Tuesday, January 29, 2008

One Brief Shining Moment

On the morning that Ted Kennedy took the oath of office as a brand new United States Senator, Barack Obama was just over one year old. Herbert Hoover and Winston Churchill were still alive. Most television stations aired only black and white programming. The Syracuse Nationals and Chicago Packers competed in the National Basketball Association. The audio cassette tape had just been invented.

Yesterday, Kennedy, now in his mid-seventies, endorsed his younger colleague, Senator Obama, for president. This became the big story of the day on the 24-hour cable news networks, eclipsing even the lead-in to George W. Bush's final, pointless State of the Union address. Bush did recapture the spotlight by actually delivering the speech, but at least as the Democratic presidential race went, Obama won his third consecutive news cycle. To listen to the talking heads, one would have thought that JFK himself had given his blessing to the Illinois senator.

Endorsements, of course, are usually overrated, making a difference mainly in the case of elections and candidacies that have not been well publicized. Just over a year ago, Howard Dean received the support of one Albert D. Gore, Jr., the man most Democrats believe was cheated out of his own tenure in the White House by corrupt Floridians and a constitutional coup at the U.S. Supreme Court. Gore's endorsement, appearing to finalize Dean's meteoric rise to the top of the Democratic field, earned its own day or two of relentless media attention. In the end, however, John Kerry prevailed without his former colleague's assistance.

I am always fascinated by watching the media cling to old narratives, particularly when it relates to former presidents who are, to increasing numbers of voters, figures of ancient history. Those with even the vaguest childhood memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy have recently crossed the threshold into their sixth decade of life. Yet pundits took turns yesterday remarking in breathless tones just how much the martyred president's kid brother's endorsement would mean to the Obama campaign. The mantle of Camelot had been passed, with King Arthur's daughter and nephew there to witness the sword being retrieved from the stone for a second time.

Ted Kennedy remains a complicated figure in American politics and American history. On the one hand, he has been an enormously effective legislator, achieving some of the few liberal victories in an era of conservative dominance and amassing, by force of will, a legacy that exceeds that of any other current member of the Senate. On the other hand, he literally and figuratively drove the family business off the bridge.

On July 16, 1969, the Kennedy name was political magic, a dynasty in full bloom even in defiance of the cowardly acts of two assassins. Since that day, and the tragic drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne, nothing has been the same. Barely a decade later, Ted would lose his own bid for the presidency to the embattled Jimmy Carter, and the Kennedy mystique would forever retreat to the far northeastern corner of the country. Trials of Kennedys and Kennedy cousins would follow, one for rape (acquitted) and one for murder (convicted). Ted Kennedy's weakness for women and drink would make him, through most of the 1980s and 1990s, a staple of late night monologues and skit comedy shows.

Perhaps multiple decades of watching American politicians in action have made me overly cynical. Nevertheless, I had to shake my head at the solemn pronouncements of those credulous pundits who told us that the Kennedy endorsement resulted from Teddy's disgust at Bill and Hillary Clinton's campaign tactics, and especially Bill's supposed deployment of the race card in South Carolina. The fresh faced young men and women who appear before the camera on CNN and MSNBC must not fully understand that Edward M. Kennedy has, in nearly five decades of electoral politics, seen it all, and is almost certainly immune to the bickering and innuendoes that attach themselves to every presidential campaign.

This is, after all, a man whose loyalty to party and the liberal cause did not deter him from pursuing his own ambitions by taking on a sitting Democratic president and helping to soften him up for an eager Ronald Reagan. Without Reagan, there is no Reaganomics, no Vice President Bush, and no President Bush, senior or junior. Ted Kennedy did not single-handedly thrust the arc of history into this ruinous direction—Carter would have been a weak incumbent regardless—but he didn't, at the very least, do much to keep it from happening.

As for the siren song of Camelot itself, I am not so certain that Barack Obama should welcome the analogy. John Kennedy was inspiring, though his supposed charisma did not prevent him from coming within a whisker (and perhaps some Chicago shenanigans) of losing to the unsavory Dick Nixon. More important, however, his presidency, at least in its early stages, suffered from precisely the sort of inexperience that Hillary Clinton says endangers an Obama administration. When the generals came to him with their foolish plan to retake Cuba by sending a ragtag squad of expatriates to the Bay of Pigs, all of JFK's instincts told him he should demur. But lacking confidence in own judgment, he okayed the plan in spite of himself, setting into motion a disaster that would cement Fidel Castro's despotic hold on his island nation for the next half century.

Kennedy would go on to have better moments, most notably his masterful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but even for a shortened term, Camelot was bereft of much significant legislative accomplishment. And of course, there is also that little matter of the Vietnam War. His apologists insist that Kennedy would have ended the conflict in Southeast Asia had he lived and been re-elected, but nothing in his three-year reign particularly supports that conclusion. Perhaps this was yet another case where JFK, fearing the appearance of weakness, resisted his own better judgment. Or perhaps his apologists are simply wrong.

In any event, Senator Obama is clearly not responsible for the mistakes or misdeeds of those who endorse him, much less a president who died when he was two years old. It is certainly possible that the Kennedy endorsement will help the senator with older, working class, and Catholic voters. If nothing else, it allowed him to keep Hillary Clinton on the defensive for another day.

But if it had been me, I would have asked Teddy to wait until after the Florida results were announced. As much as the media wishes to discount a likely Hillary victory in the Sunshine State, it is unlikely that they will be able to resist the story, especially with the candidate herself swooping in this evening to claim the win. A Kennedy endorsement on Thursday could have been timed to stem any momentum Senator Clinton might gain from tonight's results.

Regardless, I suppose we will learn one week from tonight whether the Kennedy name and aura retain the power to alter votes or whether it was all just one brief shining moment.

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