Kennedy and Clinton: he’d grown accustomed to her face?

Last night was President Bush’s last-ever State of the Union speech. Today is Florida’s crucial GOP primary. So what dominated the news cycle yesterday? Teddy Kennedy, storied Gatekeeper of the Kennedy Legacy, and his invitation to the young (e)squire Obama to sup at Camelot’s storied Round Table.

As David Brooks puts it in his Times column today: “The old guy stole the show.”

That he did. And, in fact, he went further; Kennedy didn’t just steal the show, he changed its very dialogue. See yesterday’s network news roundup, courtesy of Mark Halperin, emphasis ours:

ABC: Lead package said nod from Kennedys was “no ordinary endorsement,” also mentioned Toni Morrison. RFK Jr. stood by his Clinton endorsement in interview. Charlie Gibson sat down with Ted and Caroline Kennedy- he did not acknowledge his speech took shots at the Clintons. Stephanopoulos said the timing couldn’t be worse for the Clintons. Report from Florida looked at tense McCain-Romney feud.

CBS: Report covered Kennedy endorsement, asked whether B. Clinton has become a liability (again replaying Jesse Jackson comment). Also noted that Obama trails in most Feb. 5 polls, and Clinton has won many endorsements of her own. Also a GOP report, which called Florida Giuliani’s first and last stand.

NBC: Looked at Kennedy endorsement, in interview Obama said he had “emotions” during speech. A report on what the endorsement means for Clintons, recapping history of two families, said they lost Kennedy because of B. Clinton’s attacks on Obama. Next, Romney-McCain package on using the GOP-despised word “liberal” against each other and Giuliani staying out of the fray. Russert weighed in on Kennedy “heavyweight” endorsement, called him his “number one surrogate.”

Fair enough. The Kennedy endorsement is a big one, to be sure—one that could, on several levels (thanks again, Mr. Halperin), change the trajectory of the heated Democratic race going into Super Tuesday. But what makes the endorsement so Newsworthy is, of course, the same thing that makes any endorsement so: the cultural clout of the endorser. And Teddy Kennedy’s swaddling of Obama in the gauzy veil of “the Kennedy mystique,” as Brooks called it, is at once commemorative and restorative of the Kennedys’ cachet—and of the enduring legend of Camelot that seems only to solidify with the passage of time. (See Caroline Kennedy’s Sunday op-ed endorsing Obama and suggesting he’d be “A President Like My Father”—and the fact that, as of this writing, it’s still at the top of the Times’s most-emailed list.) Reporters lapped up the legend as thirstily as their audiences; as Alessandra Stanley noted in her re-cap of last night’s State of the Union, TV reporters covering the event “were understandably intoxicated by the rush of nostalgia” Kennedy’s presence evoked.

Yet the ado was due to more than mere indulgence in collective memory of A Better Time; coverage of the Kennedy endorsement stretched beyond the ethereal corridors of Camelot and into their counterparts on (a very non-ethereal) Capitol Hill. Because as much as yesterday’s news cycle revisited the Kennedy legacy—and as much as it exalted in the anointing of its potential heir—it also became, as so many things have in the past few weeks, an indirect referendum on the Clinton legacy. To wit, here’s The New York Times announcing the impending endorsement:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, rejecting entreaties from the Clintons and their supporters, is set to endorse Senator Barack Obama’s presidential bid on Monday as part of an effort to lend Kennedy charisma and connections before the 22-state Feb. 5 showdown for the Democratic nomination.

The Times adds insult to injury by accompanying its story about the Obama endorsement with a photo of First Couple Clinton sailing with Kennedy-and-clan off Cape Cod in 1997—and that picture says, perhaps, even more than its allotted 1,000-word worth. It combines with the piece’s particular choices of diction (“rejecting” the Clintons, “spurning” them, etc.) to imply that the Kennedy endorsement was less about the Illinois senator being Barack Obama and more about him not being Hillary Clinton.

There’s certainly some truth to these kinds of negative takes on the endorsement—Kennedy did choose Obama over his longtime friend and colleague; faces were slapped—but to make them the story is to miss the point. As Kennedy’s speech yesterday made clear, he endorsed Obama because of who he is, not because of who he’s not. But genuine respect, however eloquently expressed, is, you know, kind of boring—and nothing beats a good, old-fashioned Betrayal Drama. So we got stories like this from the Boston Globe:

The coveted endorsement is a huge blow to New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who is both a senatorial colleague and a friend of the Kennedy family. In a campaign where Clinton has trumpeted her experience over Obama’s call for hope and change, the endorsement by one of the most experienced and respected Democrats in the Senate is a particularly dramatic coup for Obama.

“Huge blow.” “Particularly dramatic coup.” Riveting stuff, indeed! And things got even more exciting after last night’s State of the Union. One of the morning’s leading stories? The searing inquiry into whether Obama did or did not purposely ignore Clinton in the Congressional gallery last night. Though whether he meant to or not, apparently, doesn’t much matter: the move has already been dubbed “The Snub.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.