by Mike Dorning
MIDDLETOWN. Conn--Barack Obama sounded a call to public service in the tradition of the Kennedy family as he took the place of Sen. Edward Kennedy today to deliver a commencement address at Wesleyan University.
The speech, given to an audience that included the Massachusetts senator's wife and stepdaughter, who is a graduating senior at Wesleyan, deepened the barrier-breaking presidential candidate's connection to the Kennedy mystique.
Senator Kennedy, who anointed Obama a worthy heir to his brothers John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy early in the presidential campaign, now is diagnosed with a possibly fatal brain tumor and asked Obama to substitute for him at the ceremony.
Obama paid tribute to the Kennedy family, particularly the youngest brother whose place he took on the podium, and seized the opportunity to promote the call to service that has thematically connected his presidential campaign to the spirit of Camelot.
"Our individual salvation depends on collective salvation," Obama told the graduating seniors.
"Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition," he continued. "Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America's story."
A candidate whose campaign has been animated by his life story as the child of a mixed-race marriage and an Ivy League graduate who chose a first job as a poorly paid community organizer, Obama also offered a biographical link to Edward Kennedy's family.
"I was born the year that his brother called a generation of Americans to ask their country what they could do, and I came of age at a time when they did it," said Obama, who was born in 1961, the year John Kennedy was inaugurated.
The speech, delivered on a picture-perfect day under a clear blue sky, came at a dramatic moment for both the Kennedy family and Obama's presidential campaign. Kennedy's cancer inevitably raises the question of political succession while Obama is on the verge of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, a turning point in his campaign at which he is again enveloped in the Kennedy legacy.
At the same time, Obama rival Hillary Clinton is trying to move past an awkward and ill-timed remark on Friday that connected her determination to press on with her long-shot presidential campaign to the traumatic June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
She cited Robert Kennedy's assassination at a celebration of Kennedy's victory in the California primary as an example of the kind of unforeseen external event that can change the outcome even late in a political campaign, a reference that immediately provoked an uproar and for which she apologized within hours.
Obama's address, which was full of references to members of the Kennedy family, included mention of a Robert Kennedy quote.
"All it takes is one act of service - one blow against injustice - to send forth that tiny ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy spoke of," Obama said.