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For Obama, Kennedy's illness meant a missed chance for a mentor

Senator Edward Kennedy's brain cancer dashed hopes he would help propel President Barack Obama's bold agenda.

August 27, 2009|Christi Parsons and Peter Wallsten

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASS., AND WASHINGTON — For Barack Obama, the upstart Illinois senator who thought he could be president, January 2008 was a critical moment. As the fight for the Democratic nomination heated up, Hillary Rodham Clinton was hammering Obama's credentials as a liberal and calling in a lifetime of political IOUs from party leaders.

But seemingly in the nick of time, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the surviving lion of an iconic political pride, appeared at a rally in Washington to play the trump card of American liberalism: It was the junior senator from Illinois, Kennedy declared, who was the true heir of his martyred brother, the late President John F. Kennedy.

With members of his family clustered round and his voice booming off the walls of the American University gym, Kennedy reached back to "another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier."

"So it is with Barack Obama," he bellowed. It was the picture worth a thousand words: If Kennedy backed him, who could deny that Obama was a legitimate candidate?

It also looked like the start of one of the great political friendships of American history. Indeed, when Obama won the nomination and then the White House, many Democrats thought Kennedy could be the key to success for Obama's ambitious agenda:

The old master, schooled in Washington's ways and with a gift for reaching across the aisle to Republicans, working in tandem with a bright young president who had charisma but little experience governing.

Obama advisor David Axelrod described the budding relationship as a "warm, personal bond between the wise old lion and a young leader in whom [Kennedy] saw special qualities of leadership."

It was not to be, however, and the tragic future was foreshadowed on Inauguration Day. Kennedy, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer less than four months after endorsing Obama, was on the podium as the new president took the oath of office.

Soon afterward, Kennedy collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

Obama, informing other dignitaries where Kennedy had been taken, said, "I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now, a part of me is with him."

And even though friends such as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) continued to invoke Kennedy's name as they set to work on the healthcare bill they hoped would be the Massachusetts senator's crowning achievement, Kennedy was forced from the game.

The last time he and the president talked healthcare strategy was June 2 -- long before negotiations stalled in the Senate and conservatives mounted vociferous attacks on the proposed overhaul.

"Since Sen. Kennedy took a turn for the worse, we have been distraught that he hasn't been available," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a leading liberal voice who said that Kennedy, more than any other Democratic senator, had a unique talent for finding ways to compromise with Republicans on complex issues. "We have been suffering from his lack of presence in the debate for sure for quite some time."

For Obama, the scene at American University last year was the culmination of a months-long effort to establish ties with a potentially crucial supporter. It also reflected a career pattern in which Obama, at every stage, had sought the approval and guidance of trusted elders.

Among them: a well-known pastor on Chicago's South Side as Obama laid the foundation for his political career; the president of the Illinois state Senate as Obama sought substantive assignments to build a statewide profile for his U.S. Senate bid; and then Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who was the first U.S. senator to back Obama's presidential campaign.

It was Durbin who helped bring Obama and Kennedy together, checking in with the Massachusetts senator periodically as Obama launched his bid and putting in a word for Obama here and there.

Durbin recalled that Kennedy once was put out by a Boston Globe story that resurrected an Obama quote critical of Kennedy during Obama's failed run for a House seat in 2000.

Kennedy got over it, though, Durbin said, quoting Kennedy as saying, "That's OK. I once slipped and called him 'Osama.' "

The last time Obama and Kennedy spoke was July 10, after the president delivered a letter to the pope from Kennedy.

On Wednesday morning, Obama cited Kennedy's ability to bridge the partisan divide, calling him "one of the greatest senators of our time."

He also gave a subtle nod to the way Kennedy, as a chief advocate for civil rights laws, had affected his own life as an African American. Kennedy's "ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives," he said, such as "all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just -- including myself."

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cparsons@latimes.com

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Katherine Skiba in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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"His extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. And the extraordinary good that he did lives on. For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was the defender of a dream."

President Obama

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