DENVER — Ted Kennedy’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, complete with an introduction by Caroline Kennedy and a tribute video by Ken Burns, may as well have been called the liberal lion in winter. Except in this version, there is little doubt as to who he wants to inherit the throne: Barack Obama.
After hours of rumor and will-he-or-won’t he speculation, Kennedy walked slowly to the podium to drape the 2008 Democratic nominee in the mantle of Camelot. The point was twofold. The first part of his message was aimed squarely at the liberal base, reminding Hillary Clinton dead-enders in the audience whose legacy they would be letting down if Obama lost the election. The second was intended to restore liberalism to its lost glory, when it was at its moral apogee and perceived as the politics of the common man.
There is no question that Kennedy’s appeal to rank-and-file Democrats was a smashing success. An audience that could barely be bothered to listen to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, much less the procession of nobodies who opened the proceedings, sat with rapt attention throughout the Kennedy salute and exploded with cheers when the senior senator from Massachusetts himself spoke. People waved blue-and-white Kennedy signs as if he were the presidential candidate.
Hardly an eye in my section was dry as Kennedy recalled the legacy of his slain brothers John and Bobby. “And this November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” he vowed. The main bearer of that torch would be Barack Obama, fulfilling his brothers’ aspirations for America.
Kennedy was reciting a creed in which millions believe, in which presidents FDR, JFK, and LBJ can deliver us from poverty, and government can give the masses meaning and money. When Uncle Teddy once again roared that universal health is a fundamental right rather than a personal privilege, the crowd nodded and cheered. A young woman in an Obama t-shirt rubbed the back of a woman old enough to remember the Kennedy administration. Middle-aged men dabbed their eyes.
For the assembled, Kennedy’s “new hope” is the liberal shining city on a hill. But it is also a throwback to the time when the Democrats were America’s party and liberalism was more often associated with God, family and country instead of acid, amnesty, and abortion. Adherents of what James Burnham would call the “ideology of Western suicide” once defeated Hitler and resisted communism.
“But we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world,” said Kennedy. Similar sentiments were later echoed by Michelle Obama, when she said striving “for the world as it should be” is “the great American story.” While these are fundamentally liberal pronouncements, they are closer to the closing lines of Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural than Jimmy Carter’s malaise and self-doubt: “And why shouldn’t we believe that? We’re Americans.”
There was always a contradiction between this can-do spirit and the notion that average Americans could not get a fair shake without powerful Ted Kennedys fighting on their behalf, one that grew more obvious with each new failure by a government program. But when liberalism traveled from Selma to San Francisco, when it went from appealing to American ideals to being seen as blaming America first, it predictably lost the country.
Can liberalism go home again? It is doubtful. Even Kennedy’s rousing call for a united “America of high principle and bold endeavor” seems to exclude those who take seriously his own church’s teachings on social issues. Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was inspiring and unfailingly patriotic, yet four years later many of his countrymen don’t feel he shares their values.
Ted Kennedy has always been a symbol of the highs and lows of American liberalism, from civil rights to quotas, from decency to decadence and depravity, from Camelot to the counterculture and Chappaquiddick. As the ailing Democratic icon enters the final phase of his long career, he says he seeks “not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation.” To pass the torch successfully will also require the restoration of an older liberalism, if that is still possible.