Big Birthday Memory #20: Is 2016 the New 1968? Bernie Sanders, The Donald and Eugene McCarthy

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from September 22, 2015.

I'm on the right - leafleting outside a textile mill in New Hampshire, February 1968
I’m on the right – leafleting outside a textile mill in New Hampshire, February 1968

They called us a lot of things.  “The Children’s Crusade” (an awful lot of us were college kids,)” “revolutionaries,” “dangerous  idealists,” sometimes even “traitors.”Dump LBJ1We were the ones who responded to Allard Lowenstein’s call to”Dump Johnson” by drafting an anti-war candidate,  because, as he told us, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” We signed on to help to bring down President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War with the only person willing to run, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy.  And yeah, that’s me with that same Senator Eugene McCarthy. In 1968, in the middle of the night, in New Hampshire, when we kind of won* the New Hampshire primary.

Now observers of the movements behind both Senator Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump/Ben Carson Republicans, have compared those campaigns to our efforts, and to some extent, to the rest of the 1960’s anti-war movement.  So.  What do we think?

SM-Bernie-sanders-crowd-phoenix

SANDERS Crowd, Phoenix, AZ

 

TRUMP crowd, Mobile AL

TRUMP crowd, Mobile AL

In 1968: We were desperate and felt we were losing our country – or at least its soul and moral place in the world.  We were doing it in someone else’s country and with cruel tools like napalm and cluster bombs.

2016: These campaigners, too, are desperate, and whether from right or left, feel they are losing their country.  Consider Sanders’ outrage and economic populism, calling out an economy he views as not only unjust but un-American; consider the huge response.

Consider the fevered reaction to Trump’s pledges to “Make America Great Again”, not only through his business acumen (and some horrifying immigration changes and racial provocation) but also through economic ideas that even Paul Krugman reluctantly acknowledges aren’t dumb.

1968: Vietnam was a life and death issue; the draft brought it home to every American, especially the young — and their parents and teachers and, gradually, much of the rest of America.

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all?     — Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

2016: Today, the life and death issue is the disintegration of the great American middle class that has long built and sustained this country (to say nothing of enabling a consumer economy that sustained growth for decades.) It’s a brutal blow to what Americans see the their birthright.  We all know the symptoms – underemployment, disappearing job security and benefits, and this, from a 2014 Pew report:

But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.

1968: We had very little faith in institutions (“the Establishment,”) from the government to the police to political parties, gigantic, impersonal universities, media that covered us with cruel disdain, and of course, the military.  With limited experience, we didn’t really understand the complicated issues that faced each of these entities – and our country – and exacerbated both its problems and every tragic mistake.  And though we were right about much of what we believed, we were pretty cavalier in the belief we knew how to fix things.

Although I was immunized by my steel town history, shared with kids who would never see a college or a white-collar job, many of my peers saw my classmates and neighbors simply as “hard hats” – lesser beings who needed us to instruct them.  Many didn’t consider the gap between our privileged lives and their own.

We also were enormously suspicious of a military governed by law, tradition and accountability to a commander-in-chief influenced not only by the legendary “best and the brightest” but also by a legacy including Soviet power, the “loss” of China to Communism and the fear that it might be replicated – and a political and personal story that was rapidly becoming obsolete.  That perceived rigidity and “Dr. Strangelove” stereotypes governed us.

2016: That same distrust of the Establishment informs the Tea Party but it has also touched also many, many other Republicans/Conservatives.  As one commentator observed: “They deeply believe that President Obama has ruined America.”  Beyond their rage at him come the usual suspects: politicians who care only whether they lost their own jobs, hopelessness, inability to pay for their children’s education, a cynical, uncaring media, the disappearance of decent, well-paying jobs, an emerging multicultural America where it’s hard to find one’s place and a chaotic present from Ferguson to Syria to the Hungarian border.

The Sanders people share a good deal of that distrust, beginning with the economic inequality, frozen wages and dead-end jobs at the heart of his message, but not ending there.  Add suspicion of the mainstream media (MSM), the police, college costs and crippling student loans, racism, sexism, union-busting and all the rest.

So yes, there’s plenty of common ground between that turbulent year and today.  And it’s hard to underestimate  how far we might have gone back then if we’d had the Internet.

Even so, I can’t vote YES on this one.  The initial 60’s activists believed in so much more.  So many moments have been declared the day “America lost its innocence” and certainly they chipped away at it: Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Chicago Democratic convention, Watergate, Irangate, the Clinton scandals, Oklahoma City, Challenger, the 1980 election and, of course, 9/11.  Those who have chosen action since those shattering events are almost a different species – at least those 40 and younger.

These losses also inform Trump and Tea Party voters, I think, as they try to turn back the clock and reconstitute an American that is no more.

As for the left, after years during which unions were decimated, blue-collar wages eviscerated, voting rights emasculated, women’s rights torn away and racial and religious tensions breaking every heart…  well, it sounds familiar but it’s so much tougher because what’s happening now has moved our country backward and the left is fighting to hang onto or reclaim lost rights, not win new ones.

It really doesn’t matter anyway.  Things look bad right now, and optimism, belief in the possibility of positive change… do you see it anywhere?

*Actually we only got 42% of the vote but that was so high against such a powerful politician and Democratic machine that it really was a “win” and caused him, a month or so later, to declare he would not “seek nor will I accept” the nomination to run for a second term.

Trump, Kennedy, Kemp and Les Miz (and Maybe Paris)

Donald_Trump_Laconia smDonald 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.

Jack KempTeddy Kennedy smWith 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.

dan kidThis 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!

RERUN – A GREAT REPUBLICAN: Farewell to Jack Kemp, a Fine Gentleman

Jack Kemp foodball

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.

When I think of Kemp, whom I met several times during his various campaigns, I see the same picture.  It’s Inauguration Weekend for the first George Bush, and there’s a huge youth rally at the National Armory in Washington.  I’m there for the Today Show, filming the teenagers practically hanging from the rafters, excited and waiting for the speakers to show up.

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.