How Obama Snared the Lion of the Senate

By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Monday, August 3, 2009 10:44 PM

In the fall of 2006, Ted Kennedy was looking for a candidate, a special kind of candidate who might inspire the country. The Massachusetts senator, leader of the liberals and one of the Democratic Party's most famous figures, saw potential in several politicians who were then looking to run for president: Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were his friends; Hillary Rodham Clinton had been a solid legislator in her first term; and then there was the young and relatively untested Barack Obama.

When Obama came to the Senate, Kennedy recruited him to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He admired the senator's commitment to finding a compromise on immigration. He saw genuine leadership qualities in Obama, so when Obama talked to him privately about running for president, Kennedy was encouraging.

Kennedy believed the longer Obama stayed in the Senate, the less chance he would ever have to become president. According to a source familiar with their conversation, he told Obama, "The votes you're going to have to cast, whether it's guns or whether it's abortion or whether it's any one of the hot-button items, finishes you as a national political leader in this country. You just can't do it. It's not possible."

Kennedy admired Clinton but felt she was wrong for the times. A successful candidacy in 2008 had to be an outside-Washington effort. You couldn't be a Washington insider and run effectively; Clinton appeared to be positioning herself in just the wrong way. Kennedy believed that the time was right for Obama and that Clinton was, as an associate put it, "the past."

Kennedy was in no rush to make an early endorsement. He continued watching the race and the public's reaction to the candidates. In the summer of 2007, he was with niece Caroline Kennedy and her children on a boat in Tarpaulin Cove off Cape Cod. Earlier, Caroline had taken her children to hear both Obama and Clinton at fundraisers. As the children talked about the candidates, Kennedy was moved by their enthusiasm for Obama. He had not seen that kind of excitement in young people in a generation and was struck by how Obama's appeal to them was less about his policies and more about how he represented a dramatic break from the divisive politics of the present. Still, for much of 2007, as the race developed he held back an endorsement.

In September, he ran into Clinton on the Senate floor and thought she looked very tired. She told him that if she got the Democratic nomination she wanted to start working with him right away on health-care reform. When Obama came to see him about the same time, Kennedy remarked on the enthusiasm his candidacy was generating among young people. My problem, Obama told him, is gravitas. Hillary's got it. Kennedy suggested Obama talk with Ted Sorensen, who had been President John F. Kennedy's speechwriter. I talk to Ted all the time, Obama said. Obama asked what Kennedy's plans were for an endorsement. Kennedy said he had no plans to endorse. But he was still impressed by Obama's energy and charisma; if Obama became president, Kennedy thought, he could change the country. At the same time, he wondered whether Obama could build a campaign that could win the party's nomination and the presidency.

Also in September, John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, who were in town for a fundraiser, came to see Kennedy at his home in Northwest Washington. Edwards made a direct appeal. He knew Kennedy had friends in the race, he said, but urged him to do right by the country and the party. "I know you'll do that and when you do what's right for the party you will be with me," Edwards said, according to a Kennedy source. "It can make all the difference. We can win this. I'll win Iowa."

In the late fall, the phone calls to Kennedy intensified. Hillary Clinton was frank about wanting his endorsement, though she understood how difficult it would be for him because of his close friendship with Dodd. Bill Clinton, with whom Kennedy had a stronger relationship than with Hillary, called regularly. At one point, Obama, obviously worried that Kennedy might endorse Dodd, said warily, "You could do me some damage in Iowa." Kennedy laughed it off. "Oh, I haven't been in Iowa for a long time," he said. To which Obama responded, "You still have some friends out there."

In late December, a 2003 tape recording of Obama made while he was still in the Illinois Senate became public. It was a comment on Kennedy's efforts to pass a prescription drug bill. Obama had described Kennedy as "getting old and getting tired" and said the backers of a strong drug measure should get after him. Obama called Kennedy to make amends.

"Well," Kennedy said when he picked up the phone, "you start the conversation."

Obama began to grovel, but Kennedy stopped him. He would let Obama off the hook, he said gently, because he had once mangled Obama's name, in a speech at the National Press Club the month Obama was sworn in as a senator, calling him "Osama bin Laden" before stammering out his correct name.

