Jewish World Review July 29, 2004 / 21 Tamuz, 5764
A star is born
Nearly 42 years ago, in September 1962, I took the MTA (now the T) from Harvard Square to Park Street and then walked down Tremont Street to Edward Kennedy's election headquarters on primary night. (At least that is how I remember it: this may be one of the cases when you conflate two or three experiences and get the facts wrong; but the gist of this is I think right.) I was a freshman at Harvard, at 18 suddenly able to navigate the subways of a big city and go where I wanted to instead of asking my parents permission to drive one of their cars from our home in the suburbs of Detroit; and I was a young man intensely interested in politics delighted to be in hyperpolitical Massachusetts. Kennedy, at 30, was seeking to win the Senate seat his brother John had held and which a family friend named Benjamin Smith had occupied for two years as a placeholder until the younger Kennedy reached the constitutional minimum age.
In the primary he had to endure opposition from Massachusetts Attorney General Edward McCormack, nephew of U.S. House Speaker John McCormack, who at a memorable debate said to the young Kennedy (as nearly as I can remember the words), "If your name was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke." (Edward Moore was the family retainer who was the namesake of Ted Kennedy, the last of nine children born the year his mother turned 42.) Edward Kennedy persevered and, in the only offyear election of John F. Kennedy's presidency, was nominated by a wide margin. His qualifications for the job were paper thin; he was inarticulate in debate; almost no one I knew at Harvard supported him. In person he looked impossibly young, slim, muscular and beautiful. I didn't know it, and I suspect Kennedy didn't know it that night, but a star was born: a senator now in his fifth decade of service who has been the great tribune for liberal causes, and a skillful and politically canny and productive legislator. Who'd 'a' thunk it?
On Tuesday night the night the broadcast networks decided not to cover the Democratic National Convention at all Kennedy appeared again. Oldtimers in the audience could remember the 1968 convention, when Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley tried to get Kennedy to take the nomination at age 36, and the 1980 convention, when Kennedy, defeated by Jimmy Carter in the primaries, defiantly proclaimed "the dream will never die" and then evaded Jimmy Carter's attempt to hold his hand aloft at the final photo-op on Thursday night. This Tuesday night's Edward Kennedy was different: 72 years old, gray of hair and lined of face, somewhat below his maximum girth but still grotesquely larger than most practicing politicians. He is well on his way to becoming the longest-serving senator ever: He has already announced he will run for reelection in 2006, he will exceed Strom Thurmond's record of 48 years in 2010, and he will exceed Robert Byrd's tenure (now 46 years), if and when he survives Byrd, by two months short of four years.
But Edward Kennedy's speech, beginning just after 8pm on Tuesday, had nothing like the impact of his looming presence in 1968 or his rousing speech in 1980. He started off by taking pride in having finally gotten the Democratic National Convention to his "home town" of Boston (actually, he grew up in Bronxville, New York, and his first wife was a Bronxville Catholic girl educated in a Sacred Heart academy). His trope was to link himself and his party to Massachusetts's colonial and Revolutionary history, and much of it was nicely done; my suspicion was that this was his own idea, imposed on his longtime speechwriter (and John Kerry consigliere) Bob Shrum. But it didn't exactly wow the Democratic delegates. The idea was to identify George W. Bush with a certain King George and Republican governance with the idea of divine right monarchy (which wasn't exactly George III's idea of his station, but never mind). The idea of this Kennedy, who was placed in the Senate by family command, as a foe of hereditary succession was just a little, er, nervy. If any family has had the status in the United States that the royal family has in Britain, it is the Kennedys.
As Kennedy's speech wound on, he began to appeal to the "Bush lied" crowd with some clever allusions and made the obligatory salute to the junior colleague he long had little use for, John Kerry. At which point the applause meters went up. Kennedy slurred some words and butchered a couple of lines, but his audience was prepared to indulge him; after all, he is 72 and no longer the agile athlete he was at 30, and in the absence of his ability to move his body with the grace of a Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton, he used hand gestures effectively.
Then, less than an hour later, he got hopelessly upstaged. The speaker was the Democrats' keynoter this year, Democratic state Senator and Illinois U.S. Senate nominee Barack Obama. Once upon a time, the keynote speech was a major feature of Democratic and Republican National Conventions; Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley, delivering his third keynote speech at the 1948 national convention, was nominated as the vice presidential candidate on Harry Truman's seemingly doomed ticket. (Barkley, an old-style orator, died in 1956 while delivering a keynote speech at Washington and Lee University's mock national convention in Lexington, Virginia.)
