Her kids, her uncle, her father—and Obama's father—all played a role.--For all the attention paid to Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama, the more crucial seal of approval may be the one affixed by Caroline Kennedy. An Obama TV ad that features her is already being widely aired in Super Tuesday states. If Caroline helps Obama cut into Hillary Clinton's base among women over 40 (especially Roman Catholic women), Obama aides believe her involvement could prove important to the outcome.
The behind-the-scenes story of Caroline's journey into the Obama camp features her three teenage children, her uncle—and a long-forgotten controversy from the 1960 presidential campaign. The complicated tale involves an angry Sen. John F. Kennedy, Vice President Richard Nixon's "truth squad," baseball great Jackie Robinson and a group of stranded African students trying to book passage to the United States—including Barack Obama Sr., father of the presidential candidate.
I've known Caroline since the 1970s, and with the help of a knowledgeable source have pieced together how she moved from neutral observer of the campaign to impassioned Obama supporter, shedding tears at American University on Monday as she witnessed a moment that, she believed, deeply fulfilled the ideals of her family.
"It was my father's spirit, living on in a meaningful, profound way," she said afterward.
For decades Caroline has dutifully campaigned for the Democratic nominee for president. But except for 1980, when her uncle Ted ran unsuccessfully for president, she has never involved herself in a party primary contest. She did not expect that 2008 would prove to be different, though her long relationship with the Clintons and her admiration of them left her open to possibly backing Hillary. During the Clinton administration she hosted a dinner party for the president and First Lady on Martha's Vineyard, went sailing with them and her family and stayed in irregular but friendly contact.
Like all Democrats, Caroline and her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, had admired Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. But she didn't consider his possible presidential campaign seriously until Christmas 2006, when a friend of her older daughter, Rose, a Harvard sophomore, sat in her kitchen and described how Ivy League students were already organizing for Obama even before he officially declared his candidacy.
Declining invitations to fund-raisers, she and her 17-year-old daughter Tatiana slipped unrecognized into a speech Obama made last April to an African-American audience in New York. Obama didn't realize she had been there until after he left, and he quickly called her to make amends for not saying hello, which was the first time they talked. She saw him speak again at an event on Martha's Vineyard over the summer (when she also saw a Hillary speech) and at a September Obama rally in Manhattan's Washington Square Park, where she stood unobtrusively at the rear of a huge crowd.
Unlike some voters, Caroline wasn't immediately swayed by his oratory. Instead she watched the campaign closely, read Obama's position papers and his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," and talked to Rose, Tatiana and Jack, now 15, whom Obama on Monday described as "my greatest advocates over the last several months." Like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, two other prominent supporters, Caroline credits her children with influencing her to take a closer look at Obama.
After Obama's big victory in Iowa, she spoke with the Illinois senator on the phone and pledged her support. Then, last week, Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea called her. Unlike Ted Kennedy's heated phone conversation with Clinton (which I learned of in mid-January from sources outside the Kennedy family), Caroline and the former president spoke cordially. But all along Caroline was talking much more frequently to Ted, with whom she is extremely close.
The Obama camp at first thought to send Caroline out to announce her support by campaigning with Obama on JFK Boulevard in New Jersey, but she decided instead to offer an op-ed piece to the New York Times, which she wrote on her own late one night, a few days before the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary. Before the article appeared she called Chelsea to tell her she was backing Obama.
One intriguing element of Obama's family history that resonated with Caroline was a long-buried story that was brought to her attention last summer. It drove home for her how history replays itself, how two generations of two families—separated by distance, culture and wealth—can intersect in strange and wonderful ways, and how people have no idea that their good deeds may come back to them someday.
Two weeks after he was nominated for president in July 1960, then-Senator Kennedy received a visit at his vacation home in Hyannis Port, Mass., from a Kenyan educator, Tom Mboya, who told him that more than 200 African students had received scholarships to American universities through the African-American Students Foundation but did not have the $100,000 for air transport. Despite efforts by Vice President Nixon (whom JFK would face in the November election), the Eisenhower State Department would not pay for what was described as "the African airlift."
With only weeks to go before the school year began, Kennedy quietly tapped his family's Kennedy Foundation, which agreed to raise the necessary funds privately. Upon learning this Nixon, seeking black votes, quickly convinced the State Department to reverse itself and offer the money, then arranged for one of his best-known African-American supporters, retired Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson, to write a newspaper column praising him for coming to the aid of the African students.
But Nixon didn't stop there. Sen. Hugh Scott, who headed Nixon's campaign "truth squad," took to the Senate floor to denounce JFK for "plucking this project away from the U.S. government" in a "misuse of tax-exempt foundation money for blatant political purposes." Kennedy replied that this was "the most unfair, distorted and malignant attack I have heard in 14 years in politics."
When the truth finally emerged, Robinson wrote a column saying, "I don't mind admitting it—I was wrong." The airlift money came through from the Kennedy Foundation, and the students arrived. Barack Obama Sr. went to the University of Hawaii, where he met and married a young white woman from Kansas.
Their son, born the following year, arrived in the United States Senate in early 2005 and found that the antique desk he had been assigned on the Senate floor had once belonged to JFK, whose initials were carved inside. Obama learned only recently how his father's dream of studying in the United States had been fulfilled. A "young senator from Massachusetts" made an effort, Obama told the crowd at American University. "And because he did, I stand before you today."
The story captured why Caroline felt so satisfied by the symmetry of Monday's event. By Tuesday she was off to Colorado to begin campaigning with the man she believes is the true heir to her own father's legacy.