A tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on the site that will host an institute in his memory took a brief detour into a political shootout between two heirs to very different corners of Kennedy's legacy.
With fiscal negotiations consuming Washington, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick opted to use his remarks at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate to scold the "conservative movement, so-called," for "sapping the optimism out of our country," positing Kennedy as the quintessential optimist.
That led to Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., taking the stage in an unadvertised appearance, addressing Kennedy's widow, Vicki, and grinning, "I told you I'd come. Little surprise to everybody, isn't it?"
Brown, elected to replace Kennedy last year in a historic stunner, said, "Me of all people, I understand the large shoes I have to fill." He praised Kennedy's knack for working across the aisle for compromise, then looked at Patrick and addressed him directly: "I have to go and do the people's business, Governor, as you referenced. There are good people who do want to move things forward, regardless of their political party."
Patrick aligns neatly with Kennedy over ideology, with few exceptions. Brown, on the other hand, since taking office 14 months ago has committed both Republican apostasies and careful departures from the Bay State delegation's party line. On Friday, his ad hominem response to Patrick resounded as a bipartisan and ironic defense of the Washington system he has spent much of his career assailing.
While the exchange between a GOP rock star and one of President Obama's top surrogates raised eyebrows among the assembled political illuminati, Brown's remarks brought high praise from the late senator's son Patrick, a former congressman, who hustled out of the tented ceremony to hug Brown.
"You were fantastic," Patrick Kennedy said.
Brown has yet to draw a major challenger for his reelection bid next year. Patrick has ruled out a run. As his war chest grows, questions are swirling about the party's ability to field a contender. But the exchange comes as recriminations sizzle in Washington and as Democrats are growing increasingly critical of Brown.
Asked whether he intended to confront Patrick directly, unusual at an event like a memorial groundbreaking, Brown replied, "Darn right."
The institute, which Kennedy helped conceive and design before his death in 2009, will offer interactive study of the Senate from the 18th century. One room, an amphitheater, can be converted into a model of either the old or new Senate Chamber.
Vicki Kennedy told National Journal on Thursday that she wished the institute were operational now, instead of in two-and-a-half years, so students could have their own fiscal debate in the venue. Noting Kennedy's reputation as a shrewd dealmaker was sometimes overshadowed by his fierce espousal of Democratic principles, she said the timing— shovels in the ground for a center dedicated to the studies of some of the nation's greatest debates on the same day that Washington is hustling to avert a historic shutdown—was fortuitous.
"There's something almost poetic about it," she said.
Both Brown and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attended the event, while scheduled speakers Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and John Kerry, D-Mass., were in Washington for the budget debate.
Brown said he and Pelosi were both heading back to Washington.