Obama: A new JFK?

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Observer staff
Jan. 30, 2008

When Theodore Sorensen, a former speech writer for President John F. Kennedy, met Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at a fundraising event in New York City on March 9, 2007, he realized that Obama was “the new Kennedy.”

Sorensen said he saw in Obama the same message of hope and inspiration Kennedy transmitted, as well as the ability to transcend race, gender and politics.

“People react at their appeal because they both have that old-word charisma,” said Sorensen. “When they talk they do not talk down to people, they don’t poor-mouth the audience—they talk in elevated tone about an elevated America.”

On Monday, the Kennedy family passed the mantle to Obama. They recognized in public what Sorensen had realized nearly a year ago.

Sen. Barack Obama speaks at American University on
Jan. 28, 2008.

“I love this country, I believe in the bright light of hope and possibility,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. “I always have, even in the darkest hours. I know what America can achieve. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it and with Barack Obama we can do it again.”

Kennedy and his niece, Caroline, had maintained a neutral position in the primaries until yesterday, according to Barbara Kellerman, political scientist and historian at Harvard University. And not only did they endorse Obama, they also promised to campaign for him.

As Caroline Kennedy said in a New York Times editorial on Sunday, Obama embodies the message of inspiration and hope that her father had radiated in the 1960s. The idea of Obama as the “new Kennedy” is stronger than ever: the Kennedy family, historians, political scientists, and past and present generations of voters are drawing the parallels between them.

Obama says in many of his speeches that he is “hungry for change” and wants to defy the status quo in Washington D.C. Those who support the senator often say that one of the reasons they will vote for him is that he will trod a different path.

Patricia Mosely, 42, was an avid Republican who supported former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and President George W. Bush. Now, she knocks on people’s doors campaigning for Obama.

She said she will vote for the Obama because, if elected, he would bring that change in leadership that she is looking for in a presidential candidate.

“We have gotten into this mentality in Washington that lobbyists run the show, they bring in the money and politicians follow the money and that is wrong,” Mosely said. “We cannot work together. If you are a Republican you better stay with the Republicans and if you are a Democrat you better stick with the Democrats.”

She said Obama has the right attitude to reach common ground along party lines because he aspires “for us to work together and learn how to agree to disagree.”

The hope for change yearned for by many Obama supporters echoes the same hope many people had during the Kennedy administration.

Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University, said many voters are seeking a candidate that will convey the same sense of hope that Kennedy did. Much of this is due to their disenchantment with the Bush administration, the economy and the war in Iraq.

“During Kennedy’s government, it was the last time people had faith and hope that the government could achieve a positive change among the average American citizens,” Lichtman.

Kennedy’s legacy was an unfinished one because of his abrupt death. Improving the civil rights situation, cutting taxes and the fight to end poverty remained incomplete, according to Lichtman. There was a need for a successor that would complete Kennedy’s work, Lichtman said, and Monday’s endorsement was a way of legitimizing the “passing of the torch” to Obama.

Former President Kennedy speaks at American University in 1963.

Another parallel that is often drawn between the two is their appeal to the younger generation.

John F. Kennedy was vigorous and inspirational, according to Lichtman, and challenged young voters by asking them “not to think what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Obama stirs similar passions, Lichtman said, and has the ability to get people to think beyond the ordinary.

Sorensen, Kennedy’s former speechwriter, recalled how both candidates are young and said both received criticisms for their lack of experience. However, he said Kennedy proved to have had better judgment than the rest of the candidates, and believes that the same can happen with Obama.

Many said that Kennedy did not have a chance to win the presidency due to his Roman Catholic heritage. Likewise, Obama, a black candidate, has faced similar resistance, according to Sorensen.

“I remember that Kennedy said ‘I am not the catholic candidate for president. I am the democratic nominee who happens to have been born Catholic.’ Obama is not a black candidate for president, he happens to be the best qualified candidate for president as a Senator from Illinois that happens to being born black.”

Despite what other people have regarded as “limitations,” Kennedy and Obama have the ability to unify people, even if they belong to different parties, Sorensen said.

When Obama won the South Carolina primary, he referred in his speech to Mosely, a Republican who shifted party lines and now campaigns for him. He said cases like Mosely were proof of a voter’s ability to change.

And Mosely did change. She said she would have voted for Kennedy as she is now set on voting for Obama, because she sees in him the same enthusiasm.

“Likewise, Sen. Kennedy said we could reach for the moon with senator Obama. I will say we can reach to the stars and beyond,” she said.

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at soc.american.edu

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