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Who Needs Presidential Libraries When You've Got the Web?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, August 28 2009

The Kennedy family, you might have heard, quickly erected a Twitter account (at @kennedynews) to push out information on and observations from Senator Ted Kennedy's "memorial and funeral activities," said the feed. But that's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the digital memorialization of the senator's life that has begun to take place. And consider this. Ted Kennedy is today lying in repose in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. That Boston edifice, dedicated to his brother's life and career, cost of more than $20 million and took more than 15 years to build after JFK's sudden death in 1963. For heck's sake, President Jimmy Carter did the dedication.

But for a fraction of the cost and a sliver of the time, Ted Kennedy's family has already begun to smartly use technology to craft for their beloved father, uncle, grandfather, cousin, and friend a durable version of his life history that will shape how Edward M. Kennedy is remembered tomorrow and countless tomorrows from now. That's a new and powerful opportunity. And it's an opportunity that Kennedy's allies -- including Blue State Digital, the digital firm behind Barack Obama's presidential campaign and Senator Kennedy's longtime web team -- seem to strongly grasp.

Through the Twitter feed itself, a Kennedy family insider is broadcasting out details of the public viewing session at the JFK Library. ("Broadcast" is appropriate; while the Kennedy news feed has 5,600, it is following no one, yet.) Some tweets involve logistics, like notice of last night's extended viewing hours. Others are compelling details that might otherwise be captured in a press pool report, like "There are 85 members of the family traveling in the motorcade." But is the personal reflections on what the viewing speaks of the senator's life that capture one's attention the most: "Cindy, Daniel & David McGinty now sitting vigil. Sen Kennedy became very close to them and other Massachusetts families affected by 9/11," ""Group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo holding a very large Congo flag just entered library," and "People in the line now have been waiting 2 hours to pay their respects. It is greatly appreciated."

That said, the official Kennedy Twitter stream is just the most eye-catching part of a bigger effort on the part of his friends and allies to memorialize the senior senator from Massachusetts., his long-standing campaign site, has quickly morphed into a hub for all-things-Ted Kennedy; Blue State Digital's managing partner Thomas Gensemer tells me that the company "worked hard and fast to launch a tribute website"to the senator.

(With all due sensitivity, I have to wonder if the site has been in the works for some time, given Kennedy's grim prognosis and the fact that the well-crafted site, bedecked in a dignified navy blue and boasting a gorgeous design, hardly looks rushed.)

The new site both captures the essence of the senator's life and marries it to a rich archive of source materials that make that life come alive. There's detailed and timely information, like a step-by-step agenda for the several days of viewings, masses, and his ultimate burial. There's even a map showing the route the Kennedy motorcade took Thursday from Hyannis, the town on Cape Cod that is home to the Kennedy compound, to Boston. ("Senator Kennedy will exit at Government Center, and travel down Hanover Street into the North End, past St. Stephen’s Church, where his mother Rose was baptized and her funeral mass celebrated.")

The Kennedy tribute site has a touching photo gallery of the senator's long life, a written story of his life, and personal tributes from Kennedy from everyone from Obama to George H.W. Bush,, from Bangladesh's ambassador to the U.N. to the heads of the United Farm Workers. And alongside those words from heads of state and political titans there are, in a style befitting both Ted Kennedy and Blue State Digital, testimonials from ordinary citizens.

As befitting a politician, there are speeches, from Kennedy's maiden address on the Senate floor as a 30-year-old senator; to a lost video tape, converted to YouTube, of a 1968 speech in Alaska Kennedy gave on civil rights (displayed to the right); to his Hamburger Hill speech on ending the Vietnam War; to a wonky talk on lowering the voting age to 18. Here, on, you can with a few clicks listen in living color to Kennedy's famous speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention. Those iconic words -- "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die" -- can be downloaded in handy MP3 format.

Of course this being the Internet and ours being a democracy, there's no way for Kennedy partisans to completely control how Ted Kennedy is remembered. As of this morning, the second Google search result on Ted Kennedy's name is still a Wikipedia entry on the unfortunate 1969 Martha's Vineyard incident where a young woman died in Kennedy's car.

Still, speeches, photos, tweet updates -- they all add up to a life. As time goes on, that life can be fleshed out with policy papers, letters, and other materials of interest to both researchers and ordinary Americans. And in that, they point to a nugget of modern wisdom: smart politicians have great web teams, even in death.

Ted Kennedy never became president. But in this modern age and for years to come, the glowing representation that his allies are crafting for him online will likely prove a more durable and resonant tribute to Ted Kennedy's time on this earth than his brother John's bricks-and-mortar presidential library ever was for him.