"Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
--Bobby Kennedy, South Africa, 1966
When did Americans succumb to cynicism, nationally? We’ve been on a four decade slide down the slope of lowered aspirations and expectations from our leaders. I think part of this is directly connected to 1968, when in a span of just two months, a pair of dreamers and visionaries, one firmly grounded in the prophetic world of possibilities and the other, embedded in the political realm, were assassinated. While speculation and various theories abound concerning their tragic deaths, as a nation, the psychic scars still have not healed.
I was only six years old at the time, so all I have to work with are historical accounts, old newsreels and the voices of those who knew MLK and RFK. The sense of import that Bobby Kennedy’s assassination occupies in that arc of time since, was driven home to me last night, while watching the tail end of the PBS broadcast of American Experience, titled RFK. I only accidentally stumbled onto it because I was channel surfing during commercials, while watching the Green Bay vs. Seattle, Monday Night Football broadcast. I’m thankful I caught the last 30 minutes.
One of the things that I found striking while watching some of the archival footage, was the makeup of the crowds that Kennedy attracted, particularly during his ill-fated visit to Los Angeles, hours before he was shot. The frames, collected as Kennedy waved and motorcaded among throngs of supporters and others, in East Los Angeles, showed a diversity of Americans that is uncommon today in almost all of our public gatherings. African-Americans, Latinos and Orientals were all represented, as well as poor whites, lining the boulevard, hoping to touch Kennedy’s hand, or just catch a glimpse of this presidential hopeful, the one who had taken on their causes—racial and economic inequality, to name but two, as well as condemning the war in Southeast Asia.
What would a Kennedy presidency have meant for the U.S.? At this point, we can only speculate, as several men who knew Kennedy intimately, have done at the PBS/RFK site. Certainly, we would have been saved a Nixon presidency, the Watergate scandal that set the bar for all subsequent political shortcomings since and a reduction in American soldiers killed, or coming home maimed, physically and mentally. The doubters will always counter with more cynicism and maybe that’s better than asking the dreaded “what if?”
As I segue into middle age, the hopeful side of me wants to believe that someone might come along in my lifetime that could once more energize our country and fuel our dreams for the future with something other than numbness and escapism. Given our current sorry crop of political operatives, opportunists and outright ideological hacks that option seems unlikely in the near term. It’s quite possible that the idealism that lived during the sixties, was just as much a product of the times, as some window of opportunity or possibility—the “age of Aquarius,” or whatever label commentators, or worse, marketers choose to hang on the decade of the sixties.
So, how do we proceed? Do we just throw up our hands and succumb with the usual, “it doesn’t do any good, so why try” futility? I think the grassroots approach to activism, working on smaller projects is something we can all begin with. In fact, history tells us that most mass movements began small and local. For me, my focus is going to be on something like instant runoff voting, which I think is a vehicle which might allow third parties some traction and possibility, to offer an alternative to the basic one-party system we now must endure. Local politics and state-level initiatives are also good areas to help dispense with our despair.
On a personal note, I also think I’ll head out this weekend and see the Emilio Estevez cinematic treatment of Bobby Kennedy’s final day, purportedly using a series of vignettes, leading up to assassination, which robbed us of someone that history shows us that we were desperately in need of at the time.