MIDDLETOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama, seen by some as the heir to the Kennedy family legacy, praised Sen. Edward Kennedy as a champion for the poor and struggling, as he stepped in for the ailing Massachusetts senator at a graduation ceremony.
Obama, who was endorsed by the 76-year-old Kennedy, called him an inspiration and urged young people to follow the example of public service set by the elder statesman and his two slain brothers, U.S. President John Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Edward Kennedy, patriarch of one of the most storied U.S. families, was diagnosed last week with a malignant brain tumor.
“It is rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has touched the lives of nearly every single American without many of us even realizing it,” the Democratic presidential front-runner said in a commencement address at Wesleyan University.
“And yet, because of Ted Kennedy, millions of children can see a doctor when they get sick. Mothers and fathers can leave work to spend time with their newborns. Working Americans are paid higher wages, and compensated for overtime, and can keep their health insurance when they change jobs,” Obama said.
Kennedy had been scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Wesleyan commencement but was unable to attend because of his medical treatment and asked Obama to fill in for him.
“He called me up a few days ago and I said that I’d be happy to be his stand-in, even if there was no way I could fill his shoes,” Obama, an Illinois senator, told the audience of 15,000 which included Kennedy’s wife, Vicki, and his stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin, one of the graduates.
Obama’s youth, glamour and message of idealism are sometimes likened to the slain president. His image as a Kennedy heir got a boost in January when Edward Kennedy and John Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton, a former first lady and New York senator.
In his speeches, the Illinois senator often invokes John and Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated while running for president in 1968. He did so again in the commencement speech.
Obama told the graduates at the elite private university they should reject the temptation to chase after “nice suits,” “big houses” and other symbols of material wealth but should instead consider jobs such as serving the Peace Corps, helping the underprivileged or working in the foreign service.
Obama, who would be the first black president, also talked of his own youth and his decision to take a low-paying job as a community organizer in Chicago after graduating from college.
He cited Robert Kennedy’s example to exhort young people to strike a “blow against injustice.”
Memories of Robert Kennedy’s slaying have become an issue in the Democratic nomination fight, where many analysts say Obama holds an insurmountable lead over Clinton.
Clinton cited the June 1968 of Kennedy to help explain why she was still in the race for the party’s nomination to contest Republican Sen. John McCain in the November election. Clinton’s comment brought up the taboo topic of the possibility of her rival’s assassination, and political analysts said the remark was a serious gaffe.
The New York senator apologized for the comment, which she said was misinterpreted and that she only meant to emphasize that the 1968 race had been left unsettled as late as June when Robert Kennedy was killed.
Editing by David Wiessler