Obama Conjures the Kennedys in Jersey City

Three points short in New Hampshire, Barack is still coming strong

As he said this in Jersey City, there were squeals, shouts, and whistles. Most of the crowd was young, but there was plenty of gray hair in sight as well.

He has his list of promises: that he will win universal health care by the end of his first term, close Guantánamo, end the war in Iraq, take back tax breaks from corporations that ship jobs overseas, make trade agreements subject to fair-labor and environmental standards. He wants, he said, "to go before the General Assembly at the U.N. and say, 'America is back.' "

He pledges to make college affordable to all, in exchange for a promise in return from young Americans to give some form of community service to their country.

This is similar to the deal that John F. Kennedy offered to young Americans. That offer caught the attention of a generation and inspired hundreds of thousands to go off to work in slums and Third World countries. It is the kind of talk no one has been able to give in a long time without being mocked.

When Obama was done, hundreds of supporters lingered in the basketball arena, as though they were still soaking up these new vibes he'd brought to the room. Leaning against a railing used to hold back the crowd was a woman who fits the prime Clinton-voter profile. "He's just what we need," said Margaret Schulhoff, 62, of Providence, New Jersey. "We need to be inspired. It's been a long time. I didn't think I'd live this long."

It is something people say a lot about the Obama insurgency. It is as if the politics of recent years had so pounded them down that they didn't expect, much less dare to hope, that someone might actually inspire them again.

Part of the knock on Obama is that his backers are supposedly betting on a blank slate, "a leader who has never led," as the Los Angeles Times tabbed him when he first started talking about a presidential run in 2006.

The spin from Camp Clinton and other doubters is that the cheering hordes at every Obama rally are being hoodwinked by a clever marketing operation.

If so, the true believers have some impressive company. One of Obama's stalwarts is Ted Sorensen, who will be 80 years old in a few weeks. Sorensen was President John F. Kennedy's chief speechwriter, and he is one of the few remaining links to that era. He helped write Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, the one that summoned a generation to service and pledged to "begin anew."

Sorensen suffers from failing eyesight, but he has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire for the candidate, as well as Chicago and Kansas City. He sees Obama as the only Democrat with "a serious chance of defeating McCain or any other Republican." The bonus, Sorensen believes, will be that the young candidate will draw young and new voters. "All of those who have been disillusioned and uninterested," said Sorensen. "They will be the margin of victory for him, and it will help elect Democrats to the House and Senate to give Obama a working majority. He will be able to get things done that nobody has been able to do for 30 years."

Plus, said Sorensen, Obama has the same thing going for him that Kennedy did when it came to making his pitch: "He is clearly the best campaign speaker on the Democratic side since John F. Kennedy."

The two men faced similar stumbling blocks: youth, experience level, and minority status. "Kennedy was a first-term U.S. senator, just as Obama is," said Sorensen. He recalled one time when Kennedy took the Senate floor to call for independence for Algeria, thereby greatly offending the French government and the State Department. "There were senior Democrats," recalls Sorensen, "who said he was too young and naive and needed more experience and seasoning."

After the Cuban missile crisis was over, most people stopped talking that way. "Kennedy's willingness to negotiate," said Sorensen, "and talk to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis is why you and I are talking here today."

Obama has already had one sharp run-in with the old-guard foreign-relations establishment and its media guardians, when he said last year that he'd be willing to negotiate with Iran and Syria. Clinton and others dubbed his comments a rookie misstep ("irresponsible and frankly naive," she said), but Obama has stuck by his pledge, incorporating it into his regular speeches. When he does, he quotes Kennedy's lines from the inaugural, where he said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

Obama's approach "is so clearly reminiscent of Kennedy's," said Sorensen.

Then there's the question about whether a black man can win. "Forty-seven years ago," said Sorensen, "everyone was saying the country wasn't ready for a Roman Catholic, and therefore John F. Kennedy was ineligible for the presidency on the day he was baptized. I don't think, in times as critical as these, the American public is going to be so foolish on the basis of race. Obama transcends those considerations and transcends party lines as well."

« Previous Page
Next Page »