Donald Trump is important. Maybe he’s channeling Huey Long, maybe Lonesome Rhodes, maybe just “the Donald,” but despite his xenophobia and thinly veiled racist take on immigrants, he has spun a new American dream and captured those who have been without one for a long time.
Despite those excluded, whom Ta-Nehesi Coates describes so well, the belief that the dream exists is a gigantic part of the American story even though, for many, it’s faded from view. Today, in the shadow of the attacks in Paris, I wonder whether his message will thrive or wither in the face of such horror and fear.
With all that in mind, what does Trump have to do with John Valjean? What did the story mean to Jack Kemp (there’s a new biography ) and Teddy Kennedy (there’s a new book about him, too) both of whom, from opposite parties and ideologies, saw Les Miz multiple times? Can what spoke to them teach or maybe comfort us as we recoil from another bloody revolution in the streets of Paris? Tell me that this* is not what they – and we – are feeling today.
This little boy is now a father, but when he was six, we took him, along with his brother, to see Les Miz. At the end, he dissolved in my lap in tears, a wise child who understood, as so many do, especiallu today, what we may have lost and must struggle to recover? Listen and then, you decide.
*When Les Miz opened in New York, both Teddy Kennedy and Jack Kemp saw it multiple times. It might have been about a revolution, but it was everyone’s revolution:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you
The right to be free!
This good looking guy, football star of the early 60’s, is Jack Kemp – congressman, vice-presidential and presidential candidate and a fine man. He died of cancer Saturday at 73, universally respected and, by many, loved. If you read this blog you know that I’m anything but a conservative, so this isn’t a political meditation; it’s an appreciation of a good guy.
There are lots of them, holding forth in various ways about the new administration and all it would do. Finally, Kemp, the soon-to-be Secretary of HUD, Housing and Urban Development, arrived, and gave a sweet, unpretentious talk. Then, football hero that he was, he knew how to handle this young and happy crowd. Producing a football, he drew his arm back, ball in hand, and threw the ball far into the crowd, to enormous applause. It was wonderful.
After his years in the Bush Administration, he continued to act on his values: the need for extra opportunity for those held behind, and for justice. In the years of fierce immigration battles in the 90’s, he opposed California’s cruel anti-immigration Proposition 187, jeopardizing his own political future, and took strong positions on the concept of opportunity for those whose futures seemed bleak. Kemp was an economic conservative and all that that entailed, and also a caring, committed American. He proved it’s possible to be both. I’ve always admired him, and I wanted to say so, and wish him Godspeed. The is a portion of a (long) letter to his (17) grandchildren shortly after the 2008 election:
My first thought last week upon learning that a 47-year-old African-American Democrat had won the presidency was, “Is this a great country or not?”
You may have expected your grandfather to be disappointed that his friend John McCain lost (and I was), but there’s a difference between disappointment over a lost election and the historical perspective of a monumental event in the life of our nation.
Let me explain. First of all, the election was free, fair and transformational, in terms of our democracy and given the history of race relations in our nation.
What do I mean?
Just think, a little over 40 years ago, blacks in America had trouble even voting in our country, much less thinking about running for the highest office in the land.
A little over 40 years ago, in some parts of America, blacks couldn’t eat, sleep or even get a drink of water using facilities available to everyone else in the public sphere.
We are celebrating, this year, the 40th anniversary of our Fair Housing Laws, which helped put an end to the blatant racism and prejudice against blacks in rental housing and homeownership opportunities.
As an old professional football quarterback, in my days there were no black coaches, no black quarterbacks, and certainly no blacks in the front offices of football and other professional sports. For the record, there were great black quarterbacks and coaches — they just weren’t given the opportunity to showcase their talent. And pro-football (and America) was the worse off for it.
I remember quarterbacking the old San Diego Chargers and playing for the AFL championship in Houston. My father sat on the 50-yard line, while my co-captain’s father, who happened to be black, had to sit in a small, roped-off section of the end zone. Today, we can’t imagine the NFL without the amazing contributions of blacks at every level of this great enterprise.
I could go on and on, but just imagine that in the face of all these indignities and deprivations, Dr. Martin Luther King could say 44 years ago, “I have an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in mankind.” He described his vision for America, even as he and his people were being denied their God-given human rights guaranteed under our Constitution.
You see, real leadership is not just seeing the realities of what we are temporarily faced with, but seeing the possibilities and potential that can be realized by lifting up peoples’ vision of what they can be.
When President-elect Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln on the night of his election, he was acknowledging the transcendent qualities of vision and leadership that are always present, but often overlooked and neglected by pettiness, partisanship and petulance. . . .
My advice for you all is to understand that unity for our nation doesn’t require uniformity or unanimity; it does require putting the good of our people ahead of what’s good for mere political or personal advantage.
Kemp was a fierce economic conservative. AND a true believer in the promise of our country. There is no Republican candidate who offers that kind of moral, ethical and political leadership today. We could really use him.