Obama, Kennedy Developed Extraordinary Friendship

29 August 2009

In this 28 Jan. 2008 file photo, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Obama smiles with Sen. Kennedy, during rally at American University in Washington
In this 28 Jan. 2008 file photo, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Obama smiles with Sen. Kennedy, during rally at American University in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver a eulogy Saturday at a funeral mass in Boston for the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the culmination of an extraordinary friendship between the two men. The president and Senator Kennedy developed a relationship that went far beyond politics and became very personal.

At first it might seem unusual that a young, black, freshman Senator from inner-city Chicago would become close friends with a white, elderly and distinctly privileged son of the most famous political family in America.

But Barack Obama and Edward Kennedy, in a short time, built a strong personal bond.

They became comrades in the U.S. Senate over their opposition to the war in Iraq and nurtured a friendship from there.

For Mr. Obama, it was an affection that would turn into what many analysts say was the most important endorsement of his presidential campaign in January 2008, well before it was clear he would be the Democrats' nominee for the White House.

At an election rally at American University in Washington, Kennedy endorsed Mr. Obama over then-Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. "I am proud to stand with him here today and offer my help, offer my voice, offer my energy, my commitment to make Barack Obama the next President of the United States," Kennedy said.

During his endorsement, Kennedy painted Mr. Obama as heir to the legacy of his slain brothers, John and Robert Kennedy.

That connection, to the political dynasty of the Kennedy family, gave the young presidential contender immeasurable credibility with establishment Democrats and cemented a personal friendship. "I love this country. I believe in the bright light of hope and possibility. I always have, even in the darkest hours. I know what America can achieve. I've seen it. I've lived it and with Barack Obama, we can do it again," the senator said.

When Kennedy's brain cancer kept him from delivering a commencement address at his stepdaughter's college, Obama left the campaign trail and stood in for his Senate colleague.

He told the graduating students at Wesleyan University a joke he borrowed from Senator Kennedy. "And I'd like to start by passing along a message from Ted: To all those praying for my return to good health, I offer my heartfelt thanks. And to any who'd rather have a different result, I say, don't get your hopes up just yet!," Mr. Obama said.

Returning the favor, Kennedy traveled to the Democratic National Convention a year ago, and at great risk to his health, again endorsed Mr. Obama's candidacy in a speech that brought the delegates to their feet and many to tears.

U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says the senator's endorsement of Mr. Obama was the perfect capstone of Kennedy's political career. "To have his career capped by endorsing an African-American candidate who wins the presidency is quite remarkable. As an historian, of course, you like to have a closing chapter that resolves the issues of a person's life and I can't believe that any future biographer of Senator Kennedy won't make a large issue out of his endorsement of Barack Obama," he said.

Despite his illness, Senator Kennedy returned to Capitol Hill in January to see President Obama's inauguration. Kennedy suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon that afternoon.

Ritchie says Kennedy, a strong supporter of the civil rights movement, wanted to witness the swearing in of his friend, the first black American to be elected president. "His attendance at that inauguration, even though he was in poor health and, in fact, became ill that day, but he went there. He participated, he wanted to be there and you have to think it meant an awful lot to him," he said.

Since becoming president, Mr. Obama has frequently paid tribute to Senator Kennedy.

He praised him in a speech to a joint session of Congress, led a Happy Birthday sing-along during a tribute at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and hand-delivered a letter from the Senator to Pope Benedict XVI.

Most recently, President Obama awarded Kennedy the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Senator Kennedy and President Obama were also connected on a lighter note.

When the president faced the much-watched choice of a dog for his two daughters, it was Kennedy who gave the Obama family Bo, a Portuguese water dog like the pair of dogs that have been a fixture in the senator's Washington office.

In remarks made shortly after the Senator's death, Mr. Obama called Kennedy a singular figure in American history who touched many lives. "His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives -- in seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education's promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just -- including myself," the president said.

President Obama says Senator Kennedy was a guardian for his family and for America he was the defender of a dream.