For three nights, I felt the magic again. For this 50+ woman, plodding along in a "good enough" political marriage, the Democratic convention offered a desperately needed jolt of passion.
Much has been written about the relationship between Obama and the young. But there is a less well-known, more complicated and still unfinished romance between the President and the baby boomers he unexpectedly swept off our feet in 2008. The ancient yearnings and traumas that Obama's candidacy activated simultaneously thrilled and terrified us.
Like so many of my generation, I was deeply scarred by the violent and tragic spring of 1968. I was 12 years old at the time, and my father, a Washington DC lawyer, volunteered for Robert Kennedy during his Presidential run. He returned home after a week campaigning in California on the night of June 4, 1968. The next morning, he, my mother and my four siblings huddled by the television set, watching in horror as the assassination scene at the Ambassador Hotel played out in an endless loop of screams and hysteria.
Politically, I never recovered. Throughout my adolescence and adulthood, I sought to resurrect Robert Kennedy, and "do over" all that followed. I was hardly alone. Every four years, at least one Democratic hopeful would be compared in the press to Kennedy. Mario Cuomo had his ability to inspire, Robert Kerrey his piercing eyes, John Edwards recreated his poverty tour. The candidates always lost, disappointed, or both. Yet, we kept searching. Ronald Steel identified this phenomenon in his 2000 book In Love With Night: "The yearning for Robert F. Kennedy -- or somebody like him -- is an open wound in some parts of the country."
Then came Barack Obama and the RFK comparisons went on steroids. Ethel, Bobby's widow, said: "He is so much like Bobby. He feels it." Ted Sorenson called him "a fresh and exciting voice in American politics that has not been in my life since Robert Kennedy." There was even a Youtube video, entitled "Barack and Bobby," in which Obama's recollections of Kennedy's speech on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination is juxtaposed with footage of Kennedy that night. The larger meaning was obvious. Barack had arrived to complete what Bobby couldn't.
As enticing a fantasy as this was, I resisted at first. I felt too old and jaded for this foolishness. Slowly, though, throughout the 2008 primaries, Obama pulled me in. By the fall, I dared to believe he might win, even as I agonized over every dip in the polls. Later, Steve Schmidt, McCain's campaign manager, defined the fever I was under: "This was, in my view, the unfinished Bobby Kennedy campaign -- the idealism, the passion, the inspiration he gave to people..."
I remember the delirious morning of November 5, 2008. Exhausted, but elated, I leaned over the railing of the Harvard Square Bridge to admire the sparkling gold pellets dancing along the Charles River. If my story were a film, that would have been the final shot. Bobby's spirit, finally, could rest in peace. We had found his successor, the one who could grab his mantle and pick up where he left off. "The haunting ends here," I thought.
Alas, time did not stop on that bridge. Instead, we married the guy. And daily life with President Obama has shown us a different kind of disappointment and disillusionment.
Don't get me wrong. I like and admire Obama. I applaud his resolve and dignity in the face of a ruthless, obstructionist opposition that has lied, smeared and denigrated him. He has made a few gutsy moves. But we have seen him tired and irritable, aloof, and too willing to cede leadership to others. He sometimes appears to recede when he should step up. He can treat his opponents better than his friends. Despite his astonishing oratory skills, he does not always explain his policies very persuasively.
In short, Obama is no Bobby Kennedy. Of course, Bobby Kennedy was also probably no Bobby Kennedy. We just never got to find that out.
Obama also has not been able to stop the system from further rotting at its core. Under his watch, Citizens United has ceded elections to the highest bidder. Voter suppression laws may turn us into a banana republic, where huge swaths of voters are denied access to the ballot box. Politicians routinely lie and distort with abandon. Congress is incapable of tackling serious problems. Some of this is within a President's control. Much of it is not. We are in for a very long slog, and can expect ruthless, ferocious opposition every step of the way.
Those realizations do not exactly stir me to act or contribute. "It could get worse" isn't quite as motivating as "Yes, we can."
Which is precisely why I needed that convention so badly. At the outset, my expectations were low. Then, on that first night, I found myself mesmerized by the speeches of Deval Patrick, Michelle Obama and Michael Castro. A day later, I cheered out loud at the precision and elegance with which Bill Clinton pierced every Republican lie and falsehood. By the time Obama spoke, I felt like I was listening to a familiar, flawed, but still beloved spouse. Oh yeah, I thought, as his speech built to a rousing finish, now I remember why I married this guy.
In fact, during those three days I didn't just recommit to my mate. I felt embraced by an entire family who shared my values -- of collective sacrifice, lifting up those most in need, and respect for individual choices. I saw, finally, the Democrats mount a spirited defense of health care reform, gay marriage and abortion rights. Before my very eyes, I watched the emergence of the "backbone" Patrick exhorted all of us to grow.
No doubt about it, I am long "over" the middle-aged love affair that caught me off guard four years ago. And yet, the aching for something that I lost a long, long time ago is also gone. That comes as a huge relief. Firmly rooted in the present, no longer tormented by "what if?", I now hope that Obama can help us, young and old alike, respond to a far more urgent question: "What now?"