WASHINGTON -- Declaring that "it is time for a new generation of leadership" in America, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president yesterday, wrapping the young politician in the mantle of America's best-known political dynasty.
He was joined at American University by his famous niece Caroline Kennedy and his son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, both of whom also threw their support behind the youthful Illinois senator, likening Obama to their widely beloved relative, President John F. Kennedy.
"With every person he meets, every crowd he inspires, and everyone he touches," Edward Kennedy said, Obama "generates new hope that our greatest days as a nation are still ahead, and this generation of Americans, like others before us, can unite to meet our own rendezvous with destiny."
Kennedy praised the other two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, calling New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards "my friends," and lauding their service on the campaign trail and in the Senate.
But, ultimately, he said, he chose to throw his considerable political clout behind the candidate who most inspired him, a man "who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history."
Friends or no, Kennedy also chastised the Clintons for their campaign behavior and issued a stern warning to the other famous Democratic family:
"We know the true record of Barack Obama," Kennedy said in a 20-minute address. "There is the courage he showed when so many others were silent or simply went along. From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth."
Obama was not in the Senate when Clinton voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, but he has spoken out against the war since 2002.
Hillary and Bill Clinton have argued in recent days that Obama equivocated in his opposition by voting to support war funding once he arrived in Washington.
Kennedy is expected to head West late this week, reaching out to Latinos and labor groups in critical Feb. 5 states such as California, Arizona and New Mexico.
His endorsement more than anoints Obama with the Kennedy family mystique; it also was an effort to answer criticism that the first-term senator is lacking in experience.
Kennedy praised Obama's hard work and "effectiveness" as a legislator, stealing a line from Clinton in the process: "I know that he's ready to be president on Day One."
Kennedy wasn't the only loss for the Clinton campaign yesterday. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison - a longtime friend and supporter of the 42nd president - threw her support behind Obama, too.
Morrison famously described Bill Clinton as America's "first black president." Yesterday, she expressed admiration for Hillary Clinton's exhaustive knowledge and political acumen.
But in an eloquent letter released by the campaign, she said to Obama, "You are the man for this time."
Both Obama and Clinton attended the president's State of the Union address last night. Clinton cut short a day of campaigning to return to the Capitol, after addressing thousands of supporters in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
"I assume that all of you know that tonight is a red letter night in American history," she said in Hartford. Her voice rising, she said: "It is the last time that George Bush will give a State of the Union!"
Anticipating Bush's remarks, Clinton said she was certain that he would say that the country was strong.
"But with all due respect, Mr. President, come out on the road with me," she said. "Sit at tables in diners and hear what's on Americans' minds."
Maria La Ganga and Peter Nicholas write for the Los Angeles Times.