Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, sat down for an exclusive interview with ABC News' Claire Shipman at the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate to talk about her late husband, his legacy and his impact on US politics.
"You know, Teddy loved three things, well more than three things. He loved life. But he loved history, he loved education and he loved the United States Senate," Vicki told us. Because of that, part of Kennedy's legacy is the new institute built in his name. "He was so keen on preserving records for history."
"What he wanted was for people to understand, for a new generation of citizens to be in engaged and to understand our government," continued Vicki. "When he was 14 years old…his brother, President Kennedy, then newly elected Congressman Jack Kennedy, took him around Washington and showed him all the buildings. At the end of that tour he turned to Teddy and said, 'It's great that you love these buildings, Teddy. But take an interest in what happens inside.' That was seared in Teddy's memory."
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is a nonpartisan institution that seeks to encourage people to take an interest in, and to engage in, politics. It is "dedicated to educating the public about our government, invigorating public discourse, encouraging participatory democracy, and inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the public square," according to its website. The center breaks ground on April 8, 2011, following an Inaugural Gala in Massachusetts, the heart of the Kennedy dynasty, tonight.
'The Love of My Life'During her first on camera interview in more than a year, Vicki Kennedy touched on her love for her late husband and how much his loss has affected the Kennedys, obviously no strangers to heart-wrenching loss.
"I just think that I was the luckiest -- am the luckiest woman on the planet," Vicki told ABC News. "Because I met the love of my life. And he made me so happy. I feel like I was the lucky one. We were so happy. We laughed. We loved life. We had this incredible, wonderful life together with this incredible, wonderful -- wonderful family. So I feel pretty lucky."
And their first date? "He was fun. That really is why I found him -- he was fun. And easy to be with. I mean I certainly wasn't falling in love with him the first time I met him. I just went out with him because he was fun. And he made me laugh. I thought, 'Oh, this is great. Nothing serious.'" But it didn't take long for her to fall deeply in love, "somewhere along the line I fell madly in love with him and thought if he didn't ask me to marry him I'd probably keel over and die. "
"I wondered sometimes how he found time to do all the things that he did, but he made time. He always made me feel that I was important and worth the time. I think that's an enormous quality. He always carved out time for us to be together."
Even in the storied history of the Kennedys, the last few years have taken a particularly tragic toll. "We lost Eunice and Teddy within two weeks of each other. We've just lost Sarge Shriver, you know, in the last couple of months. So there's a, you know, generation that is missing. We feel that loss very acutely. And that's just the reality."
"It's been hard for all of us. We all miss him. He had those big shoulders that all of us leaned on. It's been a huge adjustment, in all honesty, for all of us. Those are shoes that nobody can fill. And so we're all finding our own—our own ways. I mean we're all very close and we rely on each other. But we miss him," Vicki told ABC News.
She also told us the Kennedy Family is excited about the upcoming wedding of former Rhode Island Senator Patrick Kennedy, the youngest of Ted's three children. "Everybody's got their own way [of dealing with his death]… We have our great joy coming up of Patrick's wedding. Everybody is very excited about that… everybody's looking forward to coming together."
Personally, the pain has not gone away for the senator's widow, who told us "you know, the usual [times are the hardest] I think that anybody who's gone through the loss of a loved one. You know, the big occasions and -- sometimes even the quiet ones."
But when it comes to attempting to continue his legacy in the Senate, Vicki unequivocally denied any intention of running for office. "I want to do work that Teddy did. I want to advance those causes. I don't want his job. It's tough."
A Dream RealizedA dream of late Sen. Kennedy's, the new institute has been in the planning phase for years.
"Working on this institute is fantastic because it is something that was so important to him, but it was also important to me," said Vicki. "It's something he and I did together going back to 2002. It's something we worked on together, talked about together, met with others on together. And to be able to move this forward and to be a part of this team moving it forward has been enormously gratifying to me"
Until his final days, the late Senator Kennedy was highly involved in the project, spending hours planning for its opening.
"He loved looking at the plans. He looked at the models of the building. We discussed in more detail where the institute was going," Vicki said. "He loved planning for it. He knew that we needed it for our democracy to work and he wanted people to love the Senate as much as he did."
The Institute will incorporate cutting edge technology in order to help engage students and adults alike. "We're going to have desks that will have essentially computers on the surface of the desk where you know every Senator who ever sat in that desk. And at the touch of a finger you'll know everything about the senator who sat at that desk," said Vicki.
The Legacy Lives on
This legacy was the late senator's way of attacking the increasing public disengagement and cynicism towards government. Vicki told us "his approach was, 'Okay, what can we do about it? How do we solve this? How do we make it easier for people to understand how they can be a part of the solution?' And one of the ways is through the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Let people in a hands on, interactive way understand our system of government."
So a part of the man known as the Lion of the Senate lives on, and the dream endures.