Oh, Camelot!

Posted: Jan 30, 2008 12:01 AM
Oh, Camelot!

WASHINGTON -- Americans finally have narrowed the presidential race to two front-runners: John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Too bad they're both busy chatting up Guinevere and Galahad, respectively, in the ultimate Camelot, where the climate really is perfect all the year. Eternally.

Back on planet Earth, where we typically elect live specimens, the legacies of Kennedy and Reagan can't get a rest.

The Republican race looks like a Barnum & Bailey elephant walk with every candidate trying to tie his trunk to Reagan's tail. Democrats continue trying to recapture that JFK moment when America was better looking, slimmer by far, glamorous and rhetorically rich.

Smart Democratic candidates embrace both Kennedy and Reagan. That would be Barack Obama, who dared suggest the truism that Reagan got elected because he had the right message for the right time.

Though some Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, took umbrage that Obama seemed to be comparing himself to Reagan, honest brokers saw it for what it was -- a demonstrably irrefutable observation.

But all that is a footnote to the larger history now unfolding.

Obama -- the young American prince threatened by the forces of evil -- has been kissed by Camelot's elfin princess, Caroline Kennedy. Writing in Sunday's New York Times, she said that Obama is the first president in her lifetime to inspire her as her father did others.

Seconding that emotion was her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Endorsements may only be symbolic, but that nod from the throne of American political royalty erected a protective aura around Obama's candidacy.

Obama is golden and the Clintons, who chased JFK's shadow with everything but the real goods, have been cast into the outer darkness.

At least for the moment. In politics, the night is always young.

Indeed, no sooner had the sun woven its umber tendrils through Obama's tiara than Camelot's cousins, offspring of Robert F. Kennedy, announced their preference for Hillary Clinton. (That must have been some phone call.)

In their own op-ed Tuesday, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kerry Kennedy wrote in the Los Angeles Times that rhetoric is nice -- and they should know -- but performance counts more. In fact, they said one must know how to fight. And the Clintons, no one doubts, certainly do.

"The loftiest poetry will not solve these issues," the RFK siblings wrote. "We need a president willing to engage in a fistfight to safeguard and restore our national virtues. ... We've also seen her (Hillary's) two-fisted willingness to enter the brawl when America's principles are challenged."

Not to mention when her previously inevitable date with fate is challenged.

Two-fisted brawling has its appeal, to be sure. We seem especially to admire tough grrrrrls who can deliver a strategic wallop to a male foe. But four-fisted pummeling against one skinny guy, as Hillary and Bill have done in recent weeks, has struck many Americans as, well, un-American. And unfair in the extreme. Toss in a racial component, as the Clintons have, and you incite a riot of contempt.

Hillary's perceived minimizing of Martin Luther King's courage and sacrifice may have been an honest attempt to highlight the importance of Washington know-how, but it also betrayed a lack of judgment and sensitivity toward the African-American community she and Bill had courted so assiduously through the years.

Was it real, or was it pandering? The answer may be found in Bill's assessment of Obama's South Carolina primary victory: "Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina twice, in '84 and '88." By implication: It's just a black thing.

This was not a pretty moment for the Clintons. It was certainly not Kennedyesque from the most ardent pretender to Camelot. It must be bruising to Bill Clinton, who fashioned his own political life after JFK's, that Obama should be the one to capture Princess Caroline's affections.

For his part, Obama would rather have the Kennedy imprimatur than not, but he's no JFK, as even he would surely insist. And maybe he doesn't want to be. Camelot was once a dream, but today it is a curse. No one can live up to a hallowed past, especially one that didn't really exist.

Perhaps the reason we attach ourselves to the legacies of icons past is because we have so little faith in the future. But surely it's time to let Kennedy and Reagan rest in peace. They've earned it -- and imitations are always just that.