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Kennedys still a presence despite lack of torchbearer

At the 1980 Convention, Senator Edward M. Kennedy delivered perhaps his most memorable political speech.ASSOCIATED PRESS /FILE 1980/Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last Democratic National Convention that gathered without a Kennedy in Congress was held in Chicago in 1944, only six weeks after the D-day invasion, at a time when typewriters, telephones, and teletypes were the gold standard of communication.

Nearly seven decades later, the two-dozen family members who gather in Charlotte, N.C., will find themselves in that unfamiliar position again, without a standard-bearer of national clout since the 2009 death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Although some delegates might consign the family to a place of sentimental nostalgia, far removed from the Web-wired world of today’s politics, the Kennedys plan to be a presence at Charlotte. Political discussion will be fostered there through family-related forums, and Joseph P. Kennedy III, a candidate to succeed US Representative Barney Frank in Congress, will introduce a video tribute to the late senator.


For family loyalists, the absence of a Kennedy on Capitol Hill is not an ending but rather a short break before a new beginning.

“It won’t be long before there’s another Kennedy in Congress,” predicted Philip Johnston, 68, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, in a reference to the younger Kennedy’s bid for the Fourth Congressional District seat. “There’s a generational passing of the torch that’s going on.”

Joseph P. Kennedy III, the son of former six-term congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II and grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, will introduce the video Tuesday, the opening night of the convention and two days before a primary election in which Kennedy will face two Democratic opponents.

Kennedy plans to return to Massachusetts almost immediately after the tribute and resume campaigning the next day.

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, is scheduled to address the convention Thursday. In addition, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, is planning to attend. Senator Edward Kennedy’s sons, Ted Jr. and Patrick, the former Rhode Island congressman, also are expected here.


Johnston, who sits on the Democratic platform committee, said the family’s legacy still inspires the party, whose liberal wing is not considered as influential as during much of Senator Kennedy’s 46 years in office.

“Among Democrats, the Kennedy name is still magic,” Johnston said. “I think they have represented, over the years, the best values of the Democratic Party — concern for the poor and vulnerable, and a rational foreign policy that emphasizes negotiation rather than war if possible.”

John Walsh, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the fight to save and implement Obama’s health care law is inextricably linked to the late senator’s priorities and legacy.

Family-linked events include a Tuesday reception for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, hosted by Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow. The New Frontier Society, a nonpartisan group affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation that encourages young adults to participate in public affairs, also will have a reception Tuesday.

In addition, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights will hold a gathering that day for state treasurers, who will be asked to invest state funds in programs that promote causes such as human rights, environmental protection, and health care.

On Wednesday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino will kick off a panel discussion, including Governor Deval Patrick, that will be hosted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and focus on changing political demographics and the future of the Democratic Party.


Modern nominating conventions, carefully scripted and choreographed, have largely been stripped of the potential for substantive impact by any single person or family.

Many times in the past, however, the Democratic convention has provided a memorable Kennedy moment. In Chicago in 1956, John F. Kennedy, then a young Massachusetts senator, found the national spotlight when he lost a floor vote for the vice presidential nomination to Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.

Kennedy, who introduced presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson to the convention, probably benefited in the long term from his loss to Kefauver. That November, Stevenson was trounced by incumbent President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Untarnished by that Republican landslide, Kennedy became president four years later.

In 1980, at the convention in New York that renominated President Jimmy Carter, Senator Edward Kennedy delivered perhaps his most memorable political speech. In a half-hour address, he passionately outlined the causes that he had championed in the primaries.

“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” Kennedy said. Alluding to his brothers, he added, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

In 1988, Kennedy delighted the delegates, gathered in Atlanta to nominate Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, by mocking Vice President George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee. “Where was George?” he asked repeatedly, a taunt about Bush’s role during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.


He also had an impact at the last convention he attended, four years ago in Denver, where he delivered a rousing speech despite his illness in support of Barack Obama.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie­@globe.com