It was Bobby Kennedy in 1964 who inspired the young Bill Bradley to get into politics.
He would go through his hall of fame basketball career, but as Bradley writes in his latest book, “The New American Story,” Kennedy ‘s leadership in the 1960s planted the seed for Bradley’s life of public service following his career with the New York Knicks.
On Monday, the day before Election Day, the late Bobby Kennedy’s memory was alive as both sides – the Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama campaigns – appealed to his legacy with the help of his heirs.
Even as Sen. Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy mounted the stage in the Meadowlands to back up Obama, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., was preparing for a campaign appearance in Passaic on behalf of fellow New Yorker Clinton.
“We have a candidate for the president of the United States that will inspire a new generation of young people, bring our people together, and face the great issues that we should face in this century, at this time,” said Ted Kennedy in his introduction of Obama.
And later in the day it was environmentalist attorney Robert Kennedy Jr., telling PoltiickerNJ.com in an interview, “I love Barack; I think either of these people would make great presidents. Both of them have their own claims to that legacy and the legacy of democracy. I just think Hillary’s in a better position to govern on day one.”
Kennedy, Jr., who noted that Sen. Clinton occupies the same U.S. Senate seat that his father occupied in the 1960s, is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Clinton should the latter vacate her seat with a successful bid for the presidency.
“He’s got great name recognition, that’s for sure,” said Clinton fund-raising co-chair John F.X. Graham.
Those who examined the life of Bobby Kennedy, including the late historian and “The Best and the Brightest” author David Halberstam, said the quality the late Bobby Kennedy most prized was toughness, and his son’s eyes were steely Monday when he told a small crowd that he likes Clinton because she’s a “fist-fighter.”
For his part, Bradley, former New Jersey senator and 2000 insurgent presidential candidate, said he believes Obama is a better embodiment of those values the country has come to associate with John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy because at the heart of those values, in Bradley’s words, is the notion of “idealism without illusion.”
Referring to his roots as a community organizer on Chicago’s mean streets and his teeth cutting years in Illinois politics, Obama closed out his speech at the Meadowlands making the case for why being hopeful should not be confused with naivete, an echo of John F. Kennedy’s “civility is not a sign of weakness.”
“Hope is not blind optimism,” said Obama. “Hope is not ignoring the challenges, the hurdles, the obstacles that stand in your way. I know how hard change is going to be.”
In the tradition of “ask not what you can do for your country,” central to Bradley’s own vision for a reinvigoration of America is more citizen participation in the democratic process. He persistently laments the United States’ world ranking of 114 in voter turnout in national elections, and celebrates what he sees as that striking similarity in both the Kennedys’ and Obama’s hopeful message of re-engaging Americans in politics.
“I think every couple of generations, somebody comes along who reminds us that we’re Americans, and what it means to be an American, by appealing to the ideals that animated the founding of the country,” Bradley said last week in West Orange. “I think that is what he (Obama) has done in a remarkable way, and he personifies the very best of our country.”
Bradley’s appearance on stage Monday in advance of Obama with a group of mayors and state legislators that included his old friend, Senate President and former Governor Richard Codey, was at least the fifth public Obama event he has attended in the past four days.
Last Thursday he stood with Codey when the latter joined the campaign, addressed Douglass College students shortly thereafter, and a day later traveled to Sen. Loretta Weinberg country to help register voters in Teaneck. Bradley also made a diner stop in Fort Lee last Friday to spread the word about his candidate.
Never a scintillating public speaker by his own reckoning, Bradley concedes that he tried as a New Jersey senator to maintain a sense of dignity, and he sees that quality in Obama: a uniquely American dignity that the country is craving, particularly in the aftermath of President George W. Bush. Additionally, he said, Obama inspires.
“He has shown us that you can still be idealistic and succeed in America,” Bradley said. “Obama’s demeanor is one of calm strength. I am proud to support Barack Obama because he doesn’t seem to divide us, and he seems to speak to all people the same way.”
In his book, the former New Jersey senator writes, “The spirit of America has always been optimistic, pragmatic, and generous. We have no king, no hereditary aristocracy, no official, only citizens. Granted, some of these citizens wield immense power and others have none, yet upward mobility is a peculiarly American faith.”
When Obama’s entrance theme, U2’s “City of Blinding Light” filled the arena, Bradley, standing alone in the crowd, said he felt great. “It’s what America needs,” he added, as he watched the young presidential candidate smiling and interacting with people on his way to the stage, with the two Kennedys at his side.
Later, in another venue, suggesting that Obama’s candidacy is more speech-making than substance, Bobby Kennedy, Jr. said presidential poetics would not be sufficient in the face of powerful corporate interests.
But for Bradley at least, Obama had passed the toughness test.