The Kennedys and the Clintons were the royalty of the Democratic Party, their reigns stretching over half a century of national and party politics. Ted Kennedy never reached the White House, crushed by Jimmy Carter when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1980, but he was now an iconic figure, a supreme lawmaker and a giant in the Senate, the keeper of the Kennedy family flame, the leader of the party's liberal wing, the patriarch of a family that had seen glory, tragedy and heartache. Now, at age 76, Edward Moore Kennedy moved slowly, stooped as he walked, had the girth of an older man that contrasted with the slim young figure who had entered the Senate more than four decades earlier. But his eyes were clear, his voice resonant, his broad Boston accent instantly identifiable, his political passions still burning.

Bill Clinton was just as imposing a political figure, popular within the party, and possessed of equally great political gifts and achievements that had made him the first Democrat since FDR to win back-to-back presidential terms. As a young politician, he had consciously tied his own political story to that of John F. Kennedy, linked by a memorable photograph taken in 1963 of a 16-year-old Clinton shaking hands with the young, handsome president in the White House Rose Garden. Later, he courted the Kennedys. He and Hillary and their daughter, Chelsea, vacationed with them and were seen sailing with the family.

The lives of both men were the stuff of high drama and achievement, low melodrama and tawdry scandal. Both had overcome intensely publicized scandals that would have destroyed lesser politicians: Kennedy with the dead young aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, whose body was found inside an overturned car driven by Kennedy that had plunged from the Dike Bridge off Martha's Vineyard into Poucha Pond of Chappaquiddick Island. That 1969 incident resulted in Kennedy's arrest after he left the scene and waited more than 24 hours to report the accident. Nearly three decades later, Clinton's affair with the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky led to only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history and perhaps the longest-running melodrama in the current age of 24/7 cable TV scandal. Over the years, Clinton and Kennedy had developed a relationship of mutual respect.

Throughout January 2008, as Obama and Hillary Clinton battled in the early states, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton were engaged in a behind-the-scenes struggle over Kennedy's endorsement that reached a crescendo just as Obama was winning South Carolina. The full story of those many phone calls may never be known. The two sides have sharply conflicting memories about some parts of the discussions, and the more time that elapses, the less each side wants to revisit them. But they had a profound impact on shaping the Democratic race at a pivotal moment.

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Kennedy had watched the television coverage from home. He was impressed by Obama's victory, how his appeal seemed to cut across all lines and all groups. With his wife, Vicki, he listened to Obama's victory speech. He thought it remarkable and inspirational, an uplifting message that defied the politics of divide-and-conquer.

What hit him most, he told friends, was his feeling that Obama's message was "what the country both needs and that's what the country wants, and he's saying it correctly." He began to see something of Jack and Bobby in the young senator from Illinois. But he was still not ready to get off the fence.

The day after Iowa, Bill Clinton called Kennedy. The former president believed he had been good to the Kennedys when he was in office, recalling to aides what he had done over the years. He had named Kennedy's sister Jean Kennedy Smith as ambassador to Ireland, and stood with her despite a State Department reprimand. He hosted an event for the Special Olympics, an organization that Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver had helped to create. When Kennedy faced a tough reelection campaign against Mitt Romney in 1994, Clinton tried to steer federal funds into the state. When John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed during a flight to Martha's Vineyard, Clinton kept the Coast Guard out searching for the wreckage.

Kennedy told Clinton that he had talked to Hillary the day before, the day of the caucuses, and that they had had a good conversation. He believed she would do well in New Hampshire because of her strong support in the greater Massachusetts area. Clinton then pressed Kennedy for an endorsement. He had not wanted to bother Kennedy as long as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were in the race. But now, with their poor showings in Iowa, they were out; Clinton said he and Hillary very much wanted Kennedy's support.

Kennedy was cool and noncommittal. He hoped to stay in touch, he told Clinton, but he would be very busy in the Senate in the coming weeks. In the course of the conversation, Clinton said something that deeply disturbed Kennedy. He never shared it publicly, but a veiled reference to it showed up days later in a column by Albert R. Hunt of Bloomberg News. Hunt said Clinton had "trashed" Obama.

Post-Iowa, Kennedy was still uncertain whether he should endorse anyone.

He decided to watch the race develop as the candidates moved into New Hampshire and beyond, but he already was being drawn ever closer to Obama and more resistant to the Clintons.

Over the next 10 days came the events that brought the race issue into the forefront of the Democratic campaign. Kennedy watched closely, and became increasingly bothered by the tone and direction of the campaign.

There was Bill Clinton's comment that the idea that Obama had been a consistent opponent of the Iraq war was a "fairy tale," a statement that some African Americans took as a commentary on how Clinton saw Obama's candidacy. There was Hillary Clinton's comment in New Hampshire about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former president Lyndon B. Johnson, which some took as her saying that Johnson was more important than King was in the passage of civil rights legislation.

