How the Kennedy Nod Helps Obama

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy at a rally at American University in Washington, DC, January 28, 2008.

It had been a benediction as much as an endorsement from the most revered members of America's most storied Democratic clan, bestowed upon a presidential contender who had been born the same year that John F. Kennedy had declared that a torch had been passed to a new generation. And for a moment there, it was a bit overwhelming for Barack Obama. As Obama came backstage at American University's Bender Arena after working the ropeline with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, he told me: "That was pretty strong. I gotta admit, I had to clamp it down a little bit. That was powerful stuff. When you see Ted, Caroline, Patrick together, and I think about the role they played in shaping my values and ideals and what I believe about America—it brings things full circle."

Ted Kennedy, though visibly frailer as he nears his 76th birthday, can be a formidable ally to have on your side— something Obama needs as he heads into Super Tuesday with polls showing Hillary Clinton leading him in all but two of the 22 states that will be voting on February 5. The Obama campaign is planning a full schedule for Kennedy, particularly in places, such as the Latino community, where Obama remains an unknown quantity and the Kennedy name still carries enormous emotion. Kennedy also carries significant clout with organized labor, which could be looking for a new candidate to rally behind, now that John Edwards' star has faded. "To have him offer such a powerful endorsement, I think, will mean a lot," Obama told me in an interview. "Obviously, there are people who are still getting familiar with me nationwide. Their vision of this day will make them give me a close look."

In his endorsement speech, Kennedy declared Obama to be nothing less than his brother's rightful heir. His only mention of Hillary Clinton by name was a dutiful nod to the strength, work and dedication that she and John Edwards have shown in the presidential race. But he then proceeded to demolish every attack line that she and her husband have thrown Obama's way.

"There was another time, when another young candidate was running for President and challenging America to cross a New Frontier," Kennedy thundered. "He faced public criticism from the preceding Democratic President, who was widely respected in the party. Harry Truman said we needed 'someone with greater experience,' and added, 'May I urge you to be patient.' And John Kennedy replied, 'The world is changing. The old ways will not do. It is time for a new generation of leadership.'" Kennedy also threw some none-too-veiled criticism at the Clinton brand, with his allusion to "the old politics that parses us into separate groups and puts us at odds with one another."

Kennedy insisted to me that his was a decision to support Obama, not to oppose anyone, and that he would back whomever his party nominated in November. But those close to him said his move was in large part the product of his unhappiness with Bill Clinton's hard-knuckled style of campaigning for his wife. Two weeks ago, the two of them had an angry confrontation by phone.

The first inklings the Obama campaign got of what was afoot came last week. First, Caroline showed them an op-ed that she had written for the New York Times. And then on Wednesday, as Obama was campaigning in Dillon, S.C., he got word through former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, one of his prominent supporters, that Senator Kennedy was trying to reach him. The two didn't connect until the following morning, as Obama was stumping in Florence, S.C. Word quickly spread through the campaign staff: "Kennedy's on board."

Obama was not the only one backstage who appeared to be struck by the history of the moment. Before Kennedy's sister Jean Smith left the event, she handed the Illinois Senator a slip of paper and asked for one small favor. Obama obliged—and gave her an autograph.