Forty-eight years ago, on the playground of Crown Elementary School, in Coronado, California, I knew that Richard Nixon should be the next President of the United States, and campaigned vigorously for him among my classmates. He'd been Vice-President for eight years, for goodness' sake, and John F. Kennedy hadn't run anything. I was nine years old, but I'd absorbed the conventional wisdom surrounding me in that Republican town, and, as it turned out, the state as well. Nixon took California in 1960. When I learned that my parents had voted for Kennedy, and as Democrats from Democratic families had never considered doing anything else, I felt betrayed.
The conventional wisdom is powerful stuff, based in experience, and it always assumes that the future will look much like yesterday and today. It's a useful guide to all kinds of things, from whom your parents are going to vote for, what your spouse would like for a birthday present, and what it takes to be a credible candidate for President. (Lots of experience, a substantial track record, and anointing by the party insiders.)
But every now and then the political calculus changes, and the conventional wisdom suddenly becomes as relevant as yesterday's stock closing prices. That's what happened during the civil rights movement beginning in Montgomery Alabama in 1955. Instead of the "slow, steady progress" on civil rights urged by proponents of the conventional wisdom, the movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. upended normal political life. Ordinary working African-Americans boycotted the Montgomery buses for 13 months, ultimately forcing a Supreme Court decision outlawing the city's segregated bus seating. While Hillary Clinton was right in pointing out the importance of Lyndon Johnson to passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, it's also true that any Democratic president, including John F. Kennedy, had he lived, could have signed them. The deeper truth is that no such bills would ever have gotten close to the President's desk without the movement sparked and led by Martin Luther King.
For 35 years, as she's fond of pointing out, Hillary Clinton has worked to improve the lot of American families. I believe her, and think she might even make a pretty good president--but only that. What's wrong with her campaign, in my view, and what hangs like an albatross around the neck of a potential Clinton presidency, is that it is almost entirely immersed in and nourished by conventional political wisdom: "experience matters most;" "she's paid her dues--she deserves it;" "Hispanics won't support a black candidate;" "incremental change is the most we can hope for;" "a female candidate has to look even more hawkish than male candidates on war and peace;" "moderation in all things."
Here's a true story. My wife, the Rev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City, went to Washington DC to lobby for immigration reform last year. When she got a chance to ask Senator Clinton why even the Senate bill was so punitive and meager rather than truly comprehensive immigration reform, the Senator replied, with great condescending energy, emphasizing each word. "Politics is the art of the possible."--the all-purpose cliché defense for legislative failure--as though Donna, who has worked in the public arena as long as Hillary has, needed any reminding.
What's wrong with that statement is that while politics is ALWAYS the art of the possible, sometimes--pushed by movements, and sensed by the very best leaders--what people and politicians consider possible changes, and we're in an entirely new moment. The key, of course, is to know when the changes are coming, and how to help them flower. Real leaders have that sense, and know when it's worth taking a chance on a longshot.
I think Barack Obama has that sense, has demonstrated it in this campaign, and is inspiring all sorts of unlikely folks to join in a collective effort of hoping for a different future. Even if his prose policies don't rise to the poetry of his campaign rhetoric--and I know they don't--when people join a campaign because they feel inspired, look out! Obama's campaign is actually expanding the electorate, providing the kind of inspiration that John F. Kennedy did for an entire generation. The historical parallels with 1960 are far from exact--no such parallels are ever precise--but for all his many faults, John F. Kennedy showed a willingness to change, on civil rights, on nuclear confrontation, even on Vietnam, precisely because he was less wedded to the conventional wisdom of his elders. He was willing to be moved by the spirit unleashed by his soaring, hopeful oratory about what America might become. Given what's already happening among young people, African-Americans, and (I hope) Latinos, there are going to be lots of wonderful, empowered, democratic, grass-roots movements pushing on an Obama administration. How exciting!
My first vote came, coincidentally, 35 years ago in the 1972 general election. I voted for hope then--in the candidacy of George McGovern--and since, whenever I could find candidates to carry my hopes for the best of America. There haven't been many. But there is one now. That's why I'm going to vote for Barack Obama in the New York Democratic Primary on Super Tuesday. It's why I hope you do too.
You know, the easiest bet in America yesterday was on the New England Patriots. "They'd been here before." "Great track record." "Great, tested quarterback." "Undefeated season." When I offered to bet my Boston-based son Jacob $10 on the game (I live in New York City), he gave me 7 points, and "generously" offered to double the bet--a bet I took. Why? Because I was betting on the hope and the sense that the Giants, counted out for much of the season, had it in them to turn the conventional wisdom upside down. Even if I'd lost, and for most of the game thought I had, I was happy to have made that bet.
The conventional wisdom has kept me on the fence for months. Most of my friends have also been caught on the same fence, even though their kids decided for Obama long ago. The day I made up my own mind, I called my parents, those lifelong Democrats who shocked me in 1960. They're both voting for Obama in the Virginia primary. So much for the conventional wisdom. Go Obama!