By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
People have been trying to stake a claim to the legacy of President John F. Kennedy ever since that day in Dallas more than 44 years ago. Remember Dan Quayle, who compared his congressional tenure to Kennedy's and got chastised by fellow senator and vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen with that immortal insult: "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Everyone can just pipe down now. It's all over.
The political and social legacy of the late president -- Camelot, the Big Myth, the story of American royalty, a sense of Americans being awestruck by themselves -- was gift-wrapped by the Kennedy family yesterday and given to Sen. Barack Obama, a political gift with remarkable and remarkably strange baggage.
Camelot, in sunshine:
That "brief shining moment" of America in the last century. The New Frontier. The postwar promise, realized. The young president asking a younger generation what they could do to help their country, transferring a sense of possession where none had existed before. Black families in the oppressed South with three pictures at the mantel: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. The Apollo missions. The Peace Corps. PT-109. Gorgeous wife. Cute tykes on the Oval Office floor. Stage presence. The sense of being on the side of the just and the right, rolling in on the tide of history.
Camelot, in shadow:
The Bay of Pigs. "Military advisers" heading to some little place, Vietnam. Marilyn Monroe and who knows who else. Back pain, pills to make it go away. Backroom deals with racist Southern authorities. Those questionable precincts in Illinois, getting him past Nixon.
A portrait of the nation at mid-century, on the cusp of violent change, darkness approaching, sunlight sharp but fading. Hope, like a black child grasping for the freedom of a No. 2 pencil on the first day of first grade in the Deep South. Menace, like gunfire in the night.
Yesterday, the minor notes of the Kennedy-era myth were banished. It was all major chords, a palace of sunshine and achievement, strong columns and bay windows, where people of any persuasion could catch the same breaks. Camelot. Even if this version of America had not, actually, ever existed, it was what some people yearned for.
"Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president," Caroline Kennedy told a cheering throng of students at American University. "This longing is even more profound today. Fortunately, there is one candidate who offers that same sense of hope and inspiration, and I am proud to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president."
This was nearly note perfect. Inspiration and hope and longing, the touchstones of the American Dream. And what, you're going to tell her she just doesn't know the America of that time or her own dad? The little girl in gloves and a short dress, holding her mother's right hand and following her father's coffin out of St. Matthew's Cathedral that chilly day in November, just a few days before her 6th birthday -- you're going to tell her she got it wrong ?
The lady has access to millions of dollars and works with New York public schools, and she gets up there and says her three kids convinced her Obama is the heir of her father's political legacy and some political half-wit is going to say, gee, she's wrong on the merits?
Sure, Ted Kennedy spoke, the senator and brother of the hallowed president; and so did Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Caroline's cousin. But they are both politicians and therefore far more likely to dispense personal favors as political capital. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Obama was "humbled," he said, then proceeded to deliver a rousing (Kennedyesque?) speech to the faithful.
"The Kennedy family, more than any other, has always stood for what's best about the Democratic Party, and about America," he said. "That each of us can make a difference and all of us ought to try."
Hope! Inspiration! Longing!
Bay of Pigs! Marilyn! No need to mention these sorts of things today.
It was a big-canvas day in the new America. This was designed, the pundits say, to get votes from blue-collar Democrats, from Hispanics in big-ticket states where Hillary Clinton leads and Obama trails.
Nothing wrong with that. This is politics.
We are never more than the myths we tell ourselves we are. Yesterday, the ideals of one of the nation's most beloved presidents were handed down for a new generation. It should make for a good story.