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Falling in and out of love
Why do people come to love some politicians? It doesn't appear to be about politics or policies.
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Jerry was 13 when he went down to the Democratic campaign office in Green Bay and asked to volunteer. While working on his paper route, he'd learned about a young senator from Massachusetts who was running for president.

"I would get bored, so I'd stop and look through the newspapers," he recalls. "I started reading about this young Sen. Kennedy and his beautiful wife. How it was a long shot for him to be president, because he was Catholic and too young."

Jerry, also a Catholic, tried to volunteer. The campaign office said he was too young and sent him home. But they gave him two giant posters of Kennedy, which he hung in his bedroom.

"I just became enamored," he says. "Every place Kennedy went, people just loved him. He became royalty."

Jerry grew up to become Father Conrad Kratz, my uncle. And his admiration of the Kennedys is legendary in my family. It was years before I discovered that "Camelot" was actually a reference to King Arthur, not JFK.

Now, watching people fawn over Barack Obama, it's easy to recognize the same kind of passion. I see it in their eyes, when they speak of Obama's bid to overcome the odds and become the first black president. I see young people who view Obama as a leader for their generation, a hero and a role model.

Those are all the feelings Kennedy inspired in my uncle in 1960. So it was a shock when I learned last spring, during the Democrats' heated primary battle, that Father Conrad favored Hillary Clinton. Why was the man who loved Kennedy not falling for Obama?

"I don't see the comparison," he explains. "He doesn't excite me at all."

Instead, my uncle thought Clinton was more sincere in her efforts to help the poor and implement national health care. In fact, he even admired John McCain more than Obama - until McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Now, he says, "I'm not excited about either one, really."

Why do people fall in love with some politicians and not others? How can Barack Obama and Sarah Palin achieve near celebrity status, drawing tens of thousands of supporters at their public appearances, while John McCain and Joe Biden toil unloved in the wings?

It doesn't appear to be about politics or policies. Obama's ideas are not that much different from John Kerry's in 2004. Yet there is something about Obama that makes him totally different from Kerry.

Style, maybe. Charisma, definitely. But it's more than that; he inspires people. At least some people.

Erin Decker came back from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last month so excited that she sat down and penned an earnest tribute. It was not about John McCain.

"I would like to tell you who I think Sarah Palin is," she wrote in a letter published in the Wisconsin State Journal. "Sarah Palin is me. Sarah Palin is my mother. Sarah Palin is my sister.... Sarah Palin is you.

"If you've ever come home too tired to make dinner, you are Sarah Palin.... If you've ever been talked down to, you are Sarah Palin. If you've ever risen above the name-calling, you are Sarah Palin....

"Sarah Palin is every woman."

Decker, 31, lives in Silver Lake, Wis., near Racine. She works part-time for a nonprofit group, but mostly stays home to raise her two children. She's a lifelong Republican, but has never before been as thrilled with a candidate as she is with Palin.

"She's so inspiring because she shows women can do anything if they put their minds to it," says Decker. "I'm sure she's encountered everything that every woman has encountered - men looking down on her - but she's risen above it."

But Decker doesn't admire Palin merely because she's a woman. "That's an added bonus," she says. What she most loves is Palin's willingness to take on the establishment: "She stands for the people. She's fighting against government - a government that people don't like."

Like anyone in love, Decker gets huffy if someone criticizes Palin. She accuses the media of attacking the Alaskan governor unfairly. "They're making things up," she complains.

She brings up the Internet rumor, perpetuated by bloggers, that Palin's infant son is really her daughter's child. And she believes assertions that Palin misused her power as governor to try to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from his state trooper job are all lies. Alaska's state Legislature and the state's personnel board are conducting separate investigations into the matter.

"It's unusual how vicious they are," says Decker of the media. "The things they come up with are unbelievable. Any person with normal thoughts would not come up with this."

Decker does not feel the same passion for McCain. She supports and respects him. But she doesn't see herself in McCain. She refers to him in conversation as "Sen. McCain," while it's "Sarah" for Palin.

"Everyone refers to her as Sarah," she explains. "I don't see her as a hero. I see her as me and you. She could be my friend, sitting across the table from me. Yet look at what she's done."

I hesitate to compare my uncle's feelings for Kennedy with Erin Decker's admiration for Palin, in part because Kennedy's words and actions are validated by history. Palin is relatively untested.

But both my uncle and Decker believe their political idols overcame adversity to achieve something great. And Kennedy and Palin remind them of something they see - or wish to see - in themselves.

As a Catholic boy, my uncle idolized Kennedy for proving that religion was not grounds for denying someone the presidency. Decades later, he still recalls the speech Kennedy delivered before the ministers in Houston, where he called for an election decided on issues, not religion.

And when Kennedy was assassinated, my uncle felt a sense of obligation. "That's when I started thinking, I want to do something that matters," he says. "I want to make a difference in people's lives." He joined the priesthood.

For Obama's admirers, there are obvious parallels between Kennedy's speech to the ministers and Obama's speech on race last winter. Obama also asked the nation to overlook those issues that divide us and focus on creating that more perfect union.

Melissa Stiles, a doctor who lives on Madison's west side, first paid attention to Obama when he addressed the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where John Kerry secured the nomination. She's since followed his Senate career, briefly meeting him during a trip to Washington, D.C.

"If you read his books, it's an amazing story," says Stiles. "His life has been about overcoming adversity."

In August, Stiles flew to Denver for the Democratic National Convention. She was not a delegate, and couldn't get into the convention hall. But she hung around the MSNBC stage and went to convention parties. And she got tickets to see Obama's nomination acceptance speech at Denver's Mile High Stadium. Stiles arrived at 2 p.m. and sat for six hours, waiting for Obama to appear.

Stiles thinks there's a powerful reason people are flocking to Obama at this moment in time. "The past eight years have been so difficult," she says. The nation is in crisis, and people are looking for a leader. "It speaks to how divided we are now. How are we ever going to get back together?"

It seems reasonable to assume similar feelings were germinating in 1960, when Kennedy was elected. My uncle, however, believes it was Kennedy's assassination, not his election, that changed the country. "The shot that killed Kennedy ushered in the '60s," he avows.

But Father Conrad can't easily transfer his feelings of awe to a new candidate, however similar they might be. He's past the age of loving with abandon.

"I see it for many young people, who have never had a hero like this," he says about Obama. "I understand what they're feeling and experiencing. It's wonderful. You get that maybe once in a lifetime, and nothing will ever compare to it. It's your first brush with greatness."

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