First, they said, he would not come. Then, they said, he might not appear . But nothing can keep Ted Kennedy away from a Democratic convention. The 76-year-old Massachusetts senator and party icon may under intensive treatment for malignant brain cancer. But last night he not only appeared, but took to the the podium in Denver, to extol not the epic Kennedy family past, but the brave new American future under Barack Obama.
His face was puffy, his gait stiff and shuffling. But the message was as forceful, and the presentation as vigorous as in his halcyon years. “This November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy vowed, using the words his slain brother used in his own 1961 inauguration. Ill he might be, “but for me this is a season of hope. I pledge to you that I’ll be there on the floor of the United States senate in January, when Barack Obama becomes President.”
Even if Ted Kennedy had stayed away, the occasion was going to be poignant enough – a special segment introduced by his niece Caroline, daughter of the JFK, and featuring a sentimental, 8-minute long documentary of his 46 years in public life. With him on stage, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Ted Kennedy has been attending conventions since 1960 in Los Angeles. Since then, in the Democrats’ good times, and even more in their bad ones, he has been the party’s symbol: a guarantor of its liberal traditions, and the last surviving brother of the most glamorous Democratic President of them all. This time, he spread the Kennedy mantle over Barack Obama – and effectively told the Clinton diehards that the time had come to close ranks behind their young nominee.
Only once did Ted challenge for the crown himself, in 1980, but by then it was already too late. Though he amassed a mighty legislative record on Capitol Hill, many thought he should achieved even more –not in the Senate but at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the White House itself.
Chappaquiddick however saw to that. For barely a year was Ted Kennedy truly a President in waiting: between the assassination of his brother Robert in 1968 and the July 1969 car accident – some aspects of it still unexplained – when Mary Jo Kopechne, an RFK campaign worker, was drowned in the car Ted was driving.
But when it came to conventions, disgrace never dimmed the Kennedy magic. Time and again he stole the show, most irresistibly when he would savage the Republican ruler of the day, whether a Nixon, a Reagan or a Bush – including the current incumbent whom in Boston in 2004 he likened to “another monarch called George who inherited the crown.” Last night was another example.
Representative of America’s nearest equivalent of a royal family, Kennedy never inherited the crown. But on the one occasion he tried, and lost to Jimmy Carter, he delivered a peroration that sealed him for ever in his party’s heart: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die,” he said in 1980. Last night, in what may be his last ever convention speech, Ted Kennedy thrilled the 20,000 into the hall, with an updated version, how the hope was about to be realized, and the dream was stronger than ever.