Obama Left Holding Kennedy Flame

OAK BLUFFS ~ It was fitting that President Barack Obama was in Edward Kennedy’s beloved home state when the senator died, given the Democratic giant’s vital role in getting him elected.

Kennedy, who succumbed to cancer at 77, symbolically passed his family’s torch of idealism to Obama at a tense point in his primary duel with Hillary Clinton, at a time when the young protégé’s triumph was anything but assured.

His decision to lumber in from the sidelines and debunk Clinton’s claim that Obama was not ready for power sent shockwaves through the race in late January 2008, as the momentous “Super Tuesday” nationwide primaries loomed.

Clinton spin doctors downplayed the move at the time, saying savvy voters were not swayed by endorsements, and hinting that the old lion perhaps did not retain the political sway he once held over Democrats.

But Clinton’s suppressed anger suggested otherwise and the endorsement, experts and Obama aides said, was a transformative moment in the campaign.

Obama, mourning his friend as he vacationed on the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday – just across Nantucket Sound from the Kennedy dynasty’s compound at Hyannis Port, acknowledged his debt to the senator.

“I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the presidency,” he said.

Clinton meanwhile cast aside old wounds and called Kennedy “one of our nation’s finest statesmen and a dear friend.”

Kennedy chose to deliver his blockbuster endorsement at American University in Washington, gazing back to the 1960s to anoint Obama as the inspirational heir of his slain brother, president John F. Kennedy.

“We had a new president who inspired the nation, especially the young, to seek a new frontier,” Kennedy said.

“Those inspired young people marched, sat in at lunch counters, protested the war in Vietnam and served honorably in that war even when they opposed it.

“They realized that when they asked what they could do for their country, they could change the world. This is another such time.”

Kennedy’s move further defined an evolving political image of Obama, as a young, idealistic orator from a new generation with a young family – already drawing parallels to JFK.

David Axelrod, Obama’s political strategist told ABC television on Wednesday that Kennedy had a galvanizing impact on Obama’s campaign.

“As much as anything, that sequence of events transformed our campaign,” said Axelrod.

“We hoped he would do it. But we did not know he would do it. I have to say, that in my mind that was the pivotal weekend in the entire primary campaign.”

Costas Panagopoulos, an expert on campaigns and elections at Fordham University, New York, argued Kennedy’s move sent an unmistakable nationwide message.

“I think it was crucial, Democratic voters across the country had tremendous respect for Ted Kennedy,” he said.

Kennedy also debunked the central argument of the Clinton campaign – that Obama was untested, naive and unready to be president in a world of threats.

He turned one of Clinton’s favourite phrases against her, lauding Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, and saying he would be ready on “Day One” to be president.

Kennedy recalled how former US president Harry Truman had made a similar argument about his brother ahead of the 1960 election.

“And John Kennedy replied, ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do. … It is time for a new generation of leadership.’” Kennedy said.

“So it is with Barack Obama.”

Kennedy also defied his failing health to make a surprise appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The frail, snowy-haired Democratic hero shuffled onto the stage and riffed off a barnstorming speech ending with a nod to his famous 1980 convention speech: “the dream lives on.”

Poignantly, his speech on August 25, 2008, came exactly one year before he would die.

Kennedy, though ailing, vowed that he would be at the US Capitol on January 2009 to see Obama inaugurated as the 44th US president.

He was true to his word, and looked sprightly, as he showed up in a blue scarf and a trilby, but the gravity of his condition became clear hours later, when he had a seizure at a luncheon honouring Obama and left in an ambulance.

Kennedy’s loss may also be felt by Obama’s young daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Knowing their dad had promised them a dog if he won the White House, Kennedy presented the little girls with a good-natured, curly-haired Portuguese Water Dog, they named Bo, after falling in love with the breed himself.

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