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Oh Bobby, Where Art Thou?

11/25/2006 10:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just returned from seeing the new movie Bobby about RFK. It was a very rich, textured movie, and one that left me with an incredibly empty feeling. I wasn't around back then, but from what I can tell as an amateur student of history and political junkie is that, at least at the end of his life, RFK managed to inspire people; to make them feel like the day-to-day issues they faced were finally being confronted by the political Establishment; and to let them know that politics could be an arena where citizens - regular citizens - could be part of something larger than themselves. He did this by using the celebrity power that came with his family name to shine a bright light on the taboos the Establishment back then and now would rather sweep under the rug: war and economic inequality.

What brings me down about the movie is not only that RFK was killed, but that there are so few leaders today who aspire to his model. Yes, there have been flashes. Bill Clinton's populist campaign in 1992 was a flash, even if Clinton's behavior in office and historical revisionism in Washington has now converted it into the supposed triumph of microwaved Fortune Magazine talking points. John McCain's race in 2000, too, had Kennedy-ish themes to it, not necessarily because of any of his issue positions, but because it had a genuine anti-Establishment feel. That McCain's subsequently dove right back into the muck that is the Beltway's destructive faux "centrism" does not negate what his momentary flash evoked in many.

But when you look around today, at this moment, there are only a very few national political leaders who are willing to spend their political capital even trying to build something larger than themselves. To hear Bobby Kennedy's voice in this movie, you can hear traces of people like Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold, Brian Schweitzer, Byron Dorgan, Jim Webb, John Edwards and, of course, RFK's brother Ted Kennedy - people who are at least willing to talk about the immorality of economic inequality and of Old Serious Men sending other people's kids to die in a war those Old Serious Men fabricated a motive for. But on the national stage, that's really about it. Most of the other players are concerned about building something for themselves and themselves only. Their celebrity is used in pursuit of their vanity, not a cause (And please - don't insult people's intelligence or dishonor the memory of the dead by saying with a straight face that someone like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton emulates RFK - these are not people who, at least not yet, have shown themselves to be serious about using their celebrity power to talk about or act on issues of economic inequality or ending the war in any serious way).

This isn't to say that RFK was some sort of superhuman saint who wasn't ambitious and wasn't interested in building something for himself. He wasn't a saint, he had serious flaws, and he clearly was interested in climbing the political ladder. But it is to say that he found a way to make building something bigger than himself a way to also build something for himself. That's the hardest thing to do in politics, because it takes a courage to say no, I'm not going down the traditional path of least resistance; the path of promotion for promotion's sake; the path dictated to me by conventional wisdom among the so-called Gang of 500 political operatives, self-important journalists and stale politicians in the Beltway who think politics is just another way to stroke one's ego, then sell out to K Street for a pile of cash.

Where is the next Bobby Kennedy? Maybe he will emerge from the list I've named. Maybe from somewhere else. But what's clear is this: if we don't find someone or a group of people who are willing to risk their own political capital to reject the Washington conventional wisdom that has so damaged our country; build a movement that really addresses this nation's problems; and inspire the tens of millions of citizens who rightfully feel disconnected from their own democracy, we will tumble down a very dark path indeed.