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Kennedy political torch passes to a new generation of Democrats

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For three days in Charlotte, a parade of prominent Democrats, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, numerous senators, union presidents and President Obama himself will try to rev up the base with live speeches.

But one voice that dominated Democratic Party politics for decades will be notably absent from this year's festivities: the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the iconic liberal lion and fourth-longest-serving senator, who passed away in August 2009 before he could see his lifelong political goal — comprehensive health care — enacted into law.

Known for his red-faced passion so prevalent in his speeches delivered on the Senate floor, Kennedy addressed his party's convention after losing the primary to Mr. Carter in 1980 and was a consistent speaker at every party gathering afterward, delivering his final rousing endorsement of Mr. Obama in 2008 while suffering from a malignant brain tumor that would take his life a year later.

Kennedys have played high-profile roles at Democratic conventions since 1956, when Sen. John F. Kennedy gave a concession speech after losing a vote to become Adlai Stevenson's running mate. Four years later, he delivered his "New Frontier" acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which many think inspired Mr. Obama's decision almost a half-century later to move his Denver nomination speech from an indoor arena to an outdoor stadium.

"It's an end of an era without Ted Kennedy there," said Ted Widmer, who directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. "I think his family and friends will be happy that the issues he cared about, like health care, economic opportunity and inclusiveness in general, are still very much in the news and being discussed."

Joseph P. Kennedy III, the Middlesex County district attorney running for the seat of retiring Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, who would mark a return of the Kennedy family to Capitol Hill after a two-year hiatus if elected, introduced a video tribute to his grandfather Robert's younger brother and to the greater Kennedy legacy on the opening night of the convention.

"This is the first convention since 1956 that we meet without Sen. Kennedy. But make no mistake — he is with us here this evening," the younger Mr. Kennedy said to thunderous applause.

He touted his great-uncle's work on behalf of the poor, immigrants and the disabled, as well as his goal of universal health care, and recalled the moment four years ago when he joined the senator in campaigning for Mr. Obama in small town along the U.S.-Mexico border. The elder Kennedy broke into a Mexican ranchero song in his famously Boston accent — "the Massachusetts mariachi" and "Uncle Teddy at his best," Mr. Kennedy told the delegates.

He noted the senator's enthusiastic support of Mr. Obama from his first days in the Senate.

"Four years ago, Uncle Teddy marveled at the grit and grace of a young senator," Joseph Kennedy said. "Today, we're carrying on that cause."

The video that followed his introductions, which included clips of Ted Kennedy's most famous speeches and highlights from his debates with Mitt Romney in their 1994 Senate race, left many of the Democratic delegates on the floor openly weeping.

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President Kennedy, who had entertained a run for the Senate seat from New York, is slated to speak at the convention Wednesday, and the late senator's widow, Vicki, will host another reception for her husband's eponymous Boston-based institute that afternoon.

"We've missed him on the Senate floor, we've missed his voice in the caucus, and this is the first time for many years that he won't be at the convention," said Jim Manley, a longtime Senate communications strategist who worked for Kennedy and other prominent Democrats before joining the private sector last year. "It's nice for the DNC to pay tribute to him via video, but the fact is no one can give a speech quite like he did, so he will be missed."

Next generation

In giving his first speech on the national stage, Joseph P. Kennedy III represents the next generation of Kennedy candidates, and he has big shoes and expectations to fill.

The entire Democratic Party was watching the 31-year-old lawyer to see if he has the charisma, seriousness and staying power to become a political player and recapture some of the family mystique that has dimmed in three years since Ted Kennedy's death.

"It's always nice to see young people claim the family mantle and the work going forward," Mr. Widmer said.

While the younger Mr. Kennedy wants to look impressive on the national stage, to win he has to canvass his district and discuss meat-and-potato issues that his would-be constituents care about.

"I doubt the Kennedy legacy is a dominating theme of the election," Mr. Widmer added.

The Kennedy clan's decades-long presence in Washington came to an end last year when former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, known for his alcohol- and drug-related bouts and his work on mental-health legislation, decided not to run for re-election in his home state of Rhode Island.

Since then, the Kennedy family has made headlines more in the tabloids than in the political press, including stories of Conor Kennedy, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, dating country singer Taylor Swift, and the suicide earlier this year of Mary Kennedy, wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Sen. Kennedy's two sons, Ted Jr. and Patrick, showed up in Charlotte for their cousin's moment in the spotlight, as well as for a Tuesday afternoon reception for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, which is under construction at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Although some Democrats are expressing muted enthusiasm for Mr. Obama's re-election, Patrick J. Kennedy said his father's legacy and Mr. Obama's are inextricably linked, and if he were alive today, Edward M. Kennedy would again be rallying the troops for Mr. Obama.

"If my dad were alive, he'd be here reminding everybody that this president delivered," Patrick J. Kennedy told the Boston Globe on Tuesday. "It's the cause; that's what the dream was."

In many ways, Sen. Kennedy's legacy also lives on in the army of Democratic political operatives and staffers who once worked for him — whom he trained and influenced.

Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama's sharp-tongued deputy campaign manager, helped manage Kennedy's communications while battled cancer, and Stephen Kerrigan, the CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, worked as a legislative assistant in his Senate office.

"He taught me more than he could have ever imagined about the art of legislating," said Mr. Manley recalled.

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