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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

Barack and Bobby: Compare and Contrast; and, Obama-Clinton as Lennon-McCartney circa 1970

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It was moving to read Tom Hayden's reflections on Bobby Kennedy's candidacy of 1968, his own role in it, and the ways in which Obama's campaign has reconnected him with the spirit of those times. Yet I find it equally moving to consider the ways in which Obama and RFK are different, the ways in which they are mirror images rather than carbon copies.

My own relationship to Bobby's campaign was not like Tom Hayden's. I was 14 years old, obsessed by politics and rock & roll. And if you're going to be a 14-year-old who's obsessed with politics and rock & roll, 1968 was the year to do it: Student revolts in Paris and Prague. Marching in the streets of America. Gene McCarthy's candidacy, then Bobby's. And musically there were the Beatles, the Stones, James Brown, the Doors, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, the Impressions, Paul Butterfield, Albert King, the Who, Aretha Franklin,Cream, Marvin Gaye, the Mothers ...

Then, tragically, gun shots in Memphis and L.A. Drug overdoses in rock star hotel rooms. But before the tragedies there were the moments of exhilaration.

I've said this before: Had Bobby Kennedy not run for President, I wouldn't be writing these words right now. My fascination with politics is the direct result of what he made seem possible, from the symbolic to the soulful -- from his promise to make "This Land Is Your Land" the national anthem, to his tears for the Appalachian poor. I see Barack Obama having the same impact on young kids today. It's the single most positive effect his candidacy could possibly have.

And yet, for the many similarities between the two candidates, consider the differences: Bobby Kennedy was the ultimate insider, the product of wealth and power. As he grew his hair and increasingly identified with the youth of the world, as he joined Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King to walk with the disaffected, as he challenged the world of authority that his family had mastered, he was doing something powerful and symbolic: He was walking down from the mountaintop to join with the people below.

Obama's is doing the opposite: He's climbing up the mountain. Where RFK was the ultimate insider, he's the ultimate outsider. He's African American, multiracial, international, from a non-traditional family upbringing. Bobby's bearing in his final year was increasingly open, informal, and emotional, which Barack's is centered, balanced, and almost cerebral. In Marshall McLuhan terms, Barack is "cool" while Bobby was "hot." And where Bobby joined a movement that was already underway, Barack seems to have triggered one that was waiting to happen.

Yet both of them are catalysts, and both created candidacies with enormous potential to generate symbolic and real change. Obama's first move as party head was to refuse PAC and Federal lobbyist money for the DNC. That may be largely symbolic in hard-dollar terms, but as a sign of the times it's enormous. Combined with his stunning ability to raise money from small-dollar donors, it's nothing less than a declaration of revolution. He's seizing the means of political production and transferring it from insiders to the general public.

I read every word that Tom Hayden wrote in 1968, too. He's right to note that Obama's policies as President might be disappointing, although like him I'm hopeful. And an Obama presidency will certainly be an enormous change from the last eight years, no matter what happens. That, plus the electrifying effect he's having on young people, makes 2008 a year of great promise.

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As for that "secret meeting" between Clinton and Obama last night, it made me think of Lennon and McCartney during the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. The two of them were pretty pissed off at one another by then, and Lennon loyalists felt that McCartney screwed him with the way he handled his departure from the group. But there were only four living people who knew what it was like to be a Beatle, to have lived in the eye of that hurricane. And only two of them knew what it was like to spend years fighting for the role of frontman and band leader.

People put a lot of pressure on them to put the band back together after that. In some ways, maybe they should have. Maybe then we wouldn't have had Lennon's "Mind Games" ("some kinda druid dude lifting the veil") or Paul singing "we're so sorry, Uncle Albert." Each was always the other's best critic. But then again, we might not have had "Imagine," either.

Apparently Lennon and McCartney repaired their friendship, and almost showed up on a whim to play on Saturday Night Live after a great routine in which Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Carter offered the Beatles $3500 to reunite. (Lennon said later that they didn't have time to make it to the studio where the show was being broadcast.)

My point? I guess it's this: A lot of people want a Dream Ticket, the same way a lot of people wanted a Beatles reunion. Me, I don't have an opinion either way. Management consultants talk about "managing up" and "delegating up" in business, and I intend to do that here. Barack is the party's leader now, and Hillary has created a powerful following. Let them work it out between themselves, and then let the candidate make his decision.

You can be a fan of Lennon's politics, his great writing and singing, and still acknowledge that McCartney is one of the great composers, musicians, and singers of our time. Obama and Clinton are like John and Paul in at least one way: Only the two of them know what it's been like to be in the bubble of this campaign for the last six months. If they want to go back on the road together, that's fine with me. If not, they'll each have their own hits.

Like the song says: They can work it out.

RJ Eskow blogs:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog