The Honorary Kennedy

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.”

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.


The Honorary Kennedy