Spotlight on Kennedy

DNC to feature a film tribute to Massachusetts senator, who endorsed Obama

Election 2008

August 25, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,david.nitkin@baltsun.com

DENVER - The lights will dim inside the Pepsi Center tonight, a shock of silver hair will appear on giant monitors, and connections will be made once again between Camelot and the Obama nation.

A film tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a 46-year-veteran of the Senate diagnosed with a brain tumor this year, will dominate the opening hours of the Democratic National Convention. Watching from a prime seat will be Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's former lieutenant governor and Kennedy's niece, one of the state's 99 delegates here.

Townsend said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that while the tribute is sure to be "moving and touching," a linkage between soon-to-be nominee Barack Obama and the Kennedy family legacy is not a main point.

"This is to Teddy, this is what he has accomplished," Townsend said. "He has done so much in his life, and overcome a great deal. He really is one of the best senators this country has ever had - the best."

Conventions are stage-crafted for maximum effect, however, and it will be no accident if viewers are left with the impression that Obama is heir to the spirit of perhaps the most potent name in Democratic politics.

"The tribute to Ted Kennedy is not only going to be emotional, but it is also going to be political in its motivations," said James W. Hilty, a Temple University historian who has written extensively on the Kennedys. "The idea is, of course, to stir memories of prior Democratic champions, and to link Obama with them."

Obama has already benefited from those connections. The campaign received "quite a kick," Hilty said, when Caroline Kennedy and Edward Kennedy endorsed Obama in January. For Caroline Kennedy, it was the first time she had publicly backed a candidate since her uncle's 1980 run.

The dividends had their limits. Obama did not carry Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts.

Not all Kennedy cousins backed the Illinois senator. Townsend was a Hillary Clinton supporter, as were her siblings, Robert Jr. and Kerry. She appeared on television frequently last spring as the Clinton campaign tried to counter-punch on the Kennedy connection.

Townsend now says she is enthusiastic about Obama. "I think Obama is an amazing candidate, and I think he will be an excellent president, and I am very excited about working with him, for him," she said.

Townsend and other Kennedy family members say they have not seen the eight-minute film, produced by documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Mark Herzog.

"I haven't gotten any sneak preview," said Mark K. Shriver, a former Maryland state delegate from Montgomery County, who is Edward Kennedy's nephew.

Kennedy's work on stem-cell research, volunteerism and other issues is "told through a combination of original interviews, archival footage and still photographs that chronicle his enormous contributions to this country," the Democratic National Committee said in a release yesterday.

The film will be introduced by Caroline Kennedy, who co-chaired Obama's vice presidential search.

Edward Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, were interviewed for the film, Caroline Kennedy said yesterday during an interview on Meet the Press, during which she noted that the convention also coincides with the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.

"So I think, for all our family, this is incredibly emotional," she said.

For years, Edward Kennedy stood as a symbol of liberal ideology whose name was uttered as almost a curse by Republicans. Obama already faces criticism over a voting record that ranks him among liberal lawmakers. But Obama's risk of alienating moderates or swing voters through a connection to Kennedy is tempered by the senator's illness, Hilty said.

"Even Republicans are going to have to say 'Give him his due, he's been there for a long time,'" he said.

Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May, and underwent surgery several weeks later. He returned to the Senate only once, receiving a standing ovation before casting a vote in July to block a cut in Medicare reimbursements to physicians.

His absence has meant a larger role for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who took the lead in negotiating higher education legislation adopted by Congress.

Kennedy is not scheduled to attend the Denver convention, but his son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, told the Associated Press yesterday that the senator would like to make an appearance, which would electrify the gathering. "If he's up to it in the 11th hour and can get the green light from doctors, he might be able to pull it off," he said.

The DNC would not comment yesterday on whether Edward Kennedy would be on stage tonight.

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