Last week there was the widespread revulsion at the Clintons' toxic attempts to ghettoize Barack Obama. In private and occasionally in public, leading Democrats lost patience with the hyperpartisan style of politics — the distortion of facts, the demonizing of foes, the secret admiration for brass-knuckle brawling and the ever-present assumption that it's necessary to pollute the public sphere to win. All the suppressed suspicions of Clintonian narcissism came back to the fore. Are these people really serving the larger cause of the Democratic Party, or are they using the party as a vehicle for themselves?
And then Monday, something equally astonishing happened. A throng of Kennedys came to the Bender Arena at American University in Washington to endorse Obama. Caroline Kennedy evoked her father. Sen. Edward Kennedy's slightly hunched form carried with it the recent history of the Democratic Party.
The Kennedy endorsements will help among working-class Democrats, Catholics and the millions of women who have followed Caroline's path to maturity. Furthermore, here was Edward Kennedy, the consummate legislative craftsman, vouching for the fact that Obama is ready to be president on Day One.
But the event was striking for another reason, having to do with the confluence of themes and generations. The Kennedys and Obama hit the same contrasts again and again in their speeches: the high road versus the low road; inspiration versus calculation; future versus the past; and most of all, service versus selfishness.
"With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion," Edward Kennedy declared. "With Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign — a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us," he said.
The Clintons started this fight, and in his grand and graceful way, Kennedy returned the volley with interest.
Kennedy went on to talk about the 1960s. But he didn't talk much about the late '60s, when Bill and Hillary came to political activism. He talked about the early '60s, and the idealism of the generation that had seen World War II, the idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties, the idealism of a generation whose activism was relatively unmarked by drug use and self-indulgence.
Then, in the speech's most striking passage, he set Bill Clinton afloat on the receding tide of memory. "There was another time," Kennedy said, "when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a New Frontier." But, he continued, another former Democratic president, Harry Truman, said he should have patience. He said he lacked experience. John Kennedy replied: "The world is changing. The old ways will not do!"
The audience at American University roared. It was mostly young people, and to them, the Clintons are as old as the Trumans were in 1960. And in the students' rapture for Kennedy's message, you began to see the folding over of generations, the service generation of John and Robert Kennedy united with the service generation of the One Campaign. The grandparents and children united against the parents.
How could the septuagenarian Kennedy cast the younger Clintons into the past? He could do it because he evoked the New Frontier, which again seems fresh. He could do it because he himself has come to live a life of service.
After his callow youth, Kennedy came to realize that life would not give him the chance to be president. But life did ask him to be a senator, and he has embraced that role and served that institution with more distinction than anyone else now living — as any of his colleagues, Republican or Democrat, will tell you. And he could do it because culture really does have rhythms. The respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early '60s is prevalent with the young again today. The earnest industriousness that was common then is back today. The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today.
Sept. 11 really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service. The old Clintonian style of politics clashes with that desire. When Sidney Blumenthal expresses the Clinton creed by telling George Packer of The New Yorker, "It's not a question of transcending partisanship. It's a question of fulfilling it," that clashes with the desire as well.
It's not clear how far this altered public mood will carry Obama in this election. But there was something important and memorable about the way the 75-year-old Kennedy communed and bonded with a rapturous crowd half a century his junior.
The old guy stole the show.