Obama and the Kennedy legend

It's a magic moment, but Caroline's endorsement is a bigger deal than Uncle Ted's. Plus: Wrong-way Bill Kristol on the Clintons.


Joan Walsh
January 29, 2008 12:39AM (UTC)

Barack Obama is having an excellent Monday, and it's only noon on the West Coast. Picking up endorsements from three Kennedys -- Caroline, Ted and Patrick -- he also announced the support of Toni Morrison, who famously named Bill Clinton our "first black president" (read Elizabeth Alexander's deconstructing of that claim here). On Saturday night, in his South Carolina victory speech, I heard Obama trying to reassure Democrats unsettled by his remarks about Ronald Reagan and the "battles of the '60s" by noting that "this is a contest for the Democratic nomination"; the Kennedy endorsements are another nod to those people (well, people like me). It will be interesting to see if Obama's South Carolina win does what his Iowa victory didn't, quite: shakes loose a lot more big-name Democrats who were afraid to cross the Clintons.

Is it just me, or would anyone else have preferred that Caroline Kennedy get her moment in the spotlight, without Uncle Teddy and Cousin Patrick? There was something profoundly moving about her short, dignified Op-Ed in the New York Times Sunday. Her father's assassination is one of my earliest memories; for a lot of Americans my age and older, she will always be the little girl in those pictures with her forever-young father, and her endorsement of Obama seemed another way the Illinois senator is all about youth and hope and the future, even though she turned 50 last year. I know there's no way Caroline herself agrees with me; she introduced her uncle at the rally today with love and respect. It's also possible the most private of the Kennedys wouldn't have stepped out into the spotlight at American University by herself.

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Still, Ted Kennedy has his own baggage, and I'm not referring to vicious right-wing talking points, just his long association with a certain kind of old-fashioned liberalism, as well as the way his divisive primary fight with Jimmy Carter helped open the door to Ronald Reagan (still in college, I supported California Gov. Jerry Brown and later Kennedy that year). Plus, he's long appeared to resent Bill Clinton's (and Carter's) status as upstart Southerners who won the big prize that eluded him, adding a tinge of petty payback to what might have been a purely mythic moment. I had actually been reassured hearing Kennedy was going to stay on the sidelines; this race is going to need peacemakers no matter who wins. But maybe I'm just a kvetch. Obama's speech, again, was stirring. He brought together his black and white families, talking about how his mother and her parents had been inspired by the Kennedys, while his father from Kenya was able to come to this country because of a grant established by, yes, JFK. You all know I've taken a wait-and-see approach to Obama's candidacy, but that was a little eerie and magical, even for me. (It should be noted that the Clinton camp countered the Kennedy wave with an endorsement from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend yesterday, who reminded the media that her sister Kerry and lefty favorite Bobby Jr. have also endorsed Hillary. But there was no television moment, at least not yet.)

No doubt the Kennedy rally today is a boon to a campaign coming off an inspiring win that many people (including me) have warned won't necessarily translate into big victories on Super Tuesday. Our nearly national primary Feb. 5 is going to be heavily influenced by who can command free media (and not the kind Hillary Clinton gets on MSNBC); today's rally was great television. Tomorrow Obama heads to the Kansas birthplace of his white grandfather, Stanley Durham, which is also smart staging. I've criticized the Obama campaign, but they've had several good days in a row.

I'd say the only discordant note today is on the New York Times Op-Ed page, where Obama-skeptic Paul Krugman hits the media for its crusade against the Clintons and Obama for holes in his health plan. Also on that page, a little bad news for those who want to blame Bill Clinton for his wife's South Carolina loss: Bill Kristol agrees with them. I've written about how the pundits are probably wrong on that: Obama whupped Clinton 55-27 overall, but only beat her 48-37 among voters who thought her husband's campaigning was "important"; I think that means he probably helped more than hurt. You can argue that point, and people are debating it fiercely, but I've now got another data point on my side: Wrong-way Kristol is so reliably mistaken about everything, chances are I'm right about this.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections

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