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Obama's Kennedy Vibe | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Obama's Kennedy Vibe

Yes, of course, we are all supposed to be very excited above Barack Obama's fund-raising prowess. And the fact that the freshman senator from Illinois raised more than $20 million in the last contribution cycle is impressive. It is even more impressive that the contributions toward his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination came from 93,000 separate donors – suggesting a breadth of grassroots support unparalleled in the current contest.

But politics ought to be about a good deal more than the ability to shake the money tree. And it often is, a fact that can be attested to by presidential also-rans such as former Texas Governor John Connolly -- who spent the then astronomical sum of $11 million on a bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination that yielded him one convention delegate: Mrs. Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas.

What should be at least as intriguing about Obama's campaign as its largesse is the conscious effort by the candidate and his aides to grasp for another form of political gold: the Kennedy connection.

It is no secret that Obama is striving for a Camelot vibe. His speeches are thick with the calls to unity and higher purpose that were the essential themes of John Kennedy's stump speeches when, as the even-younger-than-Obama senator from the even-smaller-than-Illinois state of Massachusetts, he grabbed the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 from the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson. And, at their best, Obama's addresses echo the moral message employed by Bobby Kennedy's in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1968.

How conscious is Obama's Kennedy vibe?

On Tuesday, as he arrives in what for him is shaping up as the essential state of Iowa, Obama will be joined by Ted Sorensen, the JFK and RFK speechwriter and aide who is one of the last politically active members of President Kennedy's inner circle.

Sorensen, who JFK referred to as his "intellectual blood bank," will introduce Obama in Des Moines and Coralville, Iowa, on a day when the Illinois senator will be highlighting his vocal opposition of five years ago to congressional authorization of an attack on Iraq.

Having Sorensen, who broke with Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, over the issue of ending the Vietnam War, will portray Obama's opposition to going to war with Iraq as a Kennedy-esque "profile in courage" – even as the candidate's current stance on ending the occupation of Iraq remains disappointingly squishy in the eyes of anti-war activists.

Now almost 80, the man who crafted both words and strategies for President Kennedy, is making the sort of comparisons that no one – save Senator Ted, who has yet to endorse – can conjure with such legitimacy.

"He is more like John F. Kennedy than any other candidate of our time," Sorensen says of Obama, arguing that "the parallels in their candidacies are striking."

"Obama is opposed, as Kennedy was opposed, for being young, for being in his first term in the Senate and, sad to say, for having qualities from his birth on – such as his skin color – which people say will make him tough to support. Well, they said that about Kennedy's religion… That's nonsense," says Sorensen. "The times are too important. We have got to have someone with judgment leading this country."

How much will a Sorensen swing count through Iowa, where new polls suggest that Obama is moving into a position from which he might be able to best both New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the national frontrunner, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, until recently the Iowa frontrunner, influence the state's first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses?

There is no question that, in eastern Iowa, a heavily Catholic, blue-collar region where the Kennedys remain iconic figures, Ted Kennedy's campaigning for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry before the 2004 Democratic caucuses played a significant role in the renewal of Kerry's candidacy.

Ted Sorensen is no Ted Kennedy. But he is a vibrant and articulate link to the Kennedy legacy. And Sorensen's campaigning on Obama's behalf will suggest a historical connection that money can't buy.

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