They made a powerful entrance—the white-maned political war horse, built like a refrigerator box and moving tentatively on balky legs, and the lean, young Democratic presidential candidate who stayed at his elder's side as they wound their way through a tumultuous crowd.
The symbolism was apparent and intentional: Sen. Edward Kennedy, 75, scion of the country's most famous political family and brother of a slain U.S. president who once electrified the country, invoked his brother's words today at American University. The time had come, he said, to pass the torch to Barack Obama, 46, and a "new generation of leadership."
"It is time for Barack Obama," said Kennedy, whose endorsement Democrat Hillary Clinton had also coveted. The young, overflow crowd at Bender Arena—hundreds were turned away at the door—erupted. President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, was there to reiterate her endorsement yesterday of Obama, as was Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy.
Sen. Kennedy was gracious in his comments about the two other Democrats still in the race—Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards. Acting the elder statesmen, and perhaps concerned about the growing ugliness between the Clinton and Obama camps, Kennedy pledged to enthusiastically support whomever the party nominates in August. "We are all committed," he said, to see a Democrat in the White House.
But without naming Clinton, he took direct aim at the direction her campaign has taken, urging that the country "close the book" on race and gender wars; and challenged anyone to deny that Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start. (Former President Bill Clinton has called that claim a "fairy tale" because once in the Senate, Obama voted to continue funding the effort.)
And striking at the heart of Clinton's experience argument, Kennedy borrowed her talking points to make a case for Obama, asserting that it's not the length of years in Washington that's important but the reach of vision. "I know that he's ready to be president on Day 1," Kennedy said, recalling how President Truman told JFK that he was too inexperienced to run—that he needed to be patient.
Obama paid homage to the Kennedy legacy of public service and characterized his campaign as "about the past versus the future." While endorsements often don't much matter, the image of Obama on stage with the Kennedys—the senator who also saw his brother, Robert, assassinated during a presidential run and the president's daughter, frozen in the minds of baby boomers as the little girl at her father's funeral—may prove the exception for those who still remember how they felt when JFK was the one embodying the promise of change.