For one who has experienced both eras, the current movement for Barack Obama has achieved a living remembrance of Bobby Kennedy's campaign in the week when RFK's murder is painfully remembered.
On June 4, 1968, I watched from a New York townhouse the murder of a second Kennedy in five years. Martin Luther King already was gone, Vietnam and our cities were burning. I was in the midst of chaotic planning for anti-war demonstrations at the Democratic Convention coming in August.
I drifted off with friends to St. Patrick's Cathedral where Kennedy staffers let us through the doors late at night. After sitting a while in silence, I found myself as a member of a makeshift honor guard standing next to his simple coffin. I was wearing a green Cuban hat and weeping. The last political hope of the Sixties vision -- a movement-driven progressive government -- was finished, whether by chance or plot, it mattered little. The violence I had resisted under white racism in the South was seeping into my veins. Like many who took their rage even farther, I was hardening, and never dared again to recover my young idealism.
"Dad, don't you recognize anything of yourself in this movement?", asked an angry email from my son Troy, nearly forty years later. He was working 24/7 with his [now] wife Simone, for Barack Obama, spreading the boundless energy of the young and an artist's flair for silk-screens. How could I share your giddy utopianism, I wanted to respond, after the murders of the Sixties icons -- John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, all of whom I had known as a young man? If those killings were not enough, we suffered the Nixon and Reagan eras of counter-revolution aimed at what our generation had achieved. Then the war and sanctions and war again for control of the Persian Gulf. During the coming decades, I was limited every day by the sordid realities, as well as the occasional modest achievements, of electoral politics.
I didn't see him coming. When I heard of the young state senator with a background in community organizing who wanted to be president, I was at least sentient enough to be interested. When I read Dreams of My Father, I was taken aback by its depth. This young man apparently gave his first public speech, against South African apartheid, at an Occidental College rally organized by Students for Economic Democracy, the student branch of the Campaign for Economic Democracy [CED] which I chaired in 1979-82. The buds of curiosity quickened. Soon I was receiving emails from David Peck, an organizer of the Occidental rally, who now is coordinating Americans in Spain for Barack Obama.
One of Bobby Kennedy's qualities, or perhaps it was a quality of the times, was an easy and growing familiarity with the New Left. He evolved from 1961 to 1963 from viewing the Freedom Riders as a dangerous nuisance to a prophetic minority. By 1967, he even wanted to copy SDS community organizing projects -- a forerunner of Barack Obama's path -- as a template for a national war on poverty.
He had a talent for engaging outsiders while trying to remain presidential. When Staughton Lynd and I met with him in late 1967, we sparred with RFK over his still-forming position on the madness of Vietnam. He mocked the Vietnamese communist position on free elections, for example, but realized there was no answer to the evidence that Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 percent of the national vote in 1956 -- in elections which France and the United States prevented. He wanted to be the anti-war candidate, but hoped for peace through negotiations, not a unilateral withdrawal. Yet his thoughts seemed free-floating, driven by curiosity.
I sensed there was no fixed version of Robert Kennedy. He was evolving, improvising, feeling his way, from former counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, to his brother's attorney general, to a dissenter from the Democratic establishment...It was unclear where he was headed, perhaps even to himself, but it was my sense that he was on some deep level, astonishingly, on our side.
For this intuition I was sharply criticized from all directions. FBI memos suggested that I was a Kennedy "agent" in the movement, though our formal positions were quite different. Many in the revolutionized [and fragmenting] SDS held the same suspicions. The Yippies considered calling off the Chicago protests for fear that Bobby Kennedy might co-opt them with his lengthening hair. The McCarthy volunteers were livid that he was stealing their dream.
But he was the only one who could bridge the chasm between the traditional Democrats and the disaffected young, the striking farmworkers, the rebellious blacks, even the utterly disenfranchised native Americans. I learned from that experience that, like it or not, a charismatic and willing candidate, not just a linear program, is needed to mold a diverse majority.
So it was with great interest that I attended a Robert Kennedy human rights event in Washington early last year, featuring Barack Obama as the honored speaker. I sat in a small audience that included Sen. Ted Kennedy, Bobby's widow Ethel, and several of her grown sons and daughters. Obama's written remarks were heartfelt, thoughtful, but not especially inspiring, at least as I recall. What struck me was how enthralled the Kennedys were, especially Ethel. He definitely was the one they had been waiting for.
There are vast differences between Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama, owing to circumstance, though both have followed hero's journeys of the classic sort. Kennedy was shaped by his brother's murder and the climate of his times, which drove all but the most robotic towards alienation. Barack is a product of globalization, immigration, even slavery, but nonetheless a privileged inheritor of the movements for which Bobby Kennedy stood. Both have believed, with Camus, that greatness lies in touching and uniting both ends of the arc of experience. Both were painfully cautious in formulating policy positions that seemed to placate everyone while leaving little solid ground for their core beliefs. It was hard to believe this was their Way, not just calculated opportunism.
My hopes for Robert Kennedy might have been dashed by his subsequent policies if he had lived to be president, but I don't think so. The best evidence is the progressive course consistently pursued by those closest to him, Ethel and Ted Kennedy, to this day. It is hard to imagine him abandoning all those poor people, fervent anti-war activists, and early environmentalists who swarmed his rallies -- and who, like the farmworkers, carried him to victory on the ground in California.
The most impressive parallel between Bobby and Barack is the reappearance of a unified African-American community along with an inspired new generation of activists and voters. Win or lose, the Obama movement will shape progressive politics, and our racial climate, for a generation to come.
Those who denounce Obama -- and the possibilities of all electoral politics- - should ponder the effectiveness of sitting judgmentally on the sidelines while an Unexpected Future arrives through the sheer will of a new generation. They should consider whether politics and history can be reduced to a fixed determinism that is endlessly repeated, as if there are no surprises. We can have our differences with Obama's specific policies, as I certainly do, but those should be measured against the prospect that a movement might transform him even as his very rise continues to transform the rest of us.