One of the treasured family mementoes is a photograph of my cousin Ann Louise Blaska, then 5 years old, sitting on John F. Kennedy's lap. My godfather Uncle Cy, Annie's dad, had a house party for JFK during the 1960 presidential primary, hence the photo.
My own father was a Hubert Humphrey man, but coalesced around JFK when HHH's cause was lost and campaigned hard for his candidacy.
Thanks to father's activism, I had Kennedy buttons to disperse on the playgrounds of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Marty Catholic grade school in Sun Prairie. Not really buttons, but tabs that folded over the shirt pocket. I was literally mobbed by kids who couldn't get enough of them. To avoid injury I had to throw them in the air as high as I could and then crawl under the scrum of kids grappling for those prizes. It was a true mania on the order of Elvis four years earlier or the Beatles four years later. At Sacred Hearts, it was a matter of Catholics voting for a Catholic. We had our identity politics even then.
I still cry when I see young John-John salute the passing caisson. Those terrible days of November 1963 are seared into my memory. An event that helped curdle optimism for many. But just underneath is the call to action, the torch being passed to a younger generation -- it might just as well have been mine but it was actually my father's generation, still in their 40s, veterans of World War 2. The fresh promise that politics, up to that time, rancid with stale cigar smoke, could be something noble.
That is what JFK brought -- perhaps sealed in amber due to his assassination. In the lifetime of living humans, I would count three truly transformational presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.
The perpetual campaign of the Clintons has attacked Barack Obama for many things, but no attack has been more baseless than Obama's characterization, to a Nevada newspaper editorial board, of Ronald Reagan as transformational.
One need not agree with Ronald Reagan to agree that his presidency changed the way Americans see themselves in the world, see their relationship to their government, appeal their own "better angels," as Lincoln said.
In 1984, challenged for re-election by a much lesser man, Reagan reminded America, "I am the change."
Passing the torch
But on Monday at American University, a Catholic school in Washington D.C., Barack Obama, that most unlikely of candidates, received the confirmational hand on the shoulder from the legatee of that martyred transformational president.
There are not too many better political speeches, nor better delivered, than Ted Kennedy gave at American University.
Not too often does moment meet the man more than this.
I have to think it was mortal to the Clinton cause. Teddy's refutation of "the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion" was aimed at the Clintons, not any Republican.
I am no fan of Teddy Kennedy's politics. But even I must admit that this Teddy, Monday in D.C., was the Al Smith, the Happy Warrior, of the liberal cause. And he carries in his white-haired personage the cynosure of youthful idealism of a great many baby boomers.
"I've seen it, I've lived it, we can do it again."
If you remember that cold January inaugural day in 1960, as I do, one can't help but think that this would have been Teddy's inauguration speech. He did not invoke the passing of torches, but before a college audience, he appealed to "a new generation of leadership."
Keep Passion Alive
The old man may have reawakened a sleeping, underground Chinese army of hopefuls. I am not among them. The politics are wrong. I want to feel passion in my politics. I did with Reagan and Tommy Thompson. But I do not want the passion of the Red Guards. I want our Republican nominee to face Hillary Clinton. I fear that we will have to contend with Obama.
But what a great speech from Teddy Kennedy. It is a dying art form. It cannot be missed. MSNBC has a video of it. Gregory Humphrey at