WHEN SENATOR Edward M. Kennedy and members of his family endorsed Barack Obama in Washington last week, the real meaning of that torch-passing was defined by where it occurred.
John F. Kennedy is remembered as having given an important speech at American University, and that was noted. JFK's future orientation, his rhetorical flair, his knack for drawing out the young, his own youthfulness - these were the highlighted points of connection between John Kennedy and Barack Obama. But the content of the 1963 speech suggests what really is at stake when a 21st century presidential candidate steps into the aura of the slain president. At American University John Kennedy laid out an urgent vision for this country. He did not live to advance that vision, and it remains unrealized to this day.
The most telling fact about the commencement address Kennedy delivered on June 10, 1963, is that Kennedy wrote it in secret. A small circle of trusted aides contributed to the text, but Kennedy kept the national security establishment in the dark about his intentions, which is surprising, given his subject. He came "to this time and place," he said, "to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived - yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace."
In those days, the language of peace was used by idealists, not realists - but it was exactly that dichotomy that Kennedy targeted. "Too many think peace is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief." Indeed, Kennedy's speech was an end-run around his national security experts, a direct appeal to the broad public, an attempt to break the iron grip of Cold War militarism that imprisoned the White House and the State Department, as much as the Pentagon. Kennedy had been preparing the speech ever since he had stared into the abyss of nuclear war the previous October, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He knew that, but for his own lonely opposition to the nation's most "realistic" defense leaders, the nuclear holocaust would have happened. "I speak of peace because of the new face of war."
Awareness of the new face of war defined Kennedy's wisdom. His speech, addressed as much to the Soviet people as to the American, was a breakthrough. Gone were demonizing paranoia and saber rattling. Instead, he honored the virtue of the Soviet people, and suggested that the Cold War standoff was as much his nation's fault as theirs. "We are both caught up in a vicious cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons." Beyond rhetoric, he offered concrete steps to improve the situation, from something as specific as a new "hot line" communication system to something as ambitious as new structures of international law. He pleaded, especially, for a time-out in the arms race.
Nikita Khrushchev ordered Kennedy's speech rebroadcast throughout the Soviet Union, the first time an American president's voice was heard by average people there. It worked. Six weeks later, Moscow and Washington agreed to the long-sought Partial Test Ban Treaty, the beginning of the arms control regime that, eventually, enabled the Cold War to end nonviolently.
But Kennedy's vision, in fact, went unfulfilled. Arms control did not stop the arms race from 25 more years of irrational escalation. Washington's national security establishment tightened its grip on politics, economy, and culture - so much so that when the Cold War ended, America maintained its Cold War stance, even through Bill Clinton's administration. This happened because our leaders, together with the American people, grew complacent about the dangers of the nuclear arsenal on which US power still rests. We lost change-the-world urgency that so seized Kennedy only months before he died.
To rekindle the flame of the American University speech would be to restore a preference of negotiation over confrontation, to build self-criticism into policy making, and to affirm the utter realism of idealistic hope. Ted Kennedy sees the possibility in Barack Obama of the realization of his brother's greatest vision.
That vision, conceived negatively, boils down to this: If humans do not change the way we resolve international conflicts, the planet is ultimately doomed to nuclear devastation. The abolition of all nuclear weapons, starting with our own, must be at the top of the new president's agenda.
Conceived positively, the American University vision means that humans are poised, by necessity, for a great leap into a new and better world. Yes, we can.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.