Thinking About Bobby
Tuesday 07 December 2010
by: William Rivers Pitt, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed
Robert F. Kennedy, Cabinet Room, White House, Washington, DC, January 28, 1964. (Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto / LBJ Library)
Last week, I kicked President Obama squarely in the teeth for his decision to abdicate the economic argument to the GOP by wasting everyone's time with a freeze of Federal wages, his absurd apology for causing the noxious tenor that has defined the political conversation in America of late, his pathetic willingness to wave the white flag on the issue of Bush's rich-people tax cuts, and worst of all, the revelation that he and his people actively thwarted a genuine search for justice that is most sorely needed: the investigation into war crimes perpetrated by the Bush administration, initiated by the Spanish government before being derailed by the Obama administration.
In retrospect, I think I actually went soft on him and the people currently polluting the White House with their abject inability to get out of their own way. I make no apologies, and am now of a mind to spend the next two years in full attack mode - no quarter given, none expected - if they continue to behave the way they did last week....last month...and, yeah, this whole last year. Sure, the president and his crew can claim some moments of success here and there, but the overall picture being painted thus far is that of an administration hopelessly in over its head, bereft of direction and integrity, drowning like a bunch of toddlers who wandered into the deep end of the pool without their water wings.
Mr. Obama, for all his myriad faults and failures, does not deserve to shoulder the entire budget of blame, however. The entire Democratic Party, with a few notable exceptions (of late: Grayson, Franken, Feingold, the lost Mr. Wellstone, and Dean, to name a few), has been in the weeds since time almost out of mind.
I can think of a few reasons. The pervasive corruption caused by the damfool idea that "Money = Speech," validated by Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and the larger caustic concept that corporations are people - with the same rights and privileges of people - created a scenario where everyone involved in national power politics is bought, and so nobody is guilty. They have to be, if they want to get anywhere...but once they get somewhere, they're already gone. The so-called "liberal" Democratic Party has been as much at that filthy trough as any of the worst Republicans who could be named. The difference is only a matter of inches; they are all bought and paid for to one degree or another, and that unavoidable fact defines our current political reality as solidly as slavery defined the American political realm 150 years ago...except this time, we are the slaves - white, black, brown, men, women, gay, straight...everyone who lacks a seven-figure bankroll - all of us wreathed in chains we cannot see, even as those chains restrain us fully and rob us of our freedom completely.
I also have an idea to explain why an entire generation of Democrats haven't been worth a pot of piss, compared to those who came before. It has to do with five bullets, and the aftermath of that violence.
The GOP, for the last fifty years, has enjoyed the privilege of a brain-trust comprised of some seriously heavy hitters. Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Henry Kissinger, along with any number of what Hunter S. Thompson once called "awesome political mechanics," have been on speed-dial to GOP headquarters since before the time of Reagan. Love them or hate them (and I'm no fan, believe me), but those men represented a vast ocean of political experience that was available to be tapped at any time of day or night. They are all mostly gone now, but that core of Wise-Old-Man leadership paid incredible dividends for the Republicans over the last five decades.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have been bereft of similar white-haired wisdom, thanks to five kill-shots that stole away individuals who, had they not been murdered, would have been an invaluable source of strategic thinking and backbone for the party. John Kennedy died in Dallas. His brother Robert died on a dirty kitchen floor in Los Angeles. Medgar Evers died in his driveway. Malcolm X - who, just before his murder, was moving away from open confrontation on the subject of race but still retained a level of intimidation and justified fury that demanded respect - was shot down after his Hajj compelled him to find a way past hatred and division. And, of course, Martin Luther King, who died in Memphis while standing up for garbage men, and the rest of us as well.
