Why the Kennedys Went for Obama

9 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washington

Thousands had been lining up outside American University’s Bender Auditorium in Washington, D.C., hours before Barack Obama’s arrival Monday afternoon. The campaign had initally booked the arena for a rally, but the news that he would be getting the endorsements of three members of the Kennedy clan there had given it the aura of a historic event.

The scene that greeted the candidate backstage could have been a Kennedy family reunion. Ted’s branch of the clan had gotten there first. The senator was there with his congressman son Patrick, Ted’s wife Vicki, and Vicki’s son Curran. Then Caroline arrived with her three teenagers. Teddy’s sisters, Eunice Shriver and Jean Kennedy Smith, showed up too, along with an assortment of their children and grandchildren. Through the blue curtains, the crowd was thundering: “Yes. We. Can.”

For a moment, Obama looked overwhelmed when he saw all of the Kennedys waiting for him. Then he gathered Caroline in a big hug. “Thank you so much,” he whispered. “I’m so excited.”

As they prepared to go onstage to declare their support for Obama, Caroline and Ted Kennedy discussed their decisions to support him in exclusive interviews with TIME. Afterward, Obama talked about what the endorsements meant to him, and what they might mean for his chances of becoming President.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

TIME: Everyone had thought that you would wait until after the Democratic race was more settled after Feb. 5 to endorse a candidate. Why did you decide to do it now?
E.K.: I said for the last year I was always going to support the candidate that inspired. I said that on the Stephanopoulos show and also on Meet the Press and in various interviews. And it always seemed to me that at the start of this campaign there were a number of people that I knew that have absolutely wonderful qualities and are capable to inspire. And a number of them have dropped out. That was just now three weeks ago. So after that period of time, I continued to sort of observe the campaign and it became more apparent to me. It was sort of a growing process about the inevitability of Barack Obama, that he would appeal to the youth, that he had a message of hope and that he had this ability to draw across age lines, between the young and the old, and between the east and the west and the north and the south, between black and white, straight and gay. And it’s a process really, isn’t it?

And then you come down to the particular issue on time: Is [the right time] today, or is it yesterday, or tomorrow? So by the middle of [last] week, I’d made up my mind.

How did Caroline’s decision and yours affect each other?
E.K.: Well, Caroline and I are very close, and she started this process — she could tell you about it — but she started it really last summer. She took her children to listen to all of the candidates, and they were very, very good. They were very thoughtful about it and very knowledgable about it and care very deeply about what’s happening in the country. All of which is very, very inspiring. And they talked with me, I remember we had a long lunch in the middle of the summer. They were talking about it at that time; they were talking about Barack Obama.

But Caroline normally hasn’t gotten involved in politics.
E.K.: I think what she wrote [on the New York Times op-ed page Sunday] is really what she felt. She wrote that in just a few hours. She writes very quickly, very eloquently and carefully. She introduced me one time at a convention, and she wrote the talk in about three or four hours, and you didn’t have to change it a bit. So she writes what she thinks, thinks what she writes, and does it very powerfully, and I think that article really sets it out.

This has been, of course, seen as a rebuke in some ways of the Clintons.
E.K.: I’m for a candidate; I’m for Barack Obama. I have enormous respect for Senator Clinton; I have great respect for President Clinton. I’ve worked with them on different issues. I have as well with John Edwards. I’ve worked with him on the Patients Bill of Rights; I worked on the Judiciary Committee [with him]. I would campaign wholeheartedly if they gain the nomination. I indicated that to them. This is about who you’re for, not who you’re against. That’s the way I looked at it.

It’s also in some ways a referendum on Clintonism and the 1990s. Isn’t it to some degree?

E.K.: It’s a referendum on this time. Each of these candidates have virtually similar positions on the great issues, about how are we going to get health care, out of Iraq, about the economy and about education, about global warming. So the issue and the question is, who is going to be able to achieve this and get this done? That gets back to what I had mentioned earlier about the person who inspires. What I’ve observed and been convinced of in these past weeks is that Barack Obama is uniquely situated to be able to achieve that.

See TIME’s complete Ted Kennedy coverage.

See a Kennedy family photo album.

To be able to get elected, or to be able to accomplish things after?
E.K.: Afterward. I came to the Senate to get things done. We’ve been able to achieve a number of important achievements, and I want to continue that. My interest is in getting things done, and I think he has the ability to bring people together, not only for an election, but to achieve it. And that was the fundamental reason for my involvement now.

Can I ask you one more thing? About the role that Bill Clinton has played in this campaign?
E.K.: He’s a very significant figure in our time and he cares very deeply about the process and he cares very deeply about her. And I admire his grit in trying to do everything he possibly can to secure the nomination for her.

Caroline Kennedy

You started thinking about this last summer?
C.K.: It was actually my kids talking about it last Christmas vacation. A friend of theirs, who is here today, is working for Senator Obama. It really made me realize that I should pay attention. I started going to events in New York last spring, and we went in the summer on the Vineyard with the kids and were talking to them. It was a gradual process. The bigger decision for me in a way was, should I do something more public than I usually would ever do? But I’d say it was a process and Teddy … it was great to have him to talk to. And with the writing, I thought, well, let me see if I could put this together in a way that would make sense to me in terms of my own reason and feeling, and then I’ll see what I do with it.

So you were talking to your uncle all along? Were you guys on separate paths or…?
C.K.: I didn’t see him all that much… We saw him in the summer, the kids were telling him about the events we’d seen. We were lucky — all the candidates were on Martha’s Vineyard last summer, so we had a great up-close view. Then not so much in the fall because obviously he had so many friends in the race.

Why have you stayed out of presidential politics until now? And what kind of a decision was it, given what you represent?

C.K.: I really felt like it was a crucial moment and if I had something that I believed in, then I really owed it to myself to express that. I recently turned 50, so I figured, I’d better get going — what am I waiting for?

Senator Barack Obama

B.O.: That was pretty strong. I gotta admit, I had to clamp it down a little bit. That was powerful stuff. When you see Ted, Caroline, Patrick together, and I think about the role they played in shaping my values and ideals and what I believe about America, the connection to my father traveling to Hawaii and meeting my mother [He described in his speech how his father had come to America in part because of a program for Kenyan students that had been championed by the Kennedys.] As I said, it brings things full circle.

What kind of message do you think this endorsement will send to the Democratic base and the country at large?

B.O.: I don’t think there’s anybody who understands the possibilities of government more than Ted Kennedy. So for him to endorse me in this fashion indicates his confidence that by unifying the country, we can bring about changes on universal health care, education, immigration reform. The major challenges that we face — he has been on the front lines, he knows what it takes. I think he gets a sense that the spirit we saw in this auditorium today is what can propel us past the divisions and the partisanship and the technical roadblocks that stand in the way of us achieving a better country.

He seems to have dispensed with every attack line against you in the space of one fairly short speech.

B.O.: Nobody’s better than him. What’s amazing is his voice has all the power of 30, 40 years ago. He is at the heart and soul of the Democratic Party — the belief in civil rights, the belief in opportunity for all people, in upward mobility, in caring for the least of these, a vision that extends beyond our shores. And he speaks to a vision in which we are a beacon for those who are still trapped in poverty or oppression. To have him offer such a powerful endorsement I think will mean a lot. Obviously, there are people who are still getting familiar with me nationwide. Their vision of this day will make them give me a close look.

See pictures of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

See pictures of Maria Shriver.

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