"We have an election of enormous importance and consequence, perhaps the most important election of my lifetime," Teddy Kennedy says, his voice booming above the roar of the Obama supporters packing the pews, aisles and choir risers of Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland, "and now we know next Tuesday the eyes of the country will be looking on California, and are going to be looking at each and every one of you in Northern California, in Oakland, the East Bay; we're all going to be looking, to see what that message is." The crowd, several thousand strong, whistle, ululate--thunder in reply. I have never heard anything like it, not even at a rally with Barack himself, and I've witnessed plenty of those by now. And when was the last time the country took a look at Oakland? It has to be near forty years ago, when the Black Panthers were on the move.
Waiting in a press pew for Kennedy's arrival at what has been billed as a "community gathering" for Obama, I'd been thinking about forty years ago, about change, about the things that had and had not come to pass. The congregation had me thinking, because this particular group of Obama supporters reminds me so much of those Californians who had believed in Robert Kennedy. I'm surprised because, although I've heard the comparison dozens of times, Obama himself has never made me think of RFK. But here are young and old, men and women, well-educated and not, Native Americans, Latinos, African-Americans and a sprinkling of Asians. The white college guys have that glint of idealism; the older white folks are rumpled, disheveled, in a venerable Berkeley way. There's something about these scruffy Obama supporters, entertaining themselves with chants, calls-and-responses and waves, that's infectious and fun and RFK.
In a few months it'll be forty years since Robert Kennedy was assassinated here in California. I remember the quiet queue of mourners in New York winding around Madison and Fifth, filing in and out of St. Patrick's Cathedral all night long before his funeral. Respecting the hush that had fallen on Fifth Avenue, the city closed the streets to traffic around the cathedral. I recall the scene so well because my cousin's wedding reception was a few blocks away that evening. More than tipsy, with my party shoes in hand, I walked at midnight barefoot down the middle of Madison Avenue blocks and blocks in the direction of my hotel and saw hardly a soul. But now I'm thinking, not about the sensate power of having Madison underfoot, but how there would be no communal reverence today.
But even as some things change, others do not. Beebe Cathedral (an African-American CME Church) has a history with the block of Telegraph Avenue that it crowns. Shirley Chisholm announced her run for the presidency from its pulpit. And Telegraph hasn't changed much from those days. There are still the vacant storefronts, the struggling businesses and the air of dilapidation. In the more than thirty years I've lived in Oakland, the city has been "on the verge." Renaissance is always just around the corner. Why do these Obama supporters believe in jobs for inner-city African-American men, a fair wage for tomato pickers and a shared prosperity? These are the same things those RFK enthusiasts whom they so resemble got excited about two generations before.
Suddenly, Teddy is with us, and he, too, is moved by the past. "I want to thank you, here, where there are so many incredible memories, for my family," he begins. "Members of my family have had a chance to come to your community, time and time again, to come here, going back to 1959, asking for your friendship and support and each and every time you have been so responsive, so helpful and supportive." His voice, booming, unquavering, cuts clean through the raucous roar. Time hasn't been as kind to his body, which is stooped and paunched, straining the lone button of his misshapen navy jacket.
"I feel change in the air," he says. "In looking out at this audience, I remember back, thinking of fifty years, I can remember back almost like it was yesterday, that extraordinary time in the early 1960's, it was the time of Dr. King, it was the time that new generation had come back from fighting in World War Two, it was only a few years after the Brown v. Board of Education case was decided. . . ." There isn't a minute in Kennedy's speech when the Obama folk aren't with him, whistling and clapping and bellowing. Caught up myself, only later as I transcribe Kennedy's remarks do I realize that, in the way old people do, he blends generations and years, moments and events, melding discrete history into one.
"I can remember going to a luncheon five years after the first Peace Corps volunteers came home. And I remember going to that lunch and asking the first volunteers why they volunteered to go into the Peace Corps. . . . And they all gave the same answer. 'This is the first time that anybody asked me to do something for our country.' Well, I'll tell you something. Barack Obama is going to ask this generation--and you, and you, and you--to do something for your country. And I think you're ready to give it. You're ready to give something for your country."
The crowd is divided evenly between young and old; Kennedy, however, seems to see only the young. "They [young people] were the ones that marched with Dr. King, sat down at the lunch counters in the 1960's, they were the ones that went into the snows of New Hampshire with Gaylord Nelson and Ed Muskie--it was the young people. And we need their energy, we need their ideas.
