The Politics of Obama's Denver Speech

From the 1930s to the 1960s, hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of American homes contained two pictures: one of Jesus Christ, the other of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By the late 1960s, FDR's image was giving way to pictures of John F. Kennedy and, especially in African-American homes, of Martin Luther King Jr. Their images still often enjoy pride of place with Jesus.

Now Barack Obama is seeking a spot on that wall some day. In late August, he will accept the Democratic nomination in a 75,000-seat outdoor football stadium in Denver—just as JFK did at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960, where he unveiled his idea of a "New Frontier" before a huge crowd. In all the years since, no other nominee in either party has moved out of a much-smaller indoor arena on the fourth night of his convention, as Kennedy did. But the symbolism doesn't end there. Aug. 28, the date of Obama's acceptance speech, marks the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech in front of a throng gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington. Neither the setting nor the timing is a coincidence.

These are powerful historical currents Obama is swimming in, and potentially treacherous ones. He evokes Kennedy's cool and political freshness, and King's promise of deliverance from America's original sin. But the more Obama encourages the comparisons, the higher he drives expectations. Even if the night goes well (and it doesn't rain), Obama's speech will be measured not only against his own best performances, but against those of a time when we imagine inspirational giants roamed the earth. The Democratic nominee will confront two of the most powerful political ghosts in our history.

This is an impossible standard to meet. How can Obama compete with idealized figures whose shortcomings have been shrouded in the mists of memory?

Of course, these men were not so popular in their day. In 1960, for instance, Eleanor Roosevelt remarked that Kennedy should show "a little less profile and a little more courage" (some liberals are saying the same about Obama now). She didn't fully support him until after Labor Day. Even after being elected, JFK was slow to act on civil rights. While he complimented King on his "Dream" speech, he shied away from attending the march.

King, too, has benefited from history's gloss. He preached nonviolence, but was not nearly radical enough for many black nationalists. At the same time, today's conservatives have forgotten that many of them—or their parents—thought King was a communist.

Kennedy would be 91 had he lived; King would be 79. That means tens of millions of Americans have only dim youthful memories of either one, or weren't yet born. You have to be over 65 to have experienced them as an adult. Maybe it's not so surprising that older white Democrats strongly preferred Hillary Clinton to Obama, and older African-Americans did so at first. They could make the personal comparisons with their heroes more easily, and found Obama wanting. Other seniors describe themselves as moved by a politician for the first time in four decades and tell reporters at rallies that Obama reminds them of Kennedy or King.

Their children and grandchildren know these figures only from history books and documentaries. Obama appeals to them through a kind of imaginative nostalgia. This longing for an emotion they never experienced, but feel they missed, is part of what brings them out in such numbers at his events. Having come of age in the '70s, '80s or '90s, they see Obama not only as a ticket to the future, but a means of transporting them across the years to a mythic past, where politics could be a force for good. Those who predicted he would prove merely a fad neglected the power of generational envy on the part of those who were too young for the 1960s.

Every time Obama evokes JFK or MLK, his critics come out of the woodwork to trash the comparison. Kennedy served 14 years in the House and Senate before becoming president, they say. That's much more experience than Obama's four years in the U.S. Senate. To even speak of Obama in the same sentence as King is, for them, ridiculous.

Of course African-American voters don't feel this way. Nor do most of the people who actually knew Kennedy and King and worked with them. Ted Sorensen, who was JFK's top aide, was an early Obama supporter and thinks the comparison is apt. So does former senator Harris Wofford, Kennedy's aide on civil rights, who believes Obama could make a superior president to JFK. Ted Kennedy has said Obama reminds him of his brother, a compliment he has offered no other politician in more than four decades. King's aides were slower to come around to Obama; many were Hillary Clinton supporters. But most are now enthusiastically for Obama, even if they feel a bit jealous of him.

It's a mark of Obama's supreme confidence in his own destiny that he welcomes comparisons not just to Kennedy and King but to Lincoln. If he loses, the comparable candidates will be more along the lines of John Kerry and Michael Dukakis, who both blew leads, and Al Smith, who lost as the first Roman Catholic nominee in 1928. If he wins but fails as president, Jimmy Carter will come to mind. If he succeeds with a bold agenda, FDR and LBJ will get some ink. But behind the immediate analogies lies a more potent image, one ripe for disappointment but tantalizing all the same: It's Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King morphing into a single leader, a vessel for the deferred dreams of Democrats. That's the plan, anyway. We'll see if it works on Aug. 28 in Denver.