I was 13 when John F. Kennedy was elected, but I remember it more vividly than any election since. I especially remember Inauguration Day, when the nuns brought in televisions so we could watch the first Catholic president take office. I remember Robert Frost trying to read a poem despite the lectern having caught fire, the dignitaries standing about bare-headed in the bitterly cold aftermath of the previous night's snowstorm, the almost giddy feeling that things in Washington and in the country as a whole were never going to be the same again.
No doubt some of that feeling came from being 13, an age at which things never are going to be the same again, but it was at least as much inspired by the speech that Kennedy gave, some bits of which I can still recite from memory today. JFK has his share of critics who claim he was all style and no substance, or that he was merely a well-groomed and glib front man for the same corporate interests who had always run things, but I don't think anyone can deny that he had the power to move and inspire people in a way that no American politician since has been able to do. In fact I've often theorized that part of the reason the 60s started out so hopefully yet ended in a paroxysm of nihilism and madness was the collective disillusionment of the young people who'd pledged their troth to the New Frontier only to see that vision violently snatched away while still in its infancy.
Commentators have tried to hand the "Kennedyesque" mantle on any number of politicians since then, essentially on anyone who was reasonably articulate and didn't look as though he had one foot in the grave. But to my way of thinking, none of them - not even RFK, who to me always felt like a weak and insincere facsimile of his older brother - has come close to deserving that description until Barack Obama.
I'm still not sure I can vote for the guy - I think he's wrong on the war and I'm not even sure what he believes on some of the other issues - but I sure want to. Even the TV pundits and commentators were all but endorsing him tonight after his electrifying victory speech in South Carolina. "Hillary is toast," I kept thinking, which may not be true at all, given her tenacity and huge financial advantage, but she certainly looked tired and inconsequential alongside the momentum Obama has built up for himself.
And while I'm as cynical as the next guy about vague calls for "change" (the one truly sour note was the audience chanting rather mindlessly, "We want change" as if they were a mob of street beggars), Obama's claim to have a built a coalition "as diverse as anything America's seen in a long, long time" was, if anything, an understatement: it's beyond a doubt more diverse than anything America's ever seen.
Even Republicans figured out how to pepper the audience that the TV cameras see with as many black faces as they could find, but it would have been impossible to script or contrive the race-mixing evident in Obama's supporters. The only places I've previously seen that degree of integration is in Coca-Cola ads and the New York City subway, but this looked a lot more real than former and more pleasant than the latter.
Do I think Obama can be elected president? I do, and at this point, even though I disagree with him on some important issues, my vote is his to lose rather than the other way around. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some scandalous revelations to surface (especially likely with the Clintons in the hunt) or some shocking faux pas on his part. And as for the Kennedy thing, well, just as I was mulling that thought over in the aftermath of his speech, wondering if I were getting carried away with nostalgia and sentiment, came the news that Caroline Kennedy had endorsed the man, saying, "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."
What does she know, some might argue; she was only a small child when her father died. But there are those of us who do remember John F. Kennedy, and right now I'm inclined to think she may be right.