I’ve been learning so much American political history this past year. Not just because of becoming an American citizen, nor just because my 12-year old son’s been studying the Revolution, but because of the book I’m writing, which takes the position that music scenes don’t emerge in a vacuum, but rather are the product of economic and political circumstances. In recent months, I’ve been very much immersed in the 1960s, and for the last few weeks, the latter part of the decade, the point where the “good” sixties turned “bad.” There are various candidates for a specific moment when the dream of a better world died, but few would argue with the two most obvious dates: April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and June 5, 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Each man was born with a unique ability to inspire their fellow man. They understood right from wrong, and not only were they were prepared to do something about it, they were able to bring their fellow people along with them. King, who never ran for public office, gets the lion’s share of public attention, as well he should, being the tireless campaigner for civil rights who paid for his public profile with his life. But Robert Kennedy played a significant part in that campaign too; as Attorney General in the early 1960s, he was the voice of urgency in his brother’s ear, for President John F. Kennedy would otherwise have taken a very slow and cautious approach to the Civil Rights movement. After his brother’s Assassination, Robert F. Kennedy broke with the Johnson Administration over Vietnam, and by 1968, had elected to run for President. To say, Had he lived, he may well have achieved that goal, is to miss the point of why he died: He was assassinated the night he won the California Democratic Primary.
Forty years later, voters are again turning out for the California Democratic Primary, as we are here in New York and twenty other States, too. (And all of us trust that no candidate will be assassinated by shadowy forces later tonight.) The Democrats do not have as numerous a choice of candidates as they did in April ’68, when Kennedy’s fellow white men Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy were both still in the race, but they have in many ways a wider birth: the choice between a black man, Barack Obama, or a woman, Hillary Clinton. History is certainly going to be made one way or another. And next November, I hope, history will march all the way into the White House.
Barack Obama, I believe, has the greater chance of making that history. Why? Because he has similar qualities to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It’s more than just “charisma,” although that’s a perfectly good choice of word to summarize the various components of a package that includes leadership, certitude, integrity, inclusiveness, optimism and hope. Still, none of that fully puts the finger on it. What excites me about Obama is that he has that remarkable quality, a je ne sais quoi if you don’t hate the French – the ability to excite and unite people, and bring them along for the journey. When you see footage of King’s speeches, you understand why he was able to achieve so much for the greater American people in such a short space of time; when you talk to those who supported Bobby Kennedy’s run for President, you get a similar sense of possibility, though unfortunately in his case it was never given a chance to prove itself. Both men were able to attract those who had little faith in leaders – religious, political or otherwise. They spoke to the vast minority – quite arguably the majority – that remains perpetually frustrated with the American system and struggles for a viable way to adequately express itself.
We need such a man in the White House. Hell, we need such a man running for President in the first place. It’s too easy to point to Obama’s inexperience, and Democrats who used that charge against George W. Bush eight years ago have a particularly hard time here – but a wise man will surround himself with other wise men, and besides, there are plenty voters out there ready for someone who has spent his working life in the social trenches, rather than in the halls of Washington, where corporate influence so ultimately leads to political compromise. Sure, he will have to hone and clarify his policies if he gets the nomination, but I have faith that he can do so and that he understands the role he is campaigning for: as the keeper of a national trust, not the CEO of a big business or the unilateral “decider.”
In the Primary season thus far, Obama has been able to bring people out to vote who have never voted before, who have otherwise long given up on the system. Democratic turn-out has, before today, just about doubled, turn-out that has benefited the other candidates too. In a country whose recent Presidential elections have shown almost an equal split between Republicans and Democrats, why would those who genuinely want “change” not get behind the man who has the potential to bring an extra five, ten, even twenty million people to the polls this November? Why would we not want someone who is inclusive, who is principled, who is currently (relatively) uncorrupted by the corporate lobbyists? Are we concerned that more Americans are, to quote Public Enemy, in fear of a black planet than would vote for a black President? Well, we have to face that moment sooner or later; let’s do it right now, while we have someone in that position who can excite so many white voters too.
Besides, in the “lesser of two evils” argument that’s the unfortunately permanent part of politics, I believe there are less people frightened of Barack Obama’s skin color than there are those who have a visceral hatred for Hillary Clinton. Much of that hatred is unjustified, the work of a right-wing news media (hello, Rupert Murdoch) that has spent almost twenty years gearing up for this moment of vilification. But the truth is, that for all her qualities, and there are many, she represents the status quo, the divided country, and a politics of compromise where the end always justifies the means. That latter attribute is also a benefit: the Clintons (note use of the plural) know what it takes to win, and they’re prepared to go through hell and high water and their own vilification of Barack Obama to get there, and there’s something to be said for that fighting spirit when this election campaign gets as ugly as it will do come October, but that’s not enough reason to choose her over Obama. I want to vote positive.
I admit to being swayed by my peers. The pages of the Woodstock Times have been full of letters from experienced political observers and activists, explaining with great lucidity why they oppose Hillary Clinton – our local Senator, by the way – and are so supportive of Barack Obama. I can agree with many of their conclusions. (Read some here.) I have read much in the national newspapers; I have watched a couple of debates, most notably the one last week between just the two of them. I get a sense of absolute clarity of purpose from Barack Obama that I simply don’t get from Clinton. After the disastrous campaigns fought in 2000 and 2004 by Al Gore and John Kerry respectively, people I could never have voted for with great confidence, I am unwilling to take that old argument of experience over charisma. It doesn’t win the battle.
Besides, Barack Obama appears to have as much substance as he does charisma. He has also managed to embrace both the grass roots and the Democratic mainstream alike, showing the kind of inclusive qualities that made King and Kennedy so magnetic. These qualities are not given to many people, and we should seize on those people who have them. We’re Lookin’ For A Leader, as Neil Young dared sing two years ago, and as he had the foresight to point out, maybe it’s a woman, or a black man after all. So, I have a dream – that Barack Obama gets the nomination, and brings John Edwards along as running mate. That would be my dream ticket. It’s one that can win back the White House, benefit the poor and the uninsured, unite those who are willing to be united, and make American a welcome part of the wider world once more. Today, I’ll be doing my small part to make that world possible. I’m looking forward to it.