It would also be a tactical mistake. Obama and his advisers are smart enough to recognize that even though Ted Kennedy in particular has made vast contributions to public policy, the romanticized elements of the Kennedy legacy are something of a political trap. Indeed, after nearly 50 years of nostalgia, the candidate perceived to be most in JFK’s image is also the one best positioned to finally move the Democratic Party out of the long Kennedy shadow. Obama’s appeal rests on his relentless focus on the future, not the past. He has never been to Hyannis Port.
Like John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama was a young, relatively inexperienced senator who was told he should wait his turn before running for president, who was mocked as an elitist peddling style over substance. Like JFK, Obama went ahead anyway, seeing an opening the conventional wisdom didn’t. Like Kennedy, Obama outflanked his main rivals by winning in early, small-state primaries. Like Kennedy, Obama faced a cultural crisis: Kennedy’s came over religion, Obama’s over race. And both men possessed bottomless reservoirs of cool.
On closer inspection, though, what’s most striking is the difference between the two men—and not simply because one emerged carefully groomed from a wealthy, politically connected family to fulfill his father’s dream and the other came from nowhere, dreaming of a father he barely knew. Jack (and Bobby) Kennedy might even resent the comparison to their supposed 21st-century heir. While admiring many of Obama’s skills, they would likely have considered him a softy, at least until he cut loose the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The Kennedys of the late fifties, besides being to the right of Obama politically, prided themselves on being tough-minded, almost cold-blooded. “John Kennedy really had no ideology,” says Harris Wofford, the aide who—crucially—talked JFK into siding with Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960 campaign and is now a staunch Obama booster. “John was a very balanced, cool guy. A moral issue that didn’t have a political logic to it wouldn’t have much appeal to him. The deepest passion John had was that he believed in reason being applied to politics and to problems.”
The Democratic Party, says Bob Shrum, “is still living off the legacy of someone who has been dead for almost 45 years.”
JFK and RFK would probably have mocked Obama’s willingness to talk with America’s enemies as naïve, if electorally effective. Even the JFK line that Obama recycles most frequently—“Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate”—reads very differently in its original context, Kennedy’s inaugural address, where it’s a minor, softening gesture in an otherwise pugilistic Cold Warrior declaration. And the one time that Kennedy actually attempted to talk amicably with the Soviets, he quickly learned his lesson: Despots like Nikita Khrushchev respect only toughness, backed up by the threat of force.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Obama has only lately cited Kennedy as a significant influence in his life. In the Wesleyan speech, Obama claimed he was inspired to work as a community organizer in Chicago by the Kennedys’ call to public service; there’s no such reference in either of Obama’s books, however, and he barely name-checks the Kennedys in the two volumes. The homes of Obama’s youth don’t seem like the kind of places that kept a framed photo of JFK on the wall, and his interest in the Kennedy story seems intermittent. “Bill Clinton wanted to spend hours talking with me about the Kennedys,” Wofford says. “In 1994, we were driving across Connecticut in the dark after an event. All he wanted to talk about was John, Martin Luther King—what were they like? How did John square his personal life with his marriage? It was very, very intimate, an extraordinary conversation. Obama, though, hasn’t asked about the Kennedys.”
Which in many ways is healthy, for Obama, for the Democrats, and possibly for the country. “One of the problems the Democratic Party has is that it is still living off the legacy of someone who’s been dead for almost 45 years,” says Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic strategist who has been one of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisers for decades. “Clinton could have renewed that legacy, but some unfortunate events intervened. Obama has the capacity, potentially, to do that—to reinvigorate the country’s sense of mission for a new time.”
But that’s also the tension and the political danger for Obama: Everyone is eager to load him with the weight of history, while he tries to keep his campaign focused on what’s to come.
Ted Kennedy is racing down the road, feeling good. It is February—months before the diagnosis of his brain tumor—and he is somewhere between Austin and San Marcos, Texas, in the backseat of a van, hurtling from one Obama campaign event to the next, loving being a major part of a presidential contest again, maybe for the last time. “We’re going 95 miles an hour down this road here—what are you all laughing at? Just watch the front!” Kennedy turns away from the phone; in the background, aides are trying to shush him, apparently worried about the senator’s telling a reporter he’s riding in a car that’s exceeding the speed limit. “We’re with a police escort, because the weather was bad in San Marcos,” Kennedy says, somewhat reassuringly. But he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s having fun. “Yeah!” he shouts. “When you’re in Washington, there’s about fifteen different things that are going 80 miles an hour. When you’re out here, you’re just focused on one thing, and that’s trying to get Barack Obama elected. That’s a good break, to give all your energy and enthusiasm to that.”
Emotion is what attracted Ted, 76, to Obama, 46, in the first place. “The younger generation today is involved in good works—go to any school or college, they’re all volunteering to help kids to learn English, they’re working at food banks,” Kennedy says. “But they’re not in politics. Now Barack is bringing them back. You have to be touched by it when you see it in these rallies—which I have been, deeply.”
At this poignant moment late in life, the campaign has also made Kennedy feel young. But if the politics of youth and passion are to have real meaning again, Ted Kennedy’s candidate will need to forge his own mythology instead of merely borrowing from the classics.