A Forty Year Dry Spell
Friends often ask me why I’m so enthusiastic about Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. Sometimes my enthusiasm surprises even me.
It’s not as if I’m a starry-eyed kid just becoming aware of politics. I’ve seen what ambition, greed, corruption, and stupidity can do. I lived through the Cold War, Nixon and the Vietnam War. I saw Nixon smear his way to power, relying on fear and hate to win elections and to build an imperial presidency that still threatens our Republic today. I saw good men like Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale swept away in a tide of cynicism and fear masquerading as realism.
But one thing more than any other shaped my view of politics. In the space of only five years, from 1963 to 1968, assassins’ bullets cut down three of the greatest leaders of my lifetime.
It’s hard for anyone born later to understand the impact of those murders. Like today, the Cold War was a time of fear, hate and uncertainty. African-Americans’ struggle for a semblance of equal opportunity was in full swing. A racist backlash reflected the ugliest face of American hate.
In the midst of all the darkness came three great leaders: President Jack Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jack’s brother Robert—a senator, Attorney General and then a leading presidential candidate.
All three had one thing in common. Unlike lesser men, they resisted the temptation to turn to demagoguery and the Dark Side. They preached and practiced Reason and faith in American values.
If you have a religious bent, you might call their approach “strength through righteousness.” That phrase certainly fit Dr. King’s leadership style. If you have a more secular bent, you might call it “power through principle.”
But whatever you call it, one thing was clear. All three men inspired and led what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Their guiding light and motive force were the good things that once made our nation unique. They believed that we could be wise, strong, prosperous and respected by hewing to our principles.
Then, one by one, in a series of tragic gunshots, they were gone.
If only one or two had been killed, it would have been bad enough. But the murder of all three in so short a time was intellectually and emotionally devastating. I doubt that any progressive, intelligent person who lived through that era ever recovered fully from the loss. I certainly didn’t.
Of course we all did what we had to do. I supported Senator Eugene McCarthy for being first to oppose the Vietnam War. But I voted for Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in the general election of 1968. I did so holding my nose, knowing that Lyndon Johnson had pressured Humphrey not to break ranks in support of the war. If more had done the same, we could have spared the nation the trials of Nixon and Watergate.
Sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils is a wise and necessary act. But it never engenders enthusiasm.
Four decades of similarly numbing choices followed. In forty years we’ve never again seen the kind of power through principle that Jack Kennedy and Dr. King delivered and Robert Kennedy promised.
Have you even wondered why the films series Star Wars was one of the highest-grossing productions of all time? Its special effects were well done, but its story and script were mediocre, and its acting was hardly stellar. Yet it succeeded beyond its producer’s wildest dreams because it delivered a powerful and timely subconscious message.
I saw the first episode in 1977, after Watergate, our tragic loss in Vietnam, and the fall of Iran to religious extremists. My date, a psychologist, was unimpressed. She dismissed the film as a simplistic fairly tale dressed up as science fiction.
But she missed the point. Although I could not have articulated it at the time, I knew subconsciously what the Dark Side represented. So, apparently, did the rest of America.
The Dark Side was the sinister force—then largely unknown—that had laid America low. It had deprived us of our King and two Kennedys. It had put a nation founded by great minds on enduring principles in the hands of mediocrities or worse.
We all knew subconsciously what the Force stood for, too. It was the principles that make us Americans, which once made America great and can again. It stood for men and women who lead us toward the light.
In the depths of despair over Watergate, Vietnam and Iran, those principles seemed as illusory as the idea of moving inanimate objects with your mind. Yet the three original Star Wars films maintained a seemingly irrational faith in the power of human transcendence, in the face of fear and despair. Because they matched perfectly the mood of the times, they were successful far beyond their literary merit.
It has been a long, long forty years. There have been glimmers of hope, with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But both men ultimately disappointed. Carter is a good man, but he proved weak and ineffectual as president. Clinton allowed the country to founder for three years because he couldn’t keep his pants on. And so the Force never reappeared.
Is Obama our Yoda? He has yet to prove himself, but he has the requisite faith and moral clarity. He has the brains and character to know what is wise and right. He has shown unshakable belief that what is wise and right will also make us strong.
Just as in Yoda, Obama’s wisdom and moral strength appear in an unexpected package. A generation raised on Star Wars is eager for his leadership. For as George Lucas might have said, in Obama the Force is strong.
So I approach the Democratic primaries with more enthusiasm that I have felt since voting for Gene McCarthy in 1968. It is a wonderful feeling to support a candidate because I believe in him, not because his opponent is worse.
Many older Americans, numb since that terrible Time of Assassinations, no doubt feel the same way. If we can only communicate our enthusiasm to others, we might carry Obama to victory and take our country back from the Dark Side.
P.S. After I wrote the foregoing, Ted Sorensen appeared on Charlie Rose and endorsed Obama. He was Jack Kennedy’s friend, aide and confidant and, as author, a chief chronicler of the Kennedy Camelot.
Sorensen praised Obama’s keen judgment, noting that Obama had predicted precisely the current consequences of our misadventure in Iraq before the war began. Apparently Sorensen, too, sees Obama as heir to the bright legacy from before the Time of Assassinations.
With Zbigniew Brzezinski also having endorsed Obama, the people who matter in the Democratic Party—the ones with brains and judgment, not just money—are beginning to line up. We really don’t have to settle for second best.