ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS IN LOS ANGELES, California - On Monday, once the Super Bowl is history and the nation can focus its attention again, Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy are scheduled to appear at a rally together in Hartford, Connecticut.
I don't know exactly what will transpire. But I have a pretty good idea what won't.
Because I once traveled with Sen. Kennedy as he campaigned in support of another presidential candidate who had pledged to change the tone of American life and to end a war. The two of them flew around the country, standing side-by-side on platforms before screaming, adoring fans.
And the candidate could barely get a word in. The candidate was the anticlimax.
That's what won't happen Monday. And that's the measure - or at least a measure - of what the passage of time will inevitably do.
"When we beat Richard Nixon in November. . . .," Kennedy thundered in city after city. The words that followed could not be heard. The crowds, ecstatic, some people in tears, drowned him out, would not let him speak until they had called his name for long minutes.
And meanwhile, behind him on all of those stages, waiting to be introduced by Kennedy, was the Democratic candidate for president: George McGovern.
McGovern, during that 1972 campaign, suffered more indignities than he ever conceivably deserved - including being portrayed by his opponents as some sort of effete, soft wimp, a cut-and-run coward. It's the way of take-no-prisoners politics, I suppose - tarnish an opponent in any way you can. But George McGovern of South Dakota, during World War II, was an American bomber pilot who flew 35 combat missions over Europe, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Some wimp. Some coward.
That was the image he was forced to rebut, though, and when Kennedy traveled with him the crowds went into rapture for the opening act, and sat in respectful silence for the main event. McGovern saw it, and heard it, and belatedly realized he would have to address it. "I want to thank the senator for his eloquent introduction," McGovern would say in that reedy voice of his to the suddenly muted audiences. "The only thing I regret is that it's a hard act to follow."
That's what Barack Obama will not have to worry about on Monday in Hartford. Ted Kennedy in the autumn of 1972 was 40 years old, all coiled energy and pent-up promise. The people in the crowds - many of them - wished that he was the candidate. His older brother John had been dead for just short of nine years; his older brother Bobby had been dead for only four. The crowds yearned for Kennedy, not for the man who would follow him to the microphone.
Kennedy tried to be gracious; two or three stops into the tour, recognizing the awkwardness of the situation, he began to greet his standing ovations by quickly saying: "He'll be right out in a minute." Kennedy was pretending to believe that the cheers were in anticipation of McGovern. "Let's save it for our candidate," he would implore, to no avail.
He won't have to do that on Monday. Kennedy is 75; he is never going to be president, and no one in the audience will delude themselves into thinking there is a chance he might be. He really will be the opening act now, in every sense; as warm and enthusiastic and sustained as the reception for him will be, and as grateful as Obama must feel for his support, it is Obama who is young and the owner of all that coiled energy now, all that promise. He need not worry. The crowd will be his; he will be the reason they're present.
But some things don't change. On that long-ago trip with Kennedy and McGovern, I heard one woman calling to him, over and over:
"Save us! Save us, Mr. Kennedy!"
It was odd and touching at the same time. "Save us!" Full of belief that a political man can somehow do just that. "Save us!" The plea, if not the words themselves, is still with us 36 years later. But the person on the receiving end is not the opening act this time. Obama knows it, and so does the man, with the name so famous, who will introduce him to those who this year choose to love him.
(Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author)