Monday, January 28, 2008

Passing the torch

I'm not sure whether it'll have much of an imapct, but I think it's pretty interesting that Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For a progressive Democratic politician, being anointed the heir to John F. Kennedy is pretty much like finding the Holy Grail. I mean, how many people over the years have told Caroline that they got into politics because of her father? Countless, I'm sure. And every one of them, I'm sure, would love to have had her blessing. (Poor John Forbes Kerry even had the same initials. It didn't help).

I was struck by the forcefulness of Kennedy's opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times. Here's the quote that really stood out: "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."

Ok, I realize that Obama is running against Hillary Clinton, not Bill. Or maybe he is. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how Bill Clinton must have felt when he read that. Given Clinton's closeness to the Kennedy family over the years, he must have thought, Why Obama and not me? I mean it's like the unkindest cut of all. Just think of the ubiquitous picture of a teenage Clinton, delegate from Arkansas to the Boys Nation convention in July 1963, shaking hands with President Kennedy.

Here's what Bill Clinton said in 1998 at a dinner for the Kennedy Library Foundation: "I think I should begin by saying that for me this is not an obligation, it is an honor, not only because like every other member of my generation I was inspired by President Kennedy but because Hillary and Chelsea and I have been profoundly moved by the uncommon kindnesses of this family to ours."

I was at Clinton's first inauguration, in 1993, and I remember standing in front of the United States Capitol on a very cold January morning, in the largest crowd I'd ever been in. It was so exciting to be there, to be a part of history, to see the Capitol all decked out in red, white and blue bunting. There was a certain timeless quality to the whole ceremony. Someone standing near me said that her parents had been at Kennedy's inauguration, in January 1961.

Of course, everyone can recite a line or two from JFK's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you." "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." Those phrases are taught in school, they're part of our collective memory, right up there with "I have a dream" and "Fourscore and seven years ago."

When Clinton spoke, I was really straining for some sentence, some phrase, that I would always remember, that would become a part of history, just like John F. Kennedy's speech. But that moment never came. I don't remember one word of what he said. In fact, the only quote from Clinton that anyone can remember is, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

I can still remember snippets of Obama's keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. There was his slightly self-deprecating tone: "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too." He talked about how we're not Red state America or Blue state America, but simply the United States of America: "We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States." And there was a nod to faith: "It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work."

After Clinton's inauguration, I figured that politicians simply didn't make memorable speeches anymore. Whatever you think about Obama as a candidate, he does renew my faith in great political oratory. People who compare him with Jesse Jackson are off base. I've heard Jackson, and he's a mesmerizing speaker. But his cadence and delivery come from the church. Obama sounds more like a traditional politician, but a politician in the JFK mold - someone who uses language to unite and inspire Americans.

The more I think about it, I can certainly see why Caroline Kennedy felt inspired to make her endorsement - and why she never felt so inspired to say the same things about Bill Clinton. (And don't get me started on Clinton's signing of the vile Defense of Marriage Act or "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a move that enshrined discrimination as public policy).

Kennedy wrote that as a mother of three teenagers, she wants a president who will inspire young people. The generation that's coming of age today, she says, feels hopeless and disengaged. What's important is not so much that Obama reminds her of her father, but her sense that Obama represents a generational shift similar to the one that occurred when JFK succeeded Dwight Eisenhower. (If Obama is elected, for the first time in my life I'll be older than the president of the United States.)

I bet that contrast will become even more stark if Obama ends up as the Democratic nominee and John McCain wins the Republican nod. You go to McCain's Web site, and there's a giant picture of McCain. The first image you see on Obama's Web site is the youthful candidate surrounded by his loving, attractive family. I mean, look at that picture. This could be Kennedy/Nixon all over again.

As someone who's always been fascinated by the sixties, the endorsement made me think of a time in the early part of that decade when we were confident of our place in the world, the future looked limitless and America was on the cusp of change. (Go watch Hairspray right now). Are we there again? I don't know. But it's intriguing to think about.

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