Jack. Bobby. Medgar. Malcolm. Martin.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Imagine what the Democratic Party would be like today if this generation of leadership had been able to enjoy the privilege of that generation's wisdom. At a minimum, having a man like Dr. King, who preached about economic inequalities as eloquently as he preached about racial inequalities (because, in the end, those inequalities amount to the same thing), being available on the phone to talk something over, might have saved the current Democratic Party from selling itself to corporations. Having a man like Robert Kennedy, who went from being a right-bent Red-chaser and architect of the war in Vietnam to being an advocate for the poor and for peace, might have saved today's Democrats from drowning all too deeply in the blood and death of Iraq and Afghanistan. Alas, we lost them, and here we are. It's enough to make one believe in conspiracies...but I digress.
It's a degraded age we live in, a time that many have been describing as the collapse of all that ever was America. It's a hell of a time to be alive, a time that reminds one of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." It is a curse, indeed, and those of us who cleave to liberal and progressive ideals feel entirely abandoned, betrayed, demoralized...pick the word, and it will fit. Take the long view, however, and it becomes clear that this is not something that came about because of Mr. Obama or the current crop of "liberal" leaders. They are merely avatars of a long-festering cancer. We have been without effective leadership for the length of this generation, and in a republic, that lack of leadership is the equivalent of having our throats cut. We have no voice within the leadership caste, and we are dying in a pool of our own American blood.
And yet, even now, I do believe the wisdom of those lost leaders can save us, restore our leadership, and bring us out of this darkness. Even now, I think about Bobby Kennedy, who was himself a walking contradiction, an example of the way leaders can function in a disreputable vein, change course, and finally emerge as true progressive leaders.
Had Bobby Kennedy died in that car with his brother in Dallas in 1963, modern liberals would not have a favorable opinion of him, I suspect. He allied himself with Joseph McCarthy during the Red-baiting era. He gutted the power of unions with his vendetta against Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. He owned a much-deserved reputation as a ruthless assassin during his time as John F. Kennedy's campaign manager, and in his time as Attorney General during his brother's truncated administration. He was one of the principal architects of the assassination of Diem and the Vietnam War that followed. His wife and children loved him, but in the first half of his time in politics, very few others did. Robert Kennedy enjoyed a reputation for being a brass-bottomed bastard for many, many years.
For sure, the modern Left would have little love for him had his career come to an end in 1963. But then his brother died, and something happened.
Bobby retreated into himself to nurse the unimaginable agony of yet another traumatic family loss. When he emerged, he journeyed to the poverty-raped places in America we only hear about in Woody Guthrie songs. He explored the abscess of poverty and racial inequality. He took a long look at the Vietnam War he helped create. He came to know the true nature of pain by way of his own sense of unspeakable loss.
And he came out the other side a different man, a genuine progressive.
A book from 2008 by Thurston Clarke titled "The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America," describes a scene from the earliest moments of Bobby's 1968 presidential campaign. Kennedy was to speak at Kansas State University. His advisors were understandably concerned about the content of his speech - KSU was, and remains, a reliably conservative university - but Bobby went out and laid it on the line.
He opened his attack on President Johnson's Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. "Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public," he said. "I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path."
He acknowledged that "the effort may have been doomed from the start" and admitted that the South Vietnamese governments that his brother had supported had been "riddled with corruption, inefficiency and greed," adding, "If that is the case, as it well may be, then I am willing to bear my share of responsibility, before history and before my fellow-citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom...Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in the Antigone of Sophocles: 'All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.'"
His apology elicited the loudest cheers of the morning, perhaps because these students appreciated hearing an adult admit to a mistake, or because they, too, had been wrong.
"I am willing to bear my share of responsibility, before history and before my fellow-citizens."
"Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom."
"All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil."
"The only sin is pride."
Imagine a leader able to stand before God and the people to proclaim the depth and breadth of their own personal failures. Imagine them able to say they were wrong, and they have changed, and here now is how it should be instead. Imagine the cheers from a modern American audience that has, all too often, shared in those bad choices, both in opinion and at the ballot box, and can find within themselves the ability to admit those errors and move in a better direction because they have a leader before them willing to do the same.
Imagine a leader.
The Democrats once enjoyed the presence of Bobby Kennedy. They would do well to remember him today. The same lessons are available to Republicans, if they have ears to hear.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is not too late.
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