"We're talking about the life of this country. And what those young people are going to do is get their parents involved, and they're going to get their uncles and their grandparents involved. Finally, America is going to come back to that very special time, a time when my brothers had the great honor of serving. It was a time to challenge America. Each and every one of us in this room know we do best, individually, when we are challenged . . . and challenged together. We meet as a community. We meet as a state. We meet as a country--this country always does best when it is challenged. And we have a lot of challenges to take up, when we get rid of George Bush. And Barack Obama is going to be ready for it. And you are going to be ready for it."
In a clamor of assent, the Obama throng rises. Some mill below the Senator, still standing on the pulpit stage but hemmed in now by the mikes of the live media. Young people push through the reporters and cry out, "Thank you, Ted Kennedy! Thank you, Ted Kennedy!"
It's a different scene a few hours later in San Francisco at "the event with Senator Ted Kennedy for Obama for America," given by Obama's Northern California Finance Committee. Limousines wait in the courtyard of the dowager apartment building on Nob Hill where two neatly-dressed Obama staffers enjoy a smoke. Beyond the doorman, a fire burns in the stone-mantled grate of the baronial entrance hall. Lawyers, private bankers and cheerful entrepreneurs--wine glasses in hand--talk business and politics in small clusters throughout the reception rooms. The Obama supporters among them who have volunteered in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada--and there are more than a few--are eager to share their stories. When Ted Kennedy joins the soiree, he no longer has the energy of the afternoon; nevertheless, he is still game. Perching precariously half-on and half-off the back of a bentwood chair, while his wife anchors the seat, the Senator reprises his Beebe speech.
"Today we were over in Oakland," he says, "and I was at the cathedral over there, at the marvelous--in the black area--and I was reminded over there [of] the preachings of the Gospel that says 'the youth have the vision and the elders will follow.' There is something about this campaign: the youth were the ones that found Barack Obama, the rest of us have followed." Kennedy recounts his Peace Corps story and talks generally about stumping for Barack in Latino communities. He is tired and sweating now in the polite press of warm bodies. Nevertheless, he is at pains to explain how he came to endorse Obama.
"For us [his wife and him] it was a personal decision. I wanted to feel and be inspired. I had many people who were close friends of mine, that were candidates for president. . . ." But " we need as a nation inspired leadership. And there is one person that has demonstrated that and is leading in that. We [my wife and I] came to this conclusion in the last weeks. I had felt strongly that I would support someone that was able to inspire the country because having been in the Senate for a long time, we have to break the chains that are wrapped around us. We have gifted and talented people--and we don't take anything away--and quite frankly I'm going to support Hillary if she is able, if she gains the nomination--I'm going to support her."
Finally, Kennedy zeroes in on exactly why he is campaigning for Barack Obama. "People ask about the experience [of Obama]. There was this wonderful wonderful meeting that they had at the Kennedy Library recently, with the great historians, where they were ranking the various presidents. . . . What are the judgments they look for? They are looking for intellect, yes they are. They are looking for judgment. They are looking for people that have a vision both here at home and what this country ought to be. They are looking whether they can inspire people and bring people to a new position, in terms of the United States of America. And they are looking at questions of sound judgment. And I listened to these criteria of American historians, and I was amazed at two things. No one is asking that, at the time we're selecting the president of the United States. But the more important thing is, Barack Obama leads in each and every one of those."
"And the last thing I want to tell you, I didn't come into this race to lose!" Kennedy says. "All of us here, we're used to picking winners!"
Even before the laughter has subsided, guests push forward, in the entitled way of the wealthy, to take pictures of each other with Kennedy. He is gracious, but long-suffering. Nevertheless, he is having a ball. Here is a man who loves being in the thick of things and is so glad that he has joined the fray once again. It's as much about stepping forward to serve as it is to be inspired--as he himself says. I know I should be more cynical about his trotting out iconic bits of our liberal past, especially from the 60's; I know that there's a jumble of these images in his brain that he can shuffle about to make a speech. But still it's poignant, and paradoxically both startling and inevitable, that in Barack Obama Ted Kennedy is finding closure for the time when his brothers "had the great honor of serving." And the elderly who can open themselves to the young, precisely because they hold the future that age will never see, light the way for all of us.