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Kennedy, in death, passes torch to Obama

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy stood before exuberant supporters 18 months ago making the surprise announcement he was backing presidential-primary candidate Sen. Barack Obama, he did more than lend his iconic family name to the Democrat who would become president.

He was declaring the youthful Illinois senator the rightful heir to one of the nation's most enduring political legacies.

"Every time I've been asked ... who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same: the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our country's best days are still to come," Mr. Kennedy said during the speech on Jan. 28, 2008.

Check out more video coverage of Sen. Kennedy, here.

This was the candidate who represents a "new generation of leadership," Mr. Kennedy declared. "The torch will be passed again."

The political marriage sanctified that day turned out to be fruitful and rejuvenating for both men.

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Obama campaign aides viewed the endorsement as a symbolic and even magical moment, a transfer of power and moral authority that lifted their spirits during a brutal primary battle. Coming when it did, after a tough defeat in New Hampshire and days before the critical test of Super Tuesday, the announcement led campaign manager David Plouffe at the time to call it "the biggest day of the campaign."

For Mr. Kennedy, it was a chance to forge a bond with the next generation of Democratic leadership.

Check out the Washington Times interactive Remembering Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Alan Solomont, a top Boston fundraiser for the Obama campaign, said in the days prior to Mr. Kennedy's speech a story was being shared by those in the campaign's inner circle.

"Right before the endorsement," Mr. Solomont said, "Senator Kennedy reportedly said to [his son] Patrick ... 'Our family has to be on the right side of history.' "

"I believe he saw it in those terms," Mr. Solomont said. "This was not about personalities."

Those who worked inside Mr. Obama's campaign said Wednesday it's easy to forget it now, but securing Mr. Kennedy's support was far from assured. Ever since Bill Clinton's campaign for president released the photograph of his encounter with President John F. Kennedy at the age of 17, there always had been an implied understanding that he had been bequeathed the Kennedy family's liberal legacy.

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton began her bid for the White House, the Kennedy endorsement was considered hers to lose. Caroline Kennedy later told reporters it was her children's interest in the Obama candidacy that initially sparked her support, which helped to convince her beloved "Uncle Teddy."

Click here to see a timeline of Mr. Kennedy's life.

Clinton insiders said at the time the former first lady was hurt when her longtime friend chose her rival, but she dispatched campaign aides to trumpet her big win in Mr. Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts despite the endorsement and noted she was backed by other Kennedy family members.

Once Mr. Obama and Mr. Kennedy began meeting, former campaign insiders said, it became clear they were matched in temperament and ambition, and the candidate's aides viewed the endorsement as an important prize.

As Super Tuesday approached, Mr. Kennedy returned to the rigors of a national campaign, summoning up fire for Mr. Obama from California to Connecticut.

The news that Mr. Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer broke in May 2008 as Mr. Obama was making a campaign stop at an Oregon hospital to talk about his health care plan.

Mr. Obama relied on Mr. Kennedy for advice throughout the campaign and as he built his White House staff after winning the election. Kennedy aides and allies are sprinkled throughout the Obama administration, including senior positions such as White House counsel, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and deputy secretaries of state and defense.

Hours into his presidency, Mr. Obama was faced with the jarring realization Mr. Kennedy's death may be more imminent than he anticipated, as the senator collapsed during the congressional luncheon following his inauguration.

The president remained in close contact with Mr. Kennedy, and as his condition worsened, with the senator's wife, Vicki. Mr. Obama hand-delivered a note from Mr. Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI during a July visit to the Vatican. The president and Mr. Kennedy spoke June 2 about health care for less than 10 minutes, the White House said.

There was speculation that during his stay at Martha's Vineyard Mr. Obama would visit Mr. Kennedy in nearby Hyannis Port, Mass. But the visit never materialized.

Now Mr. Obama formally assumes the mantle without his political mentor at his side and charges forward on Mr. Kennedy's life's passion for health care reform, buoyed perhaps by new momentum from lawmakers seeking to honor their friend.

WhiteHouse.gov on Wednesday offered a tribute to Mr. Kennedy, posting several intimate staff photos taken during Mr. Obama's final moments with his friend this spring.

In one, Mr. Kennedy is shown being an active participant in the president's March 5 health care forum at the White House.

The two are seen laughing on April 21 as Mr. Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act expanding the Peace Corps and other service groups in his friend's honor, saying his friend had "touched the life of this nation."

"This is a wonderful day," Mr. Kennedy declared as the president beamed to his right.

The final photo of the slideshow may capture their last moment together, taken from behind as Mr. Obama and Mr. Kennedy walked side-by-side away from the Oval Office.