Idealism, refashioned

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It’s hard not to notice that we’re suddenly in the grip of what might be called “Kennedy chic,” triggered in part by the enthusiasm for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy.

Just this month, major books on John and Robert Kennedy have hit the stores: “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History” by Ted Sorensen, who advised and wrote speeches for both men; “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America” by Thurston Clarke; and Bill Eppridge’s collection of photos, “A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties.”

Vanity Fair, the glossy arbiter of hip chic, has combined excerpts from the latter two into a stunningly handsome cover story in its current issue with a headline: “Bobby Kennedy: The Hope, the Tragedy, and Why He Still Matters.”


Meanwhile, on the fashion front, Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s fashion director told a journalist this week that the Kennedys’ 1960s preppy dress was “totally the look for spring. ... A striped oxford shirt worn with a polka-dot tie and a khaki suit -- you can’t get more John F. Kennedy than that.”

What’s Obama have to do with all this? Aside from the fact that Sorensen and Ted and Caroline Kennedy have endorsed him, some of it reflects the hunger for change, particularly generational change, that Obama’s campaign, like the campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy, has tapped. As British commentator William Rees-Mogg wrote a few months ago in the Times of London, the Illinois senator “has built up an excitement such as no candidate has created since President Kennedy in 1960. He is, in my view, a better speaker than Kennedy. Like Kennedy, he combines personal magnetism with a strong appeal to American idealism.”

Some of the connection does stem from a deep desire -- particularly among the young -- for an elevated and inspiring political rhetoric after the verbal and intellectual aridity of the Bush years. Sorensen has spoken of this, and about how people who attack Obama for being all talk miss the importance and power of political speech as a force unto itself.

There is at least one other important rhetorical trait that Obama seems to share with the Kennedys -- especially Bobby -- an instinctual refusal to talk down to his audiences, to re-cut the reach of his own intellect to accommodate the presumed limitations of his listeners. His Philadelphia address on race, for example, remains the most thoughtfully sophisticated speech on the issue delivered by a candidate for national office.

It’s an address that stands clearly in the Kennedy rhetorical lineage, particularly the talk Bobby, by then a presidential candidate, improvised on the night of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He had flown to Indianapolis for a campaign rally in an all-black neighborhood. Informed of King’s murder as he exited the plane, the candidate was urged to cancel the rally. He refused and, on arriving at the hall, discovered that the enthusiastic, capacity crowd was unaware of the tragedy that had occurred in Memphis. It fell to him to ad lib a speech informing them. It surely was one of his best, spontaneous and heartfelt, and it included this passage:

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ ”


Bobby Kennedy’s speeches throughout 1968 were studded with that sort of unforced and unselfconscious erudition, spoken alike to college students and migrant farm workers. In his campaign’s kickoff address at the University of Kansas, the antiwar candidate explained and apologized for his role in his elder brother’s early decisions to increase the American role in Vietnam. He put it this way: “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom. ... Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil.’ The only sin, he said, is pride.”

What today’s chattering heads on CNN and Fox News would make of references to Aeschylus and Sophocles is anybody’s guess. But imagine where Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign might be if she’d said something similar about Iraq back in New Hampshire.

There’s a certain irrepressible American vulgarity that makes a fashion of every idea and a commodity of every ideal. Still, there’s something more to the current “Kennedy chic” Obama has helped foment than nostalgia for glen plaid, repp stripes and oxford cloth. There’s a hunger for generational change and for an end to postmodern irony. Sorensen, at 80 an unreconstructed and unapologetic idealist, spoke to that youthful hunger when he chose this bit of 19th century American poetry (by Arthur Hugh Clough) as his book’s epigraph: “Say not the struggle nought availeth/ The labor and the wounds are vain.”

How John F. Kennedy is that?