There was the retired teacher who introduced Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire the day before the primary, saying, "If you look back, some people have been comparing one of the candidates to JFK, and he was a wonderful leader, he gave us a lot of hope, but he was assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson actually did all his work and got the Republicans to pass those measures." There was an unnamed Clinton adviser who was quoted by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian as saying, "If you have a social need, you're with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool." There was New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, another Clinton supporter, using the phrase "shuck and jive" in a way that seemed pointed at Obama, though Cuomo insisted afterward that it was not.

Perhaps most significant, there was Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, campaigning with Hillary Clinton and alluding in thinly disguised language to Obama's youthful drug use and Clinton's delay in distancing herself from it.

Kennedy was offended by the cascading events. He believed the campaign was sliding into divisiveness, and he held the Clintons principally responsible. He also believed that by invoking King in a comparison to Obama, Hillary Clinton was attempting to draw attention to the fact that Obama was black. He worried that the Clintons were trying to turn Obama into the black candidate -- the Jesse Jackson of 2008.

On Jan. 14, the day after Robert Johnson's appearance with Hillary, Bill Clinton called Kennedy. Kennedy decided not to call him back immediately, preferring to think about everything that had happened over the previous 10 days before talking to him. But Kennedy did talk to Obama, discussing generally what was happening. For Kennedy, the injection of race into the campaign was hurting both candidates and alienating the party's African American base. Obama said he was not personally bothered by what the Clintons had said, but he knew how much others had been. With his characteristic self-confidence, he told Kennedy he expected to win -- not just South Carolina, but the Democratic nomination -- and again asked Kennedy for his endorsement. That's what you and your family are always about, Obama said, change and progress. Later, Kennedy, struck by Obama's confidence, told people close to him that he admired the way Obama was running his campaign. The Clintons, he said, were misrepresenting things for racial reasons. He found it all very offensive.

That afternoon, Kennedy called Bill Clinton back, believing Clinton would try to explain away what had been said during the previous 10 days.

Clinton began by noting that their private conversation on Jan. 4 had made its way into one of Al Hunt's columns. Kennedy brushed that aside and urged Clinton to get past the racial debate. "We have to move beyond it," he said. Clinton was furious, launching an attack on the Obama campaign for all it had done to blast his wife. He cited David Axelrod, saying that Obama's chief strategist had suggested earlier that Hillary Clinton bore some of the responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan. Kennedy accused Clinton of misrepresenting Axelrod's remarks. Clinton parried, arguing that his version was accurate. "Look," Kennedy said, "I've got the comment right here. You're distorting it."

Clinton then went after Obama for distorting Hillary's vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution. That vote wasn't a vote for war, Clinton said. A Clinton associate said he cited support for the resolution by Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican and sharp critic of the administration's policies. He urged Kennedy to examine some of Obama's comments in the summer of 2004, saying Obama had suggested then that there was little difference between his and Bush's positions on the war. The country needs a president who doesn't change his mind about whether he is for or against the war, Clinton went on -- thereby implying that Obama had done exactly that.

Kennedy, who had led the opposition to the war, was furious. "It was a vote for war," he said firmly. "I was there. I said it at the time. That resolution was a vote for war. Everybody understood it." Clinton continued his litany of attacks the Obama campaign had launched against Hillary until Kennedy tried to cut him off. I don't know where I'm going to go, he told the former president, but I don't want to see this get into a pissing match on race. "Let's get the hell off this thing," he said.

Clinton would not let go of it. An associate of the former president said Clinton pressed Kennedy for examples of how he had deliberately injected race into the campaign. He cited Hillary's support from African American leaders, men and women, noting that many had been threatened with or had drawn primary opponents for their support of Hillary -- from John Lewis on down. Clinton told Kennedy that others in the black community would vouch for him and Hillary. They were not racists.

It was Obama who was exploiting the race issue, he insisted. The minute we attack Obama, he complained, everybody mentions racism. But Obama had attacked Hillary with seeming impunity from the media and public as the "senator from Punjab" because of the money she had received from the Indian community in the United States.

As their conversation neared its tense conclusion, Clinton asked: How can we end this, what can we do? Kennedy said the Clintons should put out a statement saying it was time to get off the racial debate. Clinton said they intended to do that later in the day. But before they hung up, Clinton offered one more defiant comment. "We may get licked, but we're not quitting," he said. "Clintons don't quit."

