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Obama nod linked Kennedy to younger generation

For young Americans unfamiliar with terms like Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy was always a rotund, grandfatherly figure, a living link to the storied family they knew only from history books and tales from their parents.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For young Americans unfamiliar with terms like Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy was always a rotund, grandfatherly figure, a living link to the storied family they knew only from history books and tales from their parents.

A few might have known him as the bad boy, or the last Kennedy brother to mount a presidential bid. But when he endorsed Barack Obama and later gave a stirring convention speech, Kennedy truly raised his profile with a generation wholly removed from Camelot.

"I gained more respect for him because he wasn't afraid to say, `Hey, I like this guy,'" says Jason Webber, a 17-year-old freshman at Eastern Michigan University who wants to run for office someday.

"I think it's hard for people of a different generation to understand what we're going through — our lives and how things are changing for us. It's great that he could connect with us on that level. Most politicians of that generation can't do that."

Generation Xers, who range from their early 30s to mid-40s, are generally more aware of Kennedy's triumphs, and his foibles. He was both revered by that generation and the butt of their jokes.

But a lot of people Webber's age, known as Generation Y or millennials, have never heard of the Chappaquiddick car accident that dogged Kennedy, much less the details of his decades in the Senate.

"And most of them don't understand all the bills he was involved in or all the skirmishes. They wouldn't see all that," says Eric Greenberg, author of "Generation We: How Millennial Youth Are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever."

But in endorsing Obama in January 2008, at a critical moment in Obama's primary fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kennedy did a very Kennedy thing — he validated the nation's youth and encouraged them to get involved.

"I don't think it turned them into 'Kennedy-ites' or anything," Greenberg says. "But they thought, 'Cool, the old guard is catching on.'"

Or, as Robert Alexander, an associate professor of political science at Ohio Northern University, says: Kennedy managed to put "the Kennedy mystique back into focus."

In receiving the endorsement that day, Obama, then 46, made note of the generational gap.

"I was too young to remember John Kennedy, and I was just a child when Robert Kennedy ran for president," he said. "But in the stories I heard growing up, I saw how my grandparents and mother spoke about them, and about that period in our nation's life — as a time of great hope and achievement."

The senator from Massachusetts also had a reputation for connecting with young people in person, even when he was older and in failing health. Jennifer Donahue, political director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, observed that when he spoke with Obama at an appearance in her state.

"He was the lion. Proof to me was watching these young people respond to him the way he did. It transcends party and politics," she says. "It's the kind of inspiration that can light someone up for life. That is not easy to do when you're standing next to Barack Obama."

Tobin Van Ostern, a recent college graduate who helped lead Students for Barack Obama, still has the blue-and-white "Kennedy" placard that was handed out right before Kennedy's speech a year ago at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

He recalls the excitement at the convention when it became clear that Kennedy, by then diagnosed with a brain tumor, would speak — and sharing that moment with his mother, who had always told him about the Kennedy family.

"It was amazing to be there," says Van Ostern, who is 21.

After Kennedy's death, he says, e-mail lists lit up with young people across the country who wanted to talk about the late senator. Many of them had worked as interns or aides on Capitol Hill or met Kennedy during his many speeches on college campuses.

Tributes also quickly sprang up on Facebook and Twitter. Postings on the social networking sites were how many young people first heard the news of Kennedy's death late Tuesday at age 77.

Of course, that doesn't mean every young person is impressed with Kennedy, even if they are suddenly more aware of him. To Ivana Huq, a 19-year-old student at Florida International University, he was a "political figure that personally doesn't mean much."

But when Jessica DaSilva, a senior at the University of Florida, got the news of Kennedy's death on her cell phone, she cried.

A journalism and political science major, she says she and her peers were more aware of Kennedy's work. She respected him so much that his endorsement of the future president caused her to change her vote from Clinton to Obama.

"I just thought he was a really admirable person," she says.

Karlo Marcelo, a 28-year-old Washington political blogger, called Kennedy "a statesman in the way that Bob Dole was." He noted that the senator's favorite issues, including expanding health care and making college more affordable, are also often priorities for young voters.

Whether his legacy and death will have true impact on this generation — who are widely considered to be more politically active than previous generations were at their age — remains to be seen.

Kennedy's pivotal role in the campaign sent even the youngest Americans to their computers to find out more.

According to Yahoo, for instance, 32 percent of Internet searches for "Edward Kennedy" in August of last year were by those age 20 and younger. And this month, so far, 25 percent of searches have been from the under-20 age group.

In August 2007, searches for "Edward Kennedy" were not even significant enough to register.

Donahue wonders whether young people's enthusiasm for Kennedy — even for Obama — will continue.

"This is a tipping point," Donahue says. "If they want to hold Obama and others to those values they believe in, that requires activism. And that's what the whole Kennedy dynasty represents — public service for the greater good."


On the Net:

A Facebook tribute page:


Lisa Orkin in Miami contributed to this report. Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine(at) or via