“The Economist” magazine, a British based publication, comments on U.S. economics and politics at their intersection from an international perspective reflecting their “principal commercial offices” in London, Paris, New York, and Hong Kong. That magazine this week published the news that the major political parties in the U.S. had now completed the selection of their nominees with a large color picture of Senator Barrack Obama and Senator John McCain in front of a large American Flag on its cover beneath the headline “America at its Best.”
The Economist’s editors on the pages inside the magazine then describe the choices accurately, I believe, as follows: “In John McCain, the Republicans chose a man whose political courage has led him constantly to attempt to forge bipartisan deals and to speak out against the Bush administration when it went wrong.”…Mr. Obama has demonstrated charisma, coolness under fire and an impressive understanding of the transforming power of technology in modern politics ….” “For a country whose past is disfigured by slavery, segregation, and unequal voting rights, this is a moment to celebrate. America’s history of inventing and perfecting itself has acquired another page.”
That having been said, The Economist’s editors then note, “What America’s voters and the world’s fascinated spectators have not had so far is much of a policy debate.”
Well now that will change! As I have pointed out in past columns, there are some issues where Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain admirably agree. Specifically they agree in substance that a “cap and trade” systems for carton emissions should be implemented, that Guantanamo should be closed and torture as an interrogation technique should be halted.
There is a lot more however that they that they disagree over and their disagreement may be most fundamental in the priorities that that they articulate and implement as well as the issues which will receive their personal presidential attention. There will also be noticeable differences in focus, governing style, temperament, personality and the vision that each candidate sees for this country and its role in the world. Those will be discussed in future columns. Suffice it to say for the time being, as the editors of The Economist note, “On the face of it this is the most impressive choice America has had for a very long time.”
But in this phase, I cannot help but discuss what has become a recurrent theme the media coverage of the “similarities” between the presidential campaign so far this year – 2008 and the impressionistic Presidential nominating contest 40 years ago in 1968. Specifically the comparison of Senator Barrack Obama to Senator Robert F. Kennedy has been made in the print media and on television at least three times in the last two weeks that I have seen. The comparison does not do either of them justice.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy was a very different man playing a very different role in a very different time. The superficial similarities highlighted in the media ignore the complexities of both men and the very different times that Robert F. Kennedy lived in and that Barrack Obama campaigns in today.
My vantage point for making this observation in the last 40 years of my life, in effect my “adult life”. In 1968, I was a 20 year old “3rd Year Student” at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the Law School Alma Mater of Robert F. Kennedy. I had the title of Virginia Student Coordinator for what turned out to be an abbreviated campaign by Robert F. Kennedy for the nomination of the Democratic Party for President that year –cut short by an assassin’s bullet. What was important was not the title or even the responsibility. Bobby Kennedy had about as much chance of winning the state of Virginia in 1968 as I do of being appointed to the Supreme Court – None! No, what accredits my observations is that I was in the room when people who knew him well talked about him.
Robert F. Kennedy’s principal biographer, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his book “Robert Kennedy and His Times” describes his subject as “a divided man”- “One half was an incorrigible romantic who underlined in his personal copy of Emerson’s “Essays,” “abide by it and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world … Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.”
The other half was a politician. “No one understood practical politics better” said Richard Goodwin. Yet, Goodwin noted his revolutionary and “imagining heart was always in the hills leading some guerilla army without speeches or contaminating compromise, fighting to translate the utmost purity of intention into the power to change a nation or a world. However as Schleisinger points out, even if Robert F. Kennedy’s “heart was in the hills, his head was in the councils of state.” …. “In the predominant half of his nature he remained the realistic political leader who believed in constitutional democracy and wanted to be President.” That part of him had not changed but his other half had. He therefore recognized that something more than conventional politics was required to change people’s lives, if to stop a war that nobody wanted and to eliminate poverty and injustice.
Bobby Kennedy’s friend Allard Lowenstein, pointed out that “no one understood better how America was really run” – he knew about worlds the rest of us didn’t know about- the textbook components of power in America as well as the inner sanctums that radicals thought really controlled the system – industrialists, bankers, oil millionaires, multinational corporations, the Pentagon, the ‘military – industrial complex,’ ‘the power elite.’
Barrack Obama is not as well known now even as Bobby Kennedy was known then. He certainly has not presented himself as a “revolutionary” for a variety of political, cultural, tactical, and even racial reasons. He has run as a “Change Agent.” But his plan to bring about this change is so far more abstract and rhetorical than anything else. In fact, his stated approach to bring about “change” is almost the antithesis of Bobby Kennedy’s.
Kennedy’s appeal was that he understood the pols and the people and he would play their games effectively to accomplish his ends through political deals and even intimidations if necessary. One of Bobby Kennedy’s favorite lines was that he wanted people “to be afraid that he would do what he said not that he wouldn’t do what he said.”
Barrack Obama in contrast promises “change” through idealism and hope, articulated in inspiring rhetoric with increased collegiality, the force of which will be used to confront cynical politicians and constituents of in a very different political world. That very different political world is characterized by a strident and partisan appeals financed by special interest dollars lobbyists whose influence is available to the highest bidder.
Can it work? Maybe, we’ll find out. But before we do we’ll see it debated with John McCain who“The Economist” magazine describes as “the doughty, but sometimes cranky old warrior who makes a fine contrast with the inspirational but sometimes vaporous young visionary.”