly, there’s nothing more important that we could do.”

First published in the print edition of the September 2023 issue with the headline, “Can the Edward M. Kennedy Institute Save Democracy?”