‘It’s like when Tony Bennett suddenly became hip again’
By MARK LEIBOVICH
The New York Times
SANTA FE, N.M. – “Are you glad to see me, Santa Fe?” Edward M. Kennedy roared.
“Yes!” Santa Fe roared back. There were whoops and “Viva Kennedy” chants from the overflow crowd at a community college. A man in the back held an “Obama 2008, Kennedy 2016” sign. “Estoy muy contento estar aquí en Santa Fe con usted,” Mr. Kennedy said in perfectly accented Spanish — that is, perfectly Boston-accented Spanish. (“I am very happy to be here in Santa Fe with you, ” he was trying to say, somewhat imperfectly.)
But Mr. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, is ever game for trying, and the crowd ate it up. The white-haired liberal legend with a bad back, halting speech and worn brown shoes has been called a “lion in winter” so many times that he has the political cliché version of frostbite.
Yet Mr. Kennedy, 75, is hot, hot, hot on the trail, stumping for Senator Barack Obama, who was 15 months old when Mr. Kennedy began his Senate career in 1962. He is drawing raucous crowds, invoking the family legacy, working the lunch crowd at the Flying Tortilla in Santa Fe and getting the kitchen staff together for a photo.
Arriving at a rally in East Los Angeles on Friday, Mr. Kennedy was swarmed by a couple of dozen reporters and the like, a big, fuzzy boom mike hovering over his head, autograph hounds and cellphone-camera paparazzi at the perimeter.
“It’s like when Tony Bennett suddenly became hip again after the kids discovered him,” observed Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and former Kennedy aide who attended the rally. “It’s the same thing with Kennedy. He’s MTV now. And instead of jazz clubs, he’s doing the Hollywood Bowl.”
Starting with an endorsement
It all started on Monday when Mr. Kennedy endorsed Mr. Obama — a decent and perhaps surprising political story, given Mr. Kennedy’s ties to the Clintons. It also had symbolic consequence (elder statesman anoints up-and-comer).
Then Mr. Kennedy appeared with Mr. Obama Monday at American University in Washington and drew screeches from the college students whose notion of “Kennedy” growing up was more apt to have been the MTV V.J. rather than the political dynasty. He has always had a knack for transcending generations, but this was different, bigger.
“There seems to be a special kind of feeling this time,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The clamor continued around the senator as he took his act solo to New Mexico (Thursday) and California (Friday), hitting largely Hispanic sites, seemingly having the time of his life. He sang in Spanish (“Jalisco”) on a Latino radio show in Los Angeles. He challenged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California (a nephew-in-law) to arm-wrestle on the air for the presidency (the senator for Obama, the Governator for Senator John McCain).
Between rallies, Mr. Kennedy indulged in a fancy dinner in Beverly Hills on Thursday night with his wife, Victoria, an aide and two reporters. The maître d’ came over and told a slightly off-color story about Ronald Reagan, who used to sit with Nancy, in the very same booth. (Blasphemy alert: Ted Kennedy is sitting in Reagan’s booth!) Steve Martin and Diane Keaton were at the next table and the senator labored over to pay respects.
On the way out, Mr. Martin stopped by and said, “This dinner is compliments of the Republican Party,” whatever that meant, and Mr. Kennedy belly-laughed politely before returning to his veal.
On the stump, Mr. Kennedy began his set with a surefire applause line: One year from now, George W. Bush will be out of the White House.
He rarely mentioned Hillary Rodham Clinton by name, but veiled shots were unmistakable. He praised Mr. Obama’s experience, resisting the big-money law firm jobs out of law school to work as a community organizer.
“Now that’s the kind of experience I want,” Mr. Kennedy said, a clear reference to Mrs. Clinton’s mantra about her “35-years of experience.” He praised Mr. Obama’s willingness to play a visible role in the debate over immigration (implying Mrs. Clinton did not) and opposing the Iraq war from the beginning (ditto).
Per senatorial — and, in this case, family — birthright, Mr. Kennedy has had presidential notions of his own in the past. He lost to President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries, then returned to the Senate, immersed himself in legislative life and liberal interests. Only two senators in history — Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia — have served longer.
But Mr. Kennedy has hardly been cleansed of the presidential germ, at least on behalf of others. He has endorsed Democrats in past primaries, including his Massachusetts colleague, Senator John Kerry, for whom he campaigned tirelessly in 2004.
But friends and family members say there is a different feeling this time, a level of intensity that seems deeper, even sentimental.
“This involvement seems more personal to him somehow,” said Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island and Mr. Kennedy’s son. “It’s like an opportunity for him to connect with the touchstone of his brothers’ legacy.”
Indeed, the comparisons of Mr. Obama to John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy may be slightly overstated, except that Mr. Kennedy himself is also making them, at least implicitly. “Fifty years ago, another young senator changed history,” he said at a rally in Albuquerque. He mentioned past visits he made to New Mexico for his brothers’ campaigns.
“Well, I think my brothers are on a pedestal unto themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said in a brief interview after the Santa Fe rally. “But Barack is a very inspiring figure to me.”
On the trail, Mr. Kennedy does not so much walk as lumber. His back is perpetually hunched, his face in a grimace, as if he is weighed down by so much baggage, burden, legacy.
But he is quick on his feet, too. While he was being introduced Thursday in Albuquerque, a fire alarm started wailing and a computerized voice urged everyone to evacuate. No one knew what to do. “I can’t think of a nicer crowd to go with,” Mr. Kennedy exclaimed, popping out of his seat. Everyone laughed, the fire alarm stopped, and all was good.
Later, Mr. Kennedy was at the airport, heading toward a Learjet leased for him by the Obama campaign. He and his wife clasped hands for the benefit of a photographer back-pedaling on the tarmac.
“Pretend we’re lovebirds,” Mrs. Kennedy said to her husband, playing to the camera.
“Yes, love birds, love birds,” he agreed.
“We’re heading onto the big bird,” she said.
And the Liberal Lion was actually giggling.