WASHINGTON — With nostalgic references to his assassinated brother, President John F. Kennedy, liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for president Monday, saying, "I feel change in the air."
He called Obama the "one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history."
Kennedy recalled that during the '60s, there was "a new president who inspired the nation, especially the young" to take action in the great events of their time, beginning with the civil rights movement and evolving later into war protests and environmental and women's causes.
"They realized that when they asked what they could do for their country, they could change the world," Kennedy said. "I sense the same kind of yearning today."
The endorsement by the veteran Massachusetts Democratic senator came at a packed auditorium at American University, where President Kennedy delivered one of his most famous addresses on June 10, 1963, envisioning a world at peace and inviting the Soviet Union to begin to thaw the Cold War. His endorsement comes at a pivotal time for Obama, who joined Ted Kennedy, Kennedy's son Rep. Patrick Kennedy and President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, onstage.
Obama told the Kennedys that he felt "a great deal of humility" because "I know what your support means."
Obama told the audience to "make no mistake," the campaign wasn't about differences over religion, gender, money, age or race: "It's about the past versus the future."
But when the past conjured up memories of JFK and his brother Robert, Obama was happy to bask in it.
He recalled how his grandparents and mother adored the Kennedys and said, "I think my own sense of what's possible in this country comes in part from what they said America was like in the days of John and Robert Kennedy."
The first-term African-American senator from Illinois was relishing his rout of chief rival Hillary Clinton in South Carolina on Saturday, but he faces key tests against the New York senator and former first lady in 22 states on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday.
Obama, 46, is counting on Ted Kennedy's support — won after the Massachusetts senator became disillusioned with the Clintons' negative campaign tactics in South Carolina — to erode Clinton's hold on longtime Kennedy constituencies, including older Americans, unionized workers and Latinos.
However, not every famous Kennedy is behind Obama. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, said Sunday that she, her brother Robert Jr. and sister Kerry were backing Clinton and thought that "she shares so many of the concerns of my father."
But at 75, and as the second-longest-serving member of the Senate, Ted Kennedy is the most influential living Kennedy.
He defended Obama's readiness to be president and took several digs at the Clintons through historical allusion. He recalled former President Harry Truman's admonition to JFK that someone with greater experience was needed, and JFK's response that the world was changing and it was time for "a new generation of leadership."
He also drew on remarks that his brother had been prepared to deliver before his assassination in1963, saying that with today's challenges, "I am convinced we can reach our goals only if we are not petty when our cause is so great."
He called Obama "a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view."
And without acknowledging that he was employing one of Hillary Clinton's signature lines, he said of Obama: "I know that he's ready to be president on day one."