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The Honorary Kennedy

Ted and Caroline anointed Barack Obama as the candidate best qualified to carry on the JFK legacy. But to live up to it, he has to put it in the past.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

Thanksgiving Day 2007 was unusually warm, so the Kennedys walked down to the Hyannis Port pier and climbed onto Teddy’s boat for a sail in Nantucket Sound. The Iowa caucuses were still six weeks away, the general election almost a year in the future, but aboard the Mya the contest was in full swing. “The whole family had Thanksgiving at the Cape,” Bobby Kennedy Jr. says. “It was a beautiful day, and we spent the whole time on Teddy’s boat talking about what he should do and what his feelings were about it.”

This was the same 50-foot schooner that hosted Bill and Hillary Clinton for a trip to Martha’s Vineyard in 1997. Bill had grinned the whole way, as if he’d reached a personal holy grail, completing a quest begun as a teenager when he’d shaken JFK’s hand: Not only had Clinton been elected president just like his hero, but now he had been accepted into the social rites of the Kennedy clan.

Ten years later, though, Kennedy allegiances were up for grabs. A few family members had already chosen sides—some out of personal affection, like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, RFK’s eldest daughter and a friend of Hillary’s since 1980, and some out of a pragmatic analysis of who would fight hardest for the issues they care about, like Bobby Jr., who saw Hillary as a strong advocate for his environmental goals.

The biggest Kennedy celebrities, however, were undecided. Caroline, as usual, wasn’t in Hyannis Port; all fall, though, her daughters kept encouraging JFK’s only surviving child to check out an Obama rally. And Ted, the legend and patriarch, was conflicted. He liked Hillary and thought Bill, as president, had been good for the country and the family. A family friend who spoke to Ted during the Thanksgiving trip says the senator was leaning toward Hillary. But two of Kennedy’s closest Senate pals, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, were still in the presidential field. And Ted had been one of the first to encourage Obama to run; he thought the moment demanded a candidate who could inspire the nation. As the family scattered at the close of the weekend, all the competing interests left the senator determined to stay neutral through the primaries.

There was another reason for Ted Kennedy to carefully weigh his decision. The seaborne debate wasn’t simply about who the best Democratic candidate would be, or who had the best chance to beat the Republicans. It was also about which candidate would best perpetuate the Kennedy political legacy.

Caroline and Ted Kennedy, of course, picked Barack Obama. On consecutive January days, Caroline published an op-ed in the Times declaring her support for Obama, who she believed could be “a president like my father,” and Ted unveiled his own endorsement at American University in Washington, the site of a renowned foreign-policy speech by his brother the president. Teddy passed the torch by repeating JFK’s ringing words that the time had come “for a new generation of leadership.”

The impact of their endorsements was enormous, and not only for the momentum Obama gained heading into Super Duper Tuesday. If Obama wins in November, the Kennedys will have succeeded in creating a cross-generational, cross-racial dynasty, founded on the idea of public service as a noble pursuit. At least that’s the way Ted Kennedy would like the family to be remembered.

The stunning recent news that Ted Kennedy is stricken with brain cancer added another heavy layer of fate to his union with Obama. And Obama’s substituting for Teddy at the Wesleyan University commencement last week cemented the bond in the public’s imagination. Health permitting, Kennedy’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention in August will be a moment of unprecedented symbolism.

Obama, however, is clearly ambivalent about wearing the prince’s crown. It’s no accident that the Wesleyan speech was the first time he has addressed his relationship to the Kennedy political saga at great length. As important as the Kennedy endorsements were to Obama’s candidacy at the time they were bestowed, and as sincerely grateful as Obama is to Caroline and Ted Kennedy for their diligent work on his behalf ever since, the candidate has kept a certain distance from the Camelot comparison. Partly this reflects Obama’s tangled identity and paternity issues. And partly it’s a by-product of the stark political and biographical differences between BHO and JFK, his supposed political ancestor. But there’s something else at work, too, in the way Obama has underplayed his inheritance of the Kennedy brand.

“It’s an honor to have [the Kennedy] endorsements, and folks love to see them, and they represent something in our history that people miss and would like to see again—a period of idealism and hope and possibility,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s master strategist. “But every candidate has to stand on his own, or her own. So the thing we are careful not to imply is that there is some sort of transference, and that somehow if the Kennedys lay hands on Obama that he then wears the mantle. That would be presumptuous and wrong.”


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