The midday Washington rally at which Ted, Caroline, and Patrick Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama may or may not have enough political weight to change the outcome of the primaries. What it definitely did have was a huge supply of political irony.
First, the candidate whose entire campaign is premised on the need to "turn the page," who defines the contest as one "between the past and the future," received the blessing of the political figure most solidly identified with a storied past. Ted Kennedy was elected to the United States Senate in 1962, when Barack Obama was 15 months old. He remains, after 45 years in the Senate, the "last liberal lion," the embodiment of a kind of Democrat anchored in a New Deal-Fair Deal-New Frontier-Great society era. For those of us of a certain age, our strongest memories of Caroline come from the magazine photographs of her dancing in the Oval Office, while her father clapped his hands … or more likely, from the black-and-white photos of her at her father's funeral.
For a lot more Americans, there's another iconic image – the grainy home movie footage of a teenaged Bill Clinton reaching out to shake the hand of President Kennedy at a Boys' Nation gathering in the early 60s. Back in 1992, the Clinton campaign showcased that image as a way to argue that the torch had been passed to another young, vigorous Democrat. And those pictures of the Clintons sailing with the Kennedys off Cape Cod during his Presidency were not exactly accidents.
But if the Kennedys are links to what seems to many Democrats a golden past, it is today's impact that matters. And, if longtime Democratic pollster Geoff Garin is right, that impact, too, is essentially measured not by Kennedy's appeal to unions or Hispanics.
The real value of "Ted Kennedy for Barack Obama, demographically, is generationally," Garin notes. "Up to now Barack Obama had been doing extremely well with young people, but as you get up in the different age cohorts, Hillary did better and better.
"Ted Kennedy is someone who speaks to a certain generation of Democrats among whom Barack Obama had not been doing very well. And so for that generation, all of a sudden you have the best of the good housekeeping seal of approval," he said. "Edward Kennedy the brother of John and Robert, those are names and people who mean a lot to a certain generation of democrats and the generation where Barack Obama had yet to make his mark."
It may well take all of Kennedy's political clout – and more – for Obama to close the significant gap between him and Clinton in most of the February 5th states. But for someone arguing that it is time for a new generation of leadership, the blessing of the iconic family from an earlier time is a pearl of great price.