News & Politics

Obama Conjures the Kennedys in Jersey City


Every pundit and pollster was still insisting that something must have gone badly wrong for Barack Obama the night before in the snows of New Hampshire as the line down John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City kept growing last Wednesday. The line went down the street and around the corner at St. Peter’s College, and it was clear by 3 p.m. that at least a third of those waiting patiently for the rally with the Democratic senator from Illinois weren’t even going to make it into the gym at the school’s Yanitelli Center, which had a capacity 2,000 people.

But there wasn’t much griping or a whole lot of second thoughts about New Hampshire to be heard either.

“This is history for me,” said self-declared senior citizen Louise Gay, who walked to the school from her home a couple of blocks away.

Brandon Kelly, 31, took a half-day off from her job as a marketer in Manhattan to catch Obama. “I only get two and a half weeks off all year,” she said. “So that makes this a big deal for me.”

Behind her, a couple from the Jersey suburbs said they couldn’t resist. “He’s saying what people have been waiting to hear for the last seven terrible years,” said Judy Goldstein.

Then there was Charlie Hannon, 80, who wore a peaked VFW cap with gold piping and planted himself at the gym’s entrance with a picket sign reading “Veterans for Obama.” Hannon was the only vet in sight, but he swore there were others inside. Born and raised in Jersey City, Hannon said he served with the Navy in the South Pacific in World War II. “I enlisted when I was 17,” he said.

According to the thinking of those trying to read the New Hampshire exit polls, Hannon is the rarest of birds: a working-class white guy who wants to see Obama in the White House. His type apparently went in droves for Hillary Clinton in the Granite State’s southern tier, where the old manufacturing towns are located. So did women, whose ballots were the biggest reason Obama came up some 7,500 votes short.

But his 3 percent miss merited only shrugs from those waiting in line, Hannon among them. One reason he likes Obama so much, he said, is because he’s against the Iraq War. “You know, anyone who’s been in a war doesn’t want to see another one,” he said. “And he’s young, he’s not corrupt. I don’t see what Hillary’s done that’s so great.”

Did he really believe a black man could pull it off in America? “Oh yeah,” he said. “We can’t think like that anymore. Those days are gone. He did pretty well already in those white states, didn’t he?”

Actually, he did better than well. The primary-night chatterers obsessed over how the polls—which had Obama up by an average of eight points—could have been so universally wrong. The pundits took that mistake personally, as though their own screwup was somehow more important than the fact that someone was out there making history, as in “Black candidate nearly takes two white states.” No one got around to mentioning that only 12 weeks before, Obama had been down by some 20 points. Back then, reporters were busy typing the words “Hillary” and “presumptive winner” in the same sentence over and over.

By the time Obama got to St. Peter’s, there were still 1,000 people outside who couldn’t get in. The candidate made those inside the gym wait while he spoke to the crowd on the street. When he was finally spotted making his way into the gym, the throngs in the bleachers erupted. Instead of bounding to the stage as he did last summer at a packed Brooklyn hotel ballroom, and last fall when some 25,000 turned out for him in Washington Square Park, he walked slowly to the mic. He bought himself sympathy with his opening lines: “My voice is a little hoarse. My eyes are a little bleary. My back is sore. But my spirit is strong.”

He then went on to give what to those working hacks who must listen to him over and over is logged in this way: standard stump speech—except that there is nothing standard about it other than the fact that almost each time he gives it, he lifts the crowd on wings they’d forgotten they had.

He tells these crowds how “we are at a defining moment in our nation, a period when we see our dreams slipping away.” He reminds them of how they were cheated by the current administration: “People were promised a compassionate conservatism; instead they got Katrina and wiretapping.” And he tells them that this time, Democrats can only win by taking a chance: “We can’t win this race if we live in fear of losing it,” he says.

In earlier versions of this speech, he answered critics who say he is too young and inexperienced by citing the extensive résumés of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Since late November, he has substituted this resonating touch: “I am running because of what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ ” he said slowly, adding: “Because there is such a thing as being too late.”

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.”

If that’s wishful thinking, Sorensen is not alone among Democratic veterans. Ronnie Eldridge, the former city councilwoman from Manhattan’s West Side, said Obama also reminds her of a Kennedy—in her case, it’s Robert Kennedy, for whom she was an early supporter. “I have the same instinctive feeling about him that I had about Bobby Kennedy,” said Eldridge. “They are people who shake up the political establishment—people you trust.”

The story is mostly lost in pages of flaking newsprint, but more than 40 years ago, most respectable liberals in New York wanted nothing to do with Bobby Kennedy, preferring the plodding but unquestionably liberal Republican incumbent, Kenneth Keating. The leap of faith by Kennedy supporters back then was premised on the notion that his actions would match his soaring rhetoric. That was something no one ever really got a chance to find out, since he was assassinated in the midst of his 1968 presidential run (a scenario that haunts some Obama backers as well).

Another veteran buying into the Obama gambit is Richard Ravitch, 64, the housing developer and former chief of the MTA, who is credited with rescuing the city’s subways in the 1980s. Ravitch, who was a mayoral candidate in 1989, is running this year as an Obama delegate in Manhattan. “I read his autobiography, and I read his second book, and I was immensely impressed,” said Ravitch. “I asked to meet [him], and when I met him, I decided I wanted to support him. My generation screwed things up pretty bad,” Ravitch added. “The next generation deserves a shot.”

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