Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — Early in the week, someone showed her the headline that blared, “Kennedy Endorses Obama.” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend responded by asking wryly, “Which Kennedy?”

Not that there was really any doubt. On the East Coast, the Kennedy A-list — Ted and Caroline — had just dubbed Barack Obama the heir apparent to the family legacy. Within hours, however, the eldest daughter of Robert Kennedy, along with her brother Robert Jr. and sister Kerry, reiterated their support for Hillary Clinton in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece.

Caroline endorsed Obama as the candidate who offers a “sense of hope and inspiration.” Like her father. Kathleen, her sister and brother describe Clinton as a “leader who is battle-tested, resilient and sure-footed.” Like their father.

This was not the stuff of a vast family feud. Indeed there are Kennedys of each generation in both camps. But there are echoes here of a larger divide. Now that John Edwards is out of the race, you can find split families lurking in the polls and demographics. You can see undecideds balancing the attractions of “inspiration” and “battle-tested.”

The Kennedys have won attention by virtue of service and tragedy. The most striking part of Ted Kennedy’s speech was his palpable pleasure in reconnecting with youthful idealism, maybe even his own.

For many years, Ted was the most polarizing figure in American politics. This torch was passed to Hillary Clinton. His own race for the presidency in 1980 stumbled over a softball question lobbed by CBS’ Roger Mudd, “Senator, why do you want to be president?” He had no answer.

From that time on, Kennedy became the consummate legislator, one part insider, one part torchbearer. He made alliances across parties, got a whole loaf when he could and a slice when he couldn’t. Was he dismissing his own experience as he dismissed Hillary’s? “What counts in our leadership is not the length of years in Washington, but the reach of our vision,” he said in his old-fashioned stemwinder. This classic liberal called on us to get “past the stale ideas and stalemate of our times.”

We all get to pick and choose the pieces of history that please our current appetite. The 1960s made their appearance at the Obama rally as days of hope not confrontation, of common purpose not cold war. The JFK evoked was the JFK of Camelot not the Bay of Pigs, of PT-109 not Vietnam, of the moon not Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, the elegant, cool, cerebral Jack at this rally fit their post-polarization frame of mind better than his younger, hotter, brother Bobby.

As Caroline said, “I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president.” As both a daughter and mother, she resonates to the “longing” for those days and feelings.

But what Kathleen remembers learning from her father is something else: “Number one, you have to fight.” On the phone, she said “Obama’s appeal is that we can all get along. My father challenged people.” She remembers him quoting the ancient graffiti on the slave-built pyramids: “No one got angry enough.” And her support for Clinton contains this sentence: “The loftiest poetry will not solve these issues.”

This election is about the future not the past. How many more times can we hear that? It’s not about who will be the next Kennedy, but rather the next president.

Bill Clinton threw a monkey wrench into the campaign and Ted Kennedy turned it into a boomerang. But next Tuesday it’s Hillary versus Barack. The hair’s width of difference in their beliefs has turned into a pitched battle between “inspiration” and “battle-tested.” The hope that some regard as tangible, others see as helium. The experience some believe is invaluable, others call old politics.

You can hear it all in the family clan. Rory Kennedy, a documentary filmmaker born after her father Bobby was killed, says, “I feel we’re in a very dark period in our history and Obama has the potential to get us out of it.” Oldest sister Kathleen says, “In a time of crisis like this we want someone who knows what she is doing when she gets there.”

What do you do in a family that’s split? In the Kennedy family, says Kathleen, “We keep loving each other, talking to each other and arguing with each other. … We wake up the next morning raring to go.”

As we roar into Super Tuesday, the Democrats better keep that morning after in mind.