Barack Obama stood in for the, alas, quite ailing Ted Kennedy at the Wesleyan University commencement today. The New York Times report took this as a passing of the torch of liberal leadership in American politics, and maybe that is exactly what it will turn out to be. It is certainly and at minimum a moving moment in our history. Frankly (and I am embarrassed to admit this), it took me a long time to grasp Ted's centrality in both the real and symbolic narratives that bind our present to our past.
Of course, the senator from my own state of Massachusetts had months ago endorsed his colleague from Illinois for the presidency. But, at a particularly sad moment like this, with Kennedy fighting for both his life and his ideals, one simply cannot imagine him turning to Hillary Clinton to do the honors he asked Obama to perform. First of all, she would not have been kindly received at Wesleyan, maybe (after the last few ugly weeks) not even politely received. Her trajectory is exactly the reverse of Teddy's. e started out in 1962 as something of a joke and at the dusk of his life is recognized across the political spectrum as a statesman, brave, coherent and cohering, dogged for the causes he has come to represent.
On the other hand, Hillary started out as a "movement activist," flirting at its revolutionary extremes. This did not work with Bill who was a cynic all along. In any event, she moved quickly to the center, rather dead center, while retaining the leftist meta-vocabulary ("the politics of meaning," for instance) and the capacity to still play social victim as both a high brow feminist and Rosie the Riveter, paradigms of two completely different economic strata. Maybe Bill spoiled her: after all, he just believes in himself; and she believes in herself. Basta.
According to the Times dispatch, Obama commended several exemplary causes to the Wesleyan class of 2008. There apparently was an internationalist bent to his address, which, I suppose, is OK with me. But isn't there enough to be done at home without sending our gifted and privileged young off to Asia? Has anybody ever done a study of what Peace Corps volunteers actually accomplish abroad? Obama suggested that one domestic item on the agenda is rebuilding New Orleans, and it should be. And there are others. He needs no advice from me.
Still, there was one goal to which he alluded and the Times correspondent Katie Zezima noted as "help(ing) end the situation in Darfur." You may think I am a crank on this one. But as long as we think the United Nations is the key to the solution of the ruthless gore in Sudan, Darfurians (and their neighbors) will continue to starve and perish from both hunger and war. This is a situation that no amount of talk will end. Darfur needs our planes and guns and the planes and guns of our allies. The rest is crap.
Back to Ted Kennedy: I hope that someone at once sensitive and smart, preferably a politically unaffiliated writer, will have the opportunity to talk to Kennedy, to talk at length, very much at length, about his life, from his father and mother to the last sad act.The Kennedy phenomenon is a huge part of our history. It is obscured by campaign bunting and by wreaths of mourning. It would not be the least of Teddy's contribution if he were to give the truths in his head and heart.