That afternoon, the Clinton campaign issued a statement calling for a cease-fire over race. "We differ on a lot of things," Hillary said. "And it is critical to have the right kind of discussion on where we stand. But when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes -- President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King -- Senator Obama and I are on the same side."

The Obama operation, seeming to anticipate a Clinton campaign truce, put out Obama's own statement just before hers was issued. "I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues," Obama said. "I think that they care about the African American community, they care about all Americans, and they want to see equal rights and equal justice in this country."

On Jan. 22, three days after her victory in Nevada, Hillary Clinton and Kennedy spoke again. He was still troubled by the tone of the campaign. Over the previous week, Bill Clinton and Obama had been fighting another war of words -- this time about Ronald Reagan's legacy. Kennedy was fed up. He told Hillary that he had great respect for her but that the country needed to be lifted up and the current campaign was not achieving that. She told Kennedy that the Republicans would eviscerate Obama in a general election. He had not been vetted, she insisted.

Bill Clinton also called Kennedy. He had been behaving himself since his "fairy tale" comment, he told Kennedy, but the purpose of the call was to amplify Hillary's arguments that Obama was vulnerable in the general election, a risk for the Democrats. Kennedy again said he was concerned about the negative tone of the campaign. He feared it could split the party and depress Democratic turnout in the fall, enough to endanger the party's chances of winning back the White House. Clinton said he was calling from South Carolina. He said Obama was likely to win, but told Kennedy, "We're giving it a battle."

Though Kennedy had ended his call with Hillary Clinton by telling her he would get back to her before he did anything about an endorsement, the Clintons were now convinced that he would not support her. The former president believed race trumped gender in Kennedy's endorsement calculus, although Kennedy associates said that was not the case. They said he was drawn to Obama because he believed he might be able to transcend race and move the country toward a less divisive politics. Kennedy associates soon began receiving calls and messages -- prompted, they were certain, by the Clintons -- from Democrats in Massachusetts, from donors, from members of the Massachusetts delegation, all urging Kennedy to remain neutral. But by then, Kennedy's mind was set. He told friends that, whether Obama won or lost in South Carolina, he would back him.

On Thursday, Jan. 24, two days before the primary, he called Obama to say he was ready to endorse. He told Obama that at the beginning of the campaign he was looking for somebody to inspire the nation, and how impressed he had been by Obama's emphasis after his Iowa victory on the importance of ending the longtime divisions within the country. Obama's inspiration was what the country needed. But his endorsement came with conditions. Kennedy wanted a commitment from Obama that as president he would push for universal health care. He wanted it to be a top priority of an Obama administration. Obama agreed.

As Kennedy was reaching his final decision to endorse, his niece Caroline was planning to announce her support for Obama in a Sunday New York Times op-ed article. The news of Caroline's pending endorsement broke on the day of the South Carolina primary, just as Obama was being declared the winner by a 2-1 margin. The timing, and her words, gave the endorsement far more power than any of Obama's advisers had anticipated. "Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president," she began. "This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama."

The day that Caroline Kennedy's endorsement was published, Ted Kennedy began to call members of his family to tell them his plans. Almost instantly, word of his decision to endorse Obama was leaked to the cable TV networks. Kennedy called Hillary Clinton but could not reach her. He did reach Bill Clinton. The call was brief. Then, minutes later, Bill Clinton called back, asking for a detailed explanation. Kennedy went through the reason: how he had not in many, many years seen someone inspire people, particularly young people, the way Obama did; how it was not an endorsement against Hillary but a statement of support for Obama and what he had tapped into and what that seemed to represent for the future of the country.

Kennedy could hear the former president scribbling rapidly, apparently taking notes on the call. That made Kennedy nervous. His fear was that in some way Clinton loyalists might try to cast his endorsement as more racial politics in an effort to diminish its impact, which he later told people was not his motivation. Clinton was still convinced that race was the reason Kennedy had sided with Obama.

The public endorsement came the next day at American University in Washington. When they met in the holding room before the rally, Obama and Kennedy initially exchanged no words, only a long and affectionate hug. Both Ted and Caroline Kennedy were at the rally with many other members of the Kennedy family. A Kennedy adviser remembered Obama saying, emotionally, that it was the greatest day of his life. That may have been an overstatement. But with his South Carolina victory and the blessing of the Kennedys, he was now far better positioned for the 22-state mega-event on Super Tuesday, only eight days away.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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