Friday, November 7, 2008

The Obama Nation, 1968-2008

"Yes, we can!"

The words echoed down 3rd Avenue after I left dinner w/ my college friend, Paul, and his friends. It was after 10 pm and the results had already begun to flow in across the cable tv networks.

As I strolled in the balmy early November NYC weather down from 77th St. to Aunt Eileen's apartment on 20th, I could see into many restaurants and bars I passed the totals as they began to pile up on the Democrats' column. Even before dinner, CNN had called Vermont for Obama with exactly 0% of the vote and 0 votes in! But then we know the intuition of our seers in Vermont...

Then, as I watched from window to window, with Pennsylvania and Ohio soon falling on Barack's side, followed by Virginia and New Hampshire, it clearly looked, as my friend, Larry had advised a month ago in Kathmandu, like the final fruition of an historical landslide for Obama, and our country.

It's hard to explain to our children what this means to those of us of a slightly earlier generation. For me, this election of 2008 is the completion of the fatally truncated election of 1968. The year of my earliest political education and, tragically, the painful loss of innocence or honest belief in the possibility of redemption in the American political process.

How well I remember that night in early June 1968. I was all of fourteen years old, full of the enthusiasm that youth and youthful ambition can bring to its inchoate hopes and dreams. Already it had been a momentous, agonized, deliberate and decisive year.

Only a few months before, I'd come into the kitchen to forage for breakfast behind the refrigerator door when my father came down and said to me, "Did you hear Lyndon Johnson's speech last night?"

"Yes, I heard the start about the halt in the bombing of North Vietnam..."

"Did you hear the end?"

"No, why?"

"You didn't hear him say he wouldn't run for president?"

"WHAT?", as I slammed the refrigerator door and looked at my father in astonishment.

From LBJ's near-defeat in New Hampshire to Bobby Kennedy's announcement that he, too, would run for the Democratic nomination against both LBJ and Gene McCarthy, through the brutal murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, 1968 had already been a year of profound agony, anger and loss in American politics.

Then, as I lay in bed on Brockway Lane in Upstate NY, late in the night, with the small B&W tv at the foot of my bed, I woke with some sense of dread, disbelief and confusion. I'd fallen asleep after midnight waiting for the results of the Democratic primary in California.

Although RFK had won in Indiana, Gene McCarthy had defeated him in Oregon and all knew that the winner of the winner-take-all California primary (so different from this year's Democratic primary rules) would be the 1968 Democratic party nominee, and most likely win this turbulent election to lead the country out of the self-inflicted, devastating war in Vietnam and, hopefully, toward a fulfillment of the civil rights movement that had sputtered, then burnt on the streets of Watts, Washington, DC and most major cities in America.

As I woke staring w/ disorientation at the tv, the phone upstairs rang in my parents' bedroom. As I watched, I realized that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after Bobby Kennedy had accepted his victory in the California primary. There were people weeping, crying and screaming on the screen. As I ran upstairs to my parent's room and opened the door, one of them said, softly, painfully, "Robert Kennedy has been shot."

Forty years later, that scene and that pain still fill my sorrow. The scars of that election, sundered by assassination and violence, still wound. The end result, as we know, lead to nearly seven more years of war with a presidency that ended in the eventual resignation of both the vice-president and president for corruption and abuse of authority. The nadir of American politics in our lifetime.

So, today, forty years later, I deeply feel that the souls of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy are looking down with joy and pride on their beloved America of Atlanta, Georgia, Hyannis, Massachusetts and each of the many states these two noble men visited in the course of their civil rights movement and political campaigns.

Today, with the election of Barack Hussein Obama, a black-white man, a dignified, eloquent, intelligent, compassionate man, with a wise wife and lovely daughters, who represent the best that America can offer, I feel that the ghosts of 1968 are, at last, laid to rest.

The incomplete campaign that meant so much to me as a fourteen year old young American has come to its natural goal, its honest achievement, an arc of accomplishment, an ephipany of sorts.

We are a better country than we sometimes imagine. We are capable of change. We are capable of chosing the best candidate. No matter how Obama governs in the coming four years (and I believe it will be for the best...), a long period of American history is now put to rest.

Now, when our children's children read "To Kill A Mockingbird" or listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, much less memorize Lincoln's own "Gettysburg Address", they will know intimately and finally that, although it took a literary and imaginative 18th C. Constitution, a great and cruel Civil War in the 19th C., generations of suffering and non-violent demonstrations in the 20th C., the fulfillment of that noble national enterprise -- that ALL MEN (yes, WOMEN, too!) ARE CREATED EQUAL -- has come true in the first decade of the 21st C. And we are here to witness that celebration.

Maybe it is time for me to put to bed, as well, those bad dreams of 1968.

When my family sat together in Kathmandu to watch the exquisite movie, "Bobby" a year ago, about RFK's assassination, I was surprised to hear Ezi say afterwards, "That movie made me proud to be an American!"

Later, I understood Ezra was speaking of all of the individual lives in the film who found a purpose and meaning through Kennedy's inspiration and movtivation. That his message touched so many lives at that time, gave Ezi hope and, possibly, a greater determination to do something meaningful with his life, as well.

Maybe today, again, Barack Obama has offered the whole beloved nation this opportunity, as well...

I believe it has.

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