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Obama resurrects the spirit of JFK

Christina Bergmann (df)August 29, 2008

Barack Obama has been riding the tide of JFK's popularity both in the US and Germany, where the the former US President was once idolized. Endorsements from the Kennedys give Obama's candidacy even greater legitimacy.

Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy
It's no coincidence that Berlin was the only European capital where Obama spoke publiclyImage: AP

In June 1963, former US President John F. Kennedy stood before a crowd of 120,000 ecstatic Berliners and gave his legendary "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. The Berlin Wall had gone up two years before, dividing the city along Cold War lines, and Kennedy was expressing his solidarity with the people of free West Berlin.

The Kennedy aura resonates more deeply in Germany than in the United States, according to Dieter Dettke, a Georgetown University professor of US-European relations, who was for many years the Washington-based head of Germany's Social Democrat think tank, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

During a tour of European capitals last July, it is no coincidence that the only public speech that Barack Obama gave was also in the German capital, said Dettke.

"There are several components to the Kennedy myth," he said. "His youthful appeal, the break with the past. Old America then was looking for a breath of fresh air."

Barack Obama and Edward Kennedy
Sen. Kennedy throws his full support behind ObamaImage: AP

Back then, an America in which whites and blacks had been segregated in some states was struggling to overcome division across racial lines. Today the schism is more a socio-economic divide, but in both cases, the country was looking for a way to face the challenges it was confronted with.

Kennedy clan endorsement

Even the Kennedy clan has said it sees parallels between JFK and Obama, who has been dubbed the "black Kennedy" by the German media.

It was Caroline Kennedy, the 50-year-old daughter of the slain president, who first endorsed Obama in a New York Times commentary in January. Kennedy, who has previously shunned the political spotlight, then made a public appearance at a huge campaign rally at the American University in Washington.

She said that for the first time in her life she had seen a man like her father.

"Barack Obama is already inspiring all Americans, young and old to believe in ourselves, tying that belief to our highest ideals, ideals of hope, justice, opportunity and peace, and urging us to imagine that together we can do great things," said Kennedy in a speech at the rally.

The dream lives on

Caroline Kennedy was not alone, but accompanied by her uncle Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who also endorsed the Obama candidacy in a rousing speech back then. On Monday at the Democratic convention floor in Denver, the same scenario was repeated.

The 76-year-old senator from Massachusetts, one of the most influential and long-serving American politicians of all time, who recently underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumour, used his authority to throw his full support behind Barack Obama.

Oprah Winfrey, second from right, Caroline Kennedy, second from left, California's first lady, Maria Shriver, center, Maria Elena Durazo, right, and Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., stand during a campaign rally.
Caroline Kennedy (2nd from left) openly endorses ObamaImage: AP

Obama represents a new generation of leadership in America, said the senator. "The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on," he said before a cheering crowd.

And so the era of Camelot, the legendary tale of King Arthur that defined JFK's 1,000 days in office, has been transported Chicago, the constituency base of Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois.

But how much does the white Irish Catholic Kennedy clan have in common with the black Messiah Obama? JFK had also been the first Catholic US President ever, just as Obama now is the first black man to emerge as the Democratic candidate for the presidency.

When Kennedy took the oath of office, he was just 43, even a few years younger than 47-year-old Obama. Kennedy, however, had been a highly decorated war veteran and had already served for 14 years in Congress, where his travels had taken him to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

JFK as a role model

Even then, Kennedy was a blank page for the American public, according to Jackson Janes, the executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Kennedy was more about style than substance back then in 1960," said Janes. Is Obama pursuing the right strategy?

Crowds with some people carrying US flag in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate during Obama visit
Like JFK before him, Obama drew enthusiastic crowds in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Yes, but I think he shouldn't go too far with it, since lots of people also regard the (Kennedy) era as a unique time in history," he said.

Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, has repeatedly talked about John F. Kennedy being his great role model.

As President of the United States of America, he would seek to emulate JFK's leadership style, said Obama. Now as the official Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama is one step closer to his goal.

Suppressing the dark side of Camelot

What remains unaccounted for is the "Kennedy curse" -- all the tragedies that have made one of America's first families larger than life. John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Robert were both gunned down by assassins and three of their sons also succumbed to unnatural deaths at an early age.

Then there were the Kennedy brothers' dalliances with women other than their wives, JFK's health problems and the scandals that have tarnished the clan -- the dark side of Camelot that the Democrats would rather not think about at the moment.