Obama's speech was delivered in a different key, in line with the demotic style expected in American politics today. Biography is expected, and Obama has a wonderfully American biography: the son of an immigrant from Kenya and a woman from Kansas; his grandfathers were a Kenyan cook and a Kansas oil rig worker. He speaks clearly, in a muted Midwestern accent, with the careful articulation of the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review and with the precise political aim of a master like Bill Clinton. He got cheers when he started quoting the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident," etc. If Kennedy's diction has gotten imprecise, Obama's was as crystal clear as Kennedy's at his best.
The message seemed to come both from Bill Clinton and from classic Edward Kennedy. Like Mario Cuomo in 1984, he summoned up the vision of the immigrant who embodies America's values; like Jesse Jackson at his best, he summoned up the vision of the figure with the odd minority background who is the essence of the American dream. Like Bill Clinton, and in line with the Kerry campaign's convention script, he delivered the message that George W. Bush has divided the country and that the Democrats can unite it again.
This message served Clinton well in 1996, when his foil was Newt Gingrich's "angry white men," who were facilely conflated with the criminals who bombed Oklahoma City a message that Old Media was happy to help deliver. At this point in our national history, it is a deeply dishonest message. George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002, like Harry Truman in 1947 and 1948, forged a new foreign policy in response to unanticipated threats. But unlike Truman in 1947 and 1948, who was supported by his domestic rival Thomas Dewey and the bulk of the opposition party, Bush was opposed at every turn from the public employee union provisions of the Homeland Security Department to the Iraq war resolution by a large, and the most articulate and determined part, of the opposition party.
Now Obama on Tuesday night, like Clinton on Monday night, said that the way to get rid of partisan division is to install the party that has vociferously promoted partisan division that insists on the "Bush lied" theme despite the facts that the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the bipartisan 9/11Commission report and the report of the British civil servant Lord Butler have all refuted the "Bush lied" argument and to oust the party that sought national unity but was denied it. It is like the man who murdered his mother and father and threw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he was an orphan. The Democrats, having stirred up partisan turmoil and political division, now seek power on the grounds that they will eliminate them.
So perhaps it will be. Obama's Chicago-based political consultants, media man David Axelrod and political operative Peter Giangreco, both assured me in the corridors of the Fleet Center that Obama had written his own speech, and I have known them well enough and long enough to believe them; my own brief conversation with Obama earlier this year makes me believe he is entirely capable of this. The speech was in fact a work of considerable art, and one which elicited from the delegates a much stronger and more enthusiastic reception than Edward Kennedy's. Old Media was not watching: the old-line broadcast networks had zeroed out Tuesday night, and will presumably be able to present only bits of Obama's brilliantly constructed speech on Wednesday and, maybe, Thursday. It will be invisible to most television viewers. It sets an even higher bar than Bill Clinton did for John Kerry's speech, but most people will be unaware of that.
But as I stood on the floor of the convention as Obama was speaking I had the distinct sense that, a half-mile or so from where I remember seeing Edward Kennedy claiming victory on primary night 1962, a star was born. Barack Obama at this moment has no Republican opponent in his Senate race (because nominee Jack Ryan withdrew after the Chicago Tribune and WLS obtained his divorce records) and, whoever the Republicans nominate, seems likely to be elected easily. (Axelrod does not disagree that he will carry the Collar Counties around Chicago, the most Republican part of the state.) At 43, he has many years of a political career ahead of him (though not as many as Edward Kennedy had in 1962). Most Americans, as you can see from the polls showing Colin Powell ahead of everybody in 1995 and 1996, would like nothing so much as to elect a consensus-minded, obviously able African-American as their president.
Given the broadcast blackout, and the likelihood (I write without knowing this for sure) that the cable news channels covered only parts of his speech, Obama will not immediately enjoy the huge upward boost in American politics he would have gotten if, as in the old days, his speech was fully covered. But he clearly has the political skills to be a serious national candidate. And as an senator from Illinois, of African-American descent, he is hardly likely to be completely ignored. The selection of John Edwards as a vice presidential nominee insured Hillary Rodham Clinton a serious competitor for the Democratic presidential nominee in either 2008 or 2012. The keynote speech of Barack Obama insures any other Democrat who wants to be president in the next 20 or so years of a serious competitor in his or her race. The old-line broadcast networks may not have been watching Tuesday night but, as one star born 42 years ago delivered his somewhat disappointing valedictory speech in national politics, another star was born.
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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.
©2004, Michael Barone