History never repeats itself exactly. But long before the electrifying appearance of Ted Kennedy at the Democratic convention it was evident that, with the rise of Barack Obama, American politics might be approaching a moment comparable to when another Kennedy took the presidential oath of office on the steps of the Capitol that icy January day in 1961.
“This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” the cancer-stricken Kennedy, the last survivor of his own family’s most glorious generation, declared on Monday evening, reprising the luminous words of his slain brother’s inaugural address 47 years ago. But Ted Kennedy, whose final convention this will surely be, was also passing on a torch of his own – the seal of approval of the Democrats’ first family.
In its time, this approval was conferred upon Bill Clinton, though relations between the Clintons and the Kennedys, while friendly, were never especially close. Last January the blessing was transferred, as the old liberal lion embraced not Hillary Clinton, but a young and Kennedy-esque senator from Illinois, in the race for the White House. The endorsement did not immediately affect the campaign, as Hillary easily won the Democratic primary in the Kennedy fiefdom of Massachusetts. But it was a signal of the impending power shift at the summit of the party.
The parallels between 1960 and 2008 are striking. Kennedy broke new ground by becoming the first Catholic President. An Obama victory in November would, of course, constitute a far more remarkable historical breakthrough, with the election of the first African American to the White House, a prospect utterly unimaginable in John Kennedy’s day. Both are young – indeed a President Obama would be five years older than JFK when he took office. Both have grace, charm and elegance. They share a cool, at times sardonic, detachment.
Should Obama win, it might also well be in circumstances similar to that of 1960. We often forget that Camelot in Washington, DC, was born of a squeaker of an election, which some to this day maintain was only resolved by shady machinations on the part of Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley that handed the vital state of Illinois to Kennedy, not Richard Nixon. If the current dead heat in the polls between Obama and John McCain is an indication, it could be an equally close-run thing in November 2008.
A genuine watershed
But the similarities must not be overstated. The legend that now encrusts the 35th President obscures the fact that 1960 was not a watershed election. John Kennedy’s freshness might have been a radical departure from the stale country-club Republicanism of his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower. But in the sweep of history, it was merely prolongation of a Democratic era that began with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
By contrast, 2008 has the makings of a genuine watershed. An Obama victory would signify the end of more than a generation of Republican dominance ushered in by Ronald Reagan and continued by Bush father and son. The overwhelming sense today is that American conservatism has run its course, bankrupt in ideology and devoid of leaders. A turning point is at hand, towards more regulation, more government intervention – an age in which “liberalism” is no longer a dirty word and when, miracle of miracles, universal healthcare might turn from distant dream into fact.
All through the Reagan/Bush era, Ted Kennedy toiled away on Capitol Hill, defending liberal values when they could not have been more out of fashion. He continued to fight for improved public education, better welfare, and, of course, for universal healthcare, despite mostly Republican majorities in Congress, and mostly Republican occupants of the Oval Office. He swam against the tide too with his impassioned opposition to the Iraq war. On that issue as well, he has been vindicated – as has been Obama. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s stubborn refusal to repudiate her Senate vote in October 2002 to authorise the war may have cost her both Kennedy’s endorsement and the Democratic nomination.
On Monday evening, the messenger might have been sickly, but his message reverberated to the rafters. In a shifting, dangerous world, as America faces its worst economic crisis in a generation, today’s young prince faces a far greater challenge than his predecessor of 48 years ago. Like Obama today, candidate John F Kennedy was widely seen as inexperienced and untested. But Americans took the chance, and the gamble paid off. With his very presence on stage, Ted Kennedy was promising that the same can happen now.