Democrats tonight will wistfully remember the glory days of John and Robert Kennedy


NEW YORK -- Rico Riley takes America's political pulse from behind an upturned cardboard box in Times Square. He hawks campaign buttons, and he knows what sells.

Slap a mug of Dan Quayle and a rude comment onto a little aluminum circle and plasticize it, you've got a winner. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore or any combination, that's good business this week.

And the Kennedys, John or Robert, alone or together -- a tour de force for any button man.

"OK, these guys, there's just something about 'em that gets people," Mr. Riley said. "They're dead but not forgotten, ya know?"

Democrats know, wistfully. And so tonight, a film honoring Robert Kennedy will be aired for delegates inside Madison Square Garden. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts will introduce the film. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts will offer remarks afterward.

The theme of the evening is "Democratic Values." It would seem in 1992, with two Baby Boomers about to top the ticket, that the values of the 1960s are those to which the party clings as inspiring.

"The thing is, John and Bobby Kennedy are eternally young," said Duke University political scientist Paul Gronke. "The Democrats are trying to show us how young, and with it they are by reminding us of how things were 30 years ago."

The Kennedy-memory strategy is not unique to this year's Democratic National Convention. In 1988, John F. Kennedy Jr. took the podium and wowed the crowd when he introduced his uncle, Ted Kennedy, who sent the hands of time --ing back with praise for his nephew's having "touched off deep chords of memory and hope in Democrats and Americans everywhere."

In 1984, it was Gary Hart who conjured up yesteryear, quoting John Kennedy when he said, to great acclaim, "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."

The Kennedys -- one who served as chief executive for just 1,000 days, another who was struck down in the midst of running for the office -- are the only Democrats recently to receive quadrennial tributes.

Why? Here are two answers:

Mr. Gronke said: "The Kennedys still have a very important meaning to a lot of people in this country. They clearly symbolize the start of the end of the American dream. People like to remember that. For the Democrats, the Kennedys are their all-star team, their hall-of-famers for the past 30 years."

Mr. Riley, the campaign button salesman, thought a minute and asked: "Hey, you think they're gonna show movies about Bill Clinton in 30 years?"

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