That reaction, both sought out and volunteered, reflected the combined air of puzzlement, uncertainty and outright anger felt by Irish American Democratic Party activists after Kennedy proclaimed Obama not just as the right candidate to lead the Democrat into the next election but the candidate who most closely combined the ideals and talents of President John F. Kennedy.
Senator Kennedy was flanked at a rally held in American University in Washington, D.C. by his niece, Caroline Kennedy, who had penned a pro-Obama op-ed for the New York Times and his son. Congressman Patrick Kennedy whose district is in Rhode Island.
Senator Clinton, by coincidence, was in Senator Kennedy’s political backyard in Massachusetts.
She was introduced to a packed rally at an auditorium in Springfield by Congressman Richard Neal, chairman of the Friends of Ireland group in Congress.
Later Monday evening, Clinton and Kennedy shook hands moments before President Bush’s State of the Union speech in the Capitol Building while Senator Obama, standing next to Kennedy, looked away.
The drama of the day had set off alarm bells among many of Clinton’s Irish American supporters who see her as the candidates who will best deal with Irish American concerns and issues from the supreme vantage point of the Oval Office.
Clinton backers also acted with surprise and annoyance to the fact that Senator Kennedy’s endorsement was also a clear slap at former president Bill Clinton, the architect of U.S. involvement in the search for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
“There can’t be too many Irish Americans who don’t think that Hillary and Bill Clinton haven’t done extraordinary things for the peace process,” John Connorton, a New York City attorney, Democratic Party activist and a backer of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, told the Echo.
Connorton, who has in the past run the campaigns of three Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Empire State, said that while the Kennedy endorsement of Obama was undoubtedly a good story, he did not think that it would change the voting intentions of too many party members.
“People in the Irish American community who are disposed to vote for Hillary will vote for Hillary,” Connorton said.
Connorton said that there was always argument over the value of endorsements to candidates though he acknowledged what was the widely reported view that the backing of Senator Kennedy was something of a standout.
At the same time he pointed out that members of the Kennedy family, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend were actually supporting Senator Clinton. Kerry Kennedy is also a Clinton backer.
Brian O’Dwyer, who is one of Senator Clinton’s most prominent supporters in New York’s Irish American community, said he was “disappointed” that Sen. Kennedy, “a great friend of Ireland,” did not “recognize” Hillary’s importance to Irish America.
“Irish Americans know what Hillary has done for Ireland. I think people have made up their minds on that basis,” O’Dwyer said while pointing out that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had been recently out on the stump campaigning for Clinton.
“I think there’s a genuine split in the Kennedy family on this,” O’Dwyer said.
Stella O’Leary, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Irish American Democrats lobby group, said she was “puzzled” by Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama.
“I can’t figure this out, it doesn’t make sense to me. But I believe Hillary will prevail nevertheless,” O’Leary said.
She added that she was “upset” with Kennedy because Hillary Clinton had been “so outstandingly good” for Ireland.
“Her past, present and future input into Ireland is what of interest to us,” she said.
Kennedy’s endorsement, by contrast, was in the broadest possible terms and Ireland wasn’t mentioned.
But according to Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, the very fact that Senator Kennedy was proclaiming Senator Obama as an inheritor of his brother’s legacy was inevitably going to have an instant effect on Irish America.
And Cullen consider the Kennedy endorsement as a potentially very important one, especially in the context of the upcoming primary in Massachusetts, one of the slew slated for Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.
“Teddy can deliver delegates, he can deliver the machine,” said Cullen.
Cullen said that the endorsement was spurred by Kennedy’s anger over the precise manner in which former President Clinton had been campaigning for Senator Clinton.
“George Bush didn’t do this for his kid,” Cullen said.
As for the potential for a major rift in Democratic ranks Cullen felt certain about one thing.
“Teddy isn’t going to lose any sleep over this,” he said.