Politics & Policy

Passing a Sputtering Torch

The Kennedys endorse Obama.

Washington, D.C. — Arriving well over an hour before the Barack Obama rally at American University started yesterday, there were 100 people lined up waiting to get in. And that was just the press entrance. Campaign staffers warned that they didn’t have room for all the media in the college gymnasium — an unheard-of notion.

A riot seemed imminent, and as if tempers weren’t flaring enough, the campaign let some journalists in on a strictly preferential basis. With scores of hacks fearing they would be denied precious access, we were about to descend into Lord of the Flies territory. Obama gatekeepers were assaulted by media eager to prove their worth — “Do you know how big my circulation is?!” or “You let MSNBC in? If a tree fell in the forest it would still get higher ratings than them.” Frantic notes were Blackberryed to Obama’s campaign headquarter, to little avail.

I, too, was concerned with this state of affairs. Then I noticed I was in line next to The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein. Klein recently — and famously — wrote of Obama: “He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh. . . .” If a hysterical willingness to acclaim Obama as “bigger than Jesus” won’t get you past the velvet rope, I figured I could hang tight. Eventually, we all got in.

But why, you might ask, was this event so important? Well, this was no mere campaign rally. Barack Obama — now the subject of over 3,000 Google hits for the phrase “Black JFK” — was at American University to be blessed by Camelot: Senator Ted, Congressman Patrick, and First Daughter Caroline Kennedy were there to endorse him.

In this hotly contested primary, the Kennedy endorsements were as much a rebuke to Hillary Clinton as they were votes of confidence in Obama. Soon enough, the Clintons will downplay the significance of the Kennedy imprimatur. But Bill Clinton got tremendous mileage during his first presidential run out of an old photo of himself shaking hands with JFK. And considering the Clintons’ ongoing influence in the Democratic party — to say nothing of their capacity for vindictive revenge — it took courage for the Kennedys to side with Obama.

Little wonder that Ted Kennedy tried to allay the impending Clinton revenge in his remarks: “First, let me say how much I respect the strength, the work, and dedication of two other Democrats still in the race, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. They are my friends; they have been my colleagues in the Senate,” Kennedy said. “John Edwards has been a powerful advocate for economic and social justice. And Hillary Clinton has been in the forefront on issues ranging from health care to the rights of women around the world. Whoever is our nominee will have my enthusiastic support.”

For his part, Obama was all too happy to bask in the Kennedy glow. “I know the cherished place the Kennedy family holds in the hearts of the American people. And that is as it should be. Because the Kennedy family, more than any other, has always stood for what’s best about the Democratic party, and about America. That each of us can make a difference and all of us ought to try. That no frontier is beyond our reach when we’re united, and not divided.”

Neither the candidate nor his famous endorsers offered much substance at the podium. The event was all about symbolism. But fear not gentle reader, in case you don’t get the significance, the media will explain it to you, and happily polish Obama’s halo in the process.

Here’s the Guardian (U.K.): “It was as close as it gets to a coronation. In front of a rapturous, chanting crowd, Ted Kennedy today enfolded Barack Obama into a hug, and in that instant drew a clear line of succession from the Democratic heroes of the past to a younger generation.”

Let’s try the Washington Post: “Democrats have searched for half a century for a successor to the legacy of the two Kennedy brothers — Jack and Bobby — who in their own different ways inspired a generation of Americans in the 1960s. Today, the third Kennedy brother told Democrats that Obama is worthy of carrying that mantle — of rekindling the Kennedy magic.”

Were the wire reports less enthusiastic? Here’s Reuters: “With Kennedys on the stage and Beatlemania-like screams from the crowd, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign stop on Monday took on the aura of the early 1960s. . . . . Like the ecstatic throngs that welcomed the Beatles when they first visited America, the cheers of thousands of young supporters often outmatched the voices of those holding the microphone. They emptied their lungs at every mention of Obama’s name.”

Apparently, the “bigger than Jesus” trope is alive and well. Of course, when John Lennon made that controversial remark, he was mocking the hype surrounding the Beatles. I don’t expect similar self-reflection from Obama.

With media coverage like this, Obama should forget speeches altogether and only pose for photos. No one at the event said anything of substance anyway. Even the Reuters reporter, after eleven paragraphs of breathless hyperbole, finally tucked in one candid admission: “Obama offered no new policy proposals as he devoted much of his 15-minute speech to praise of the Kennedys.” In fact, he offered no policies at all.

Ted Kennedy’s rousing speech endorsing Obama was similarly substance-free. Standing next to the youthful, charismatic Obama, it’s obvious that Ted’s best days are behind us — and his focus remains on the past. Delivering an endorsement made notable because of his two dead brothers, Ted endorsed Obama by appealing to another assassinated hero: “He understands what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ ” What exactly this event had to do with “now” is precisely the issue.

The Kennedys look to the past because they can’t look to the future. Like a copy of a copy of a copy, with each successive generation the Kennedy dynasty seems to lose a little luster. It may have escaped the notice of the rest of the attending media, but it struck me that Ted Kennedy coronated Obama as the heir to Camelot even as his own son, a national politician in his own right, stood nearby on the stage: “The next JFK? He’s that fellow over there.”

By passing the baton to Obama, the Kennedys seem to be acknowledging their own inevitable irrelevance. I seem to be among the few members of the press corps cynical enough to remain unmoved by Obama’s empty “Politics of Hope.” But it strikes me that a vote for Obama might ultimately be a twofer: In one fell swoop, his electoral success vanquishes the Clintons and gives the Democrats a new charismatic figure to obsess over, sending the Kennedys gently off into that good night.

If that’s what Obama means by “Change We Can Believe In,” where do I sign up?

 – Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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