Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin: Ted Kennedy's legacy shapes Obama's path





[Ben Smith writes a blog about the national politics for POLITICO. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he covered the Democratic primary.Before joining POLITICO, he was a political columnist for the New York Daily News. Jonathan Martin is a senior political writer.]

Through two years of wearying campaigning, defeats and victories, the cool, disciplined Sen. Barack Obama rarely was overcome by emotion. Once was on the eve of the election, when his grandmother died.

The other time, a close aide recalled, was when Sen. Ted Kennedy endorsed him.

Kennedy's endorsement may have won Obama the nomination. His legacy, health care legislation, has already shaped Obama's presidency, and Obama will deliver a eulogy at Kennedy's funeral Saturday. But it wasn't until the last minute, in late January 2008, that Kennedy decided to take sides at all - throwing himself into a hard-fought primary between two of his friends, Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

When he did, it was without reservation. He addressed critics, declaring Obama ready to lead. And he invoked his family's legacy:

"The torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on," he said, as the future president sat on a tall stool on stage behind him at American University in Washington
on Jan. 28, 2008.

"He was a monumental figure in the history of the campaign," David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, told POLITICO, saying that the weekend of Kennedy's endorsement "transformed the campaign."

"It was like being shot from a cannon," Axelrod said.

The day of the endorsement was, Obama told a Kennedy adviser at the time, the greatest day of his life, according to Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson's account of the campaign.

Kennedy, whose age never diminished his outsized political standing or his eye for up-and-coming talent, saw Obama dominate the 2004 Democratic National Convention in his hometown, Boston, and he may have seen a little of himself in the young celebrity senator.

"When [Obama] came to the Senate as a new young senator, he was in a certain way a little like Teddy was when he first came to the Senate. That is, that everybody already knew about him or thought they knew about him," longtime Kennedy adviser Bob Shrum told POLITICO. "So I don't think Kennedy was surprised at his eloquence, his intelligence, his grasp of issues. But it was kind of a habit with Teddy [to mentor promising young senators]. He spent time with him and got to know him well."

He also helped recruit Obama to his committee, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel, Shrum said.

Their relationship was not, however, entirely smooth. Even before Obama was elected to the Senate, he chafed at the humility required of a newcomer, and sometimes it showed.

"We've got to call up not just Republicans, but we've got to call up Ted Kennedy and say, 'Ted, you're getting a little old now, and you've been a fighter for us before. I don't know what's happening now,'" Obama told a union audience in 2003 - in a video that appeared on Huffington Post in December 2007 as Kennedy was considering an endorsement. "Ted, get some spine and stand up to the Republicans."

Kennedy, who had encouraged Obama's campaign but hadn't endorsed him, shrugged off the slight after the young senator called to address the comments. Kennedy spoke occasionally to Obama during the campaign to offer advice - who to talk to, what to look for - but no endorsement.

And he watched the campaign for the next month, torn between his old friends, the Clintons, and the promise of Obama...


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