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Obama's Bridge Between MLK and RFK

By John Avlon

Politics is history in the present tense. And perhaps never more than at this moment.

Barack Obama captured the Democratic nomination almost 40 years to the day after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination the night he won the California primary. RFK died on June 6th, 1968.

And he will accept his party's nomination on another fateful day - the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

This coincidence of the calendar underscores the way in which Obama's candidacy symbolizes a step toward resolution of the shattered dreams of mid-1960s moderate liberalism.

Obama is literally a child of the 1960s (born in Hawaii, 1961) and his approach to this campaign has been consistent with Martin Luther King's dream of a country in which his children would be judged on "the content of their character, not the color of their skin."

But while Obama's soaring oratory has been exhaustively compared to Martin Luther King's Baptist rhythms, his success in the general election will depend on rebuilding Robert F. Kennedy's brief and almost mythic electoral coalition.

No Democratic candidate since RFK has been able to bridge the left, right and center -inspiring blacks and working class whites, Hispanics and young voters - the same fault lines that that underlay the bitter 2008 nomination fight.

The secret to Kennedy's success was a balance of profile based in his experience. He combined what MLK's sermons referred to as a "tough mind and a tender heart."

As a former mob-busting Attorney General and committed Cold Warrior, Bobby Kennedy reassured voters who wanted the law and order that counter-culture liberals seemed to dismiss. His 1968 stump speech and television ads hammered home this fact, testifying to his experience as "the chief law enforcement officer in the nation."

But as the civil rights enforcer and social reformer New York Senator who turned against the Vietnam War, Bobby Kennedy inspired progressive voters who wanted compassion to be matched with action.

Bridging the differences of the 1960s Democratic Party, aided by the strength of association with his slain brother, RFK was able to avoid being stereotyped as a member of the far-left. His campaign turned into a cause and then a crusade.

And while few future political candidates would attempt to cast themselves as inheritors of MLK's mantle (Jesse Jackson comes to mind), the image of Bobby Kennedy retains its romance when Democrats look in the mirror even 40 years after his death.

George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart all attempted to carry the RFK torch forward. Bill Clinton claimed Robert F. Kennedy as the first New Democrat, writing, "he believed in civil rights for all and special privileges for none, for giving poor people a hand-up rather than a hand-out: work was better than welfare."

In this 16-month primary campaign, Hillary Clinton tried to repeatedly invoke the aura of RFK, using footage of her fellow New York Senator in advertisements with testimonials from his children.

Obama's campaign proved to be far more worthy of the RFK comparisons.

Among young voters, he has inspired devotion as a symbol of generational change. Part of this is age: Obama is 46, RFK was 42. But Obama updates the fabled Kennedy cool, and with You-Tube videos, Jay-Z "dirt off my shoulder" references, and pop art political posters emblazed with the word "change," he has become not only a pop culture icon but a pop culture cause, the first Hip-Hop presidential candidate. Among African American voters, he is a symbol of historic deliverance. Both young voters and blacks have voted for him in landslide numbers. To them, his campaign is already a crusade.

Like RFK, Obama succeeded in inspiring voters outside liberal Democratic strongholds, consistently claiming victories among conservative red state Democrats in the deep south, Midwest and northwest - even winning Oregon, which resisted RFK in 1968.

But two groups that Hillary Clinton consistently and increasingly kept from him were older working class whites (incarnations or remnants of the '68 George Wallace vote) and Hispanics. It was RFK-marcher Cesar Chavez who popularized the phrase "si, se puede" - which morphed across the decades into the Obama slogan "yes, we can" - but Latino voters stayed loyal to Hillary in the 2008 primaries.

Obama will need to deepen his appeal among both groups to win the election in November. The support of the nation's only Hispanic governor, Bill Richardson, could help - but John McCain's Arizona home and conservative base-bucking support of immigration reform makes this far from a done deal. Picking a vice-president like Vietnam vet and Virginia Senator Jim Webb could help him connect with many working class whites while also addressing the perceived patriotism gap - the deficit that Democrats have faced since the late-60s, when anti-war protests became evidence of a deeper anti-Americanism.

It is this legacy of the late-1960s - the cultural chaos and political radicalism that erupted after the assassinations of MLK and RFK - that Obama must reconcile if he is to be elected President. That's the wound that Reverend Wright's sermons opened up, hurting Obama among many centrists and independents. Rev. Wright comes out of the black power movement that contorted the self-evident moral clarity of the civil rights era under Martin Luther King. It is fuel to the fire of "far-left" associations that have destroyed more than one Democratic candidate in the eyes of the essentially center-right American electorate.

As a bridge-builder by biography and self-conception, Obama is well equipped to not only bridge generations but also heal the wounds left by the late 1960s. He can fulfill the promise of Bobby Kennedy's unfinished campaign by building a broad coalition across racial, geographic and political lines. And when he takes the stage in Denver, he can proclaim with some justification that he represents Martin Luther King's American dream, not deferred but finally realized.

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