Veteran senator’s backing is huge boost to Democratic hopeful
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Tuesday January 29, 2008
It was as close as it gets to a coronation. In front of a rapturous, chanting crowd, Senator Ted Kennedy yesterday enfolded Barack Obama into a hug, and in that instant drew a clear line of succession from the Democratic hero of the past to a younger generation.
Now it was official: Obama was the rightful political heir to John F Kennedy as designated by his brother Ted, his daughter Caroline, and his nephew Patrick. “I feel change in the air,” Ted Kennedy roared, and the crowd roared with him.
For Obama, there could be no stronger imprint of approval. With his tragic family history and his 45 years in the US Senate, Kennedy ranks second only to Bill Clinton among the Democratic party’s living leaders. His support for Obama badly undermines Hillary Clinton’s claim to be the candidate of choice of the Democratic establishment. But it was change that Kennedy was talking about yesterday, and his belief that Obama would be as transformative a figure as his late brother.
“There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier. He faced public criticism from the preceding Democratic president,” Kennedy began.
“That president, Harry Truman, urged patience. And John Kennedy replied: ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do. It is time for a new generation of leadership.’ So it is with Barack Obama.
“He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past,” said Kennedy. “He is a leader who sees the world clearly without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in, without demonising those who hold a different view.”
The broadside against cynicism and rough-edged politics was a veiled jibe at the Clintons – one of several signs of Kennedy’s anger at their no-holds-barred negative campaigning style against Obama in South Carolina.
The Clinton campaign responded to their rejection by Kennedy by producing their supporters from within the clan: Kathleen Kerry Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the daughter of Bobby Kennedy, as well as her sister, Kerry. “I respect Caroline and Teddy’s decision, but I have made a different choice,” Townsend said.
But there was no way to match the huge boost to Obama’s prestige of an endorsement from Kennedy. And there was a further rebuff to the Clintons yesterday from a former friend. Toni Morrison, the Nobel prize winning author who once famously called Bill Clinton America’s first black president, wrote a letter to Obama extending her support. “This is one of those singular moments that nations ignore at their peril,” she wrote, praising Obama’s “creative imagination”.
For Obama’s supporters, the blessing from Kennedy, one of the few stalwart opponents in the Senate of the war in Iraq, reaffirms their conviction that they are part of a historic change.
Yesterday’s event, at Washington’s American University, drew crowds of more than 6,000. The queue to get into the rally began before dawn and stretched well outside the campus.
Most of the audience were not even born during Kennedy’s brief presidency, but there was a smattering of people for whom the connection with Kennedy was deeply personal.
“We’ve been waiting for someone we can care about,” said Barbara Franklin, 69, a retired labour lawyer who moved to Washington in 1961 in an earlier burst of idealism. “We have been feeling since the beginning of his campaign that he is someone like John F Kennedy who can inspire a young generation to come to Washington, like we were inspired.”
Kennedy’s endorsement will be widely seen as a personal rebuff to the Clintons, who have a longer relationship with Kennedy than Obama. Hillary Clinton had worked in the Senate with Kennedy on health care and education and the two families have gone sailing together.
Kennedy had stayed on the sidelines, despite appeals from both camps, until after the Iowa caucuses, when he was impressed by Obama’s ability to carry one of the whitest US states.
He was also increasingly angered by the campaign in South Carolina, where the Clintons formed a tag team to attack Obama. Kennedy phoned Bill Clinton to complain of the bid to marginalise Obama as an African American candidate.
That anger at the Clintons came through clearly in the arena yesterday as Kennedy railed against the cynicism and hard-elbowed style of traditional politics.
“We will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion,” he yelled. “With Barack Obama we will close the books on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender.”
Kennedy now plans to campaign on Obama’s behalf in the south-west, where his record on immigration reform could give the young senator a welcome boost among Latino voters.
Source: The Guardian