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At 12:40 pm on Monday, a side door to the main athletic arena at American University in Washington, DC, swept open. In walked a big entourage of bright-eyed, winter-jacketed people. In the front, holding tightly to the arm of a slender young man with thinning hair, was Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Thin and frail-looking, the Kennedy matriarch was guided to a row of bleachers filled with hundreds of cheering students, locals and university staff. A hush fell over them as they watched the elderly woman doff her long cashmere coat and take a seat. “This is really something,” said a blonde journalist standing next to me in the press corral a few feet away. “I mean, it is EUNICE,” she whispered.

The arrival of Kennedy Shriver to the arena–where 6,000 chanting people had gathered–was an early indication that pungent symbolism was on tap.

Barely forty-eight hours after Senator Barack Obama claimed a decisive victory in the Democratic primary vote in South Carolina, it appeared that this part of the old-guard Democratic establishment had decided to end any coyness about which of the three leading presidential candidates it supports. The Kennedys–for all their foibles, and the aura of promise unfulfilled that hangs on Ted–are the biggest “get” for any Democratic political candidate with serious aspirations of national leadership.

Patrick Kennedy was first to take the podium. His voice uncharacteristically thin (at least for a Kennedy), he spoke about a need for increased funding for mental health services, and lauded Senator Obama as the candidate of “hope” and “vision.” Then Caroline Kennedy made a brief, measured endorsement of Barack Obama–in which she noted that her three children had been the “first ones” to bring Senator Obama to her attention some time ago. Then Senator Ted Kennedy launched into a stemwinder that included a few firm swipes at Senator Hillary Clinton.

Both former Senator John Edwards and Senator Clinton are “my friends,” Ted Kennedy said, and he urged those in the audience to respect them, and to provide “which candidate wins the nomination your enthusiastic support.” But for the next fifteen minutes, Ted Kennedy made the case for why Senator Barack Obama best exemplifies what Martin Luther King Jr., termed “the urgency of now.”

With jowls and white hair shaking, Ted Kennedy identified Senator Obama as the candidate who appeals to Americans’ “better angels”–a comment impossible to intepret any other way than as a rebuke of the Clinton campaign’s recent attacks on Senator Obama. “He is a different kind of candidate, and he is running a different kind of campaign,” Sen. Kennedy said. “He knows that is not all about him, but about all of US.” Kennedy seemed gleeful, and a bit relieved: his large and well-oiled network of union, Latino, gay and lesbian supporters were undoubtedly taken by the symbolism of the moment, too.

By the time Senator Obama took the stage, he seemed a bit stunned. “Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!,” the American University students had shouted, but their chant soon became “Yes We Can.” “I stand here today with a great deal of humility,” Senator Obama began.

Considering that Mount Rushmore of Kennedy faces arrayed behind him, it is no wonder. And on February 5, it may be difficult for even the Kennedy-haters in the electorate to put aside the image of the lanky young Senator from Illinois, graciously accepting the mantle of the Democratic Party’s most revered members.