News Martina Devlin

Sunday 31 August 2014

Teddy anoints the heir to JFK's Camelot legacy

Published 28/08/2008 | 00:00

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The long goodbye is under way. Teddy Kennedy's speech in which he referred to the dream -- his brother's dream -- living on in Obama, was nothing less than an anointing, a handover and a formal leave-taking.

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The elder statesman of the Democrats, physically failing and with a weakened voice, gave his blessing to the televisual young senator at his party's convention this week.

And you couldn't help but feel 76-year-old Teddy, battling brain cancer, is unlikely to be around to endorse another heir- apparent to the Camelot legacy.

This doesn't amount to a final bow from the Kennedy dynasty. Other generations wait in the wings. The Kennedys may have lost sufficient members in tragic circumstances to spawn talk of a curse, but they are a prolific clan and haven't shaken off their taste for politics. It's in their blood.

Senator Kennedy's son, Patrick, is a Congressman, while Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, despite insisting she has no political ambitions, has stepped into the foreground during the current presidential campaign. She was a natural as she introduced her uncle at the Democratic National Convention.

Potent

Still, Teddy is the family's patriarch. He occupies a special position as brother to JFK and Bobby: all three were often photographed together, tanned, toothy, athletic -- looking the personification of the American dream. Looks have always been deceptive. Yet the dream remains potent.

Teddy, a presidential hopeful in 1980, remains an iconic figure despite the shadow of Chappaquiddick. When we see him, with his thick head of white hair and high Irish complexion, we can imagine what JFK might look like today if Lee Harvey Oswald's finger had slipped on the trigger in Dallas.

Only Caroline, forever cast as that little girl in white ankle socks holding her mother's hand at her father's funeral, is a more potent symbol.

Both have given their backing to Obama in a double endorsement, explicitly comparing him to JFK; making an O'Bama of him.

Every president since 1963 has tried to become a version of JFK, or at least incorporate some of his traits into the role -- above all, his charm and communication skills. Republican or Democrat, they all want to market themselves in JFK packaging.

At a time when politicians were staid and paternal, determinedly so, he offered youth, sex appeal and modernity. It's a recipe that remains appealing today.

Bill Clinton has come closest to recapturing that Kennedy chemistry with his magnetism, his world vision -- and his eye for women. But there are worse habits than infidelity. A penchant for invasion, for example. You can't help but wish George W Bush had more of a wandering eye and less of an interest in war games.

As for Clinton, I was assigned to follow him around during several visits to Ireland, and that charisma of his never failed. It was like watching a television set switched on: when faced with a crowd, he sparked into life.

Yet Senator Kennedy supported not Bill Clinton, but his rival for the Democratic nomination in 1992. And by backing Obama, the family has snubbed Hillary's candidacy.

She doesn't fit the JFK mould. Obama comes closer, with his constant focus on the need to inspire and unite people.

'Inspiring' is a description often applied to JFK, who ushered in a new era. Can Obama do the same? He certainly represents the potential for a new era, more so than McCain. It remains to be seen whether voters are prepared to embrace this 'West Wing' age or not.

But he certainly has the JFK gift for oratory. In one debate, Obama said being president meant "having a vision for where the country needs to go . . . being able to mobilise and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change".

In the same debate, Hillary compared the role to being a "chief executive officer" who had to "be able to manage and run the bureaucracy".

No arguing with her logic. But under the circumstances, we can see why it's Obama and not Hillary going head to head with McCain. Yet the Obama campaign seems to have run out of steam lately. The Kennedys are working to galvanise it, with Teddy's recent burst of rhetoric. But I sometimes suspect we regard their imprimatur as more significant than it is. We've never recovered from the thrill of seeing a family of Irish emigrants climb to the top of the heap in the New World.

"The hope rises again. The dream lives on," Teddy told Democratic delegates.

We heard it as though it was directed at us, because the American dream is indivisible from the Irish emigrant's dream. And it came true for us in the shape of the Kennedys, who produced a president, two presidential challengers and sent us back one of our own as US ambassador to Ireland.

But can the dream be widened to include a black man? Or is race, rather than ability, the real defining characteristic in this campaign?

Martin Luther King also had a dream. His dream, he said, was for his children to live in a nation where they were judged by their character rather than their skin colour. In a few months, we'll know if that dream has substance.

As for Teddy Kennedy, he insists he intends to be around in January when Obama is sworn in as president. A daring prediction, all things considered. Still, perhaps he knows something about the power of positive thinking.

mdevlin@independent.ie

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