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|June 12-18, 2008
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In the jingle jangle morning...
by Ben Corbett
Nineteen sixty-eight was a Norman Rockwell year of tear gas and napalm. A year of garish and inescapable irony, such as Louis Armstrong’s #1 hit, “What A Wonderful World,” sandwiched between horrific news reports of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre — two events that belied Washington’s assurances that we were winning the still undeclared war with Vietnam. And as the next generation devoured Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, baby boomers leaned toward the collective television, toward Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite, who helped the nation digest events seemingly inorganic to the once-stable American tapestry.
With the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, Americans have been looking back on 1968 as the pivotal year when our country’s moral standing suffered irreparable damage. Many have been comparing 1968 to 2008, not only between the campaigns of Robert Kennedy and Barrack Obama, but with the uncertainty of the times. During a recent phone interview, Thurston Clarke, author of The Last Campaign: Robert Kennedy and the 82 Days that Inspired America, explained why Americans are still fascinated with the Kennedys and are drawn to reflect on 1968.
* * * * *Clarke: In both 1968 and 2008, quite a few Americans felt that the “National Soul” [Robert Kennedy’s words] was in a sense wounded. That in both cases we had an unpopular war, an increasingly unpopular president, and domestic problems that caused Americans to question whether the country was really the Puritan City on a Hill. In ’68, they turned on the television and looked at pictures of buildings burning and National Guardsmen patrolling through American cities. And they asked themselves, “Is this really us? Can this be our country?” I think there was a similar reaction when people saw footage of Hurricane Katrina and people abandoned. In both times Americans were aching to feel better about themselves, and I think that’s what Kennedy understood. He understood that if you’re going to heal a morally wounded nation, you can’t run a low and divisive campaign. And he understood that there’s a connection between the way a candidate campaigns for the presidency and if he’s successful, his administration. So for that reason, I say Kennedy’s campaign is kind of a template for how a candidate might consider running in a time of moral crisis.
BW: Do you think that the national cynicism we feel today leads back to Robert Kennedy’s assassination?
Clarke: I think people detached themselves from politics. They didn’t want to be hurt again because they’d lost JFK and then Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy. And then we had Nixon, and of course Watergate just increased the disgust and cynicism with politics. People were dispirited and turned out of politics. I interviewed a number of people that worked for the campaign that didn’t get involved in politics for 30 or 40 years. I think it was shattering, and then the next event was the riots in Chicago, which most historians believe wouldn’t have happened — or at least wouldn’t have been as violent or as damaging to the Democratic Party — if Kennedy was alive and was the nominee. That, of course, has been an albatross around the Democrats’ neck for 40 years.
BW: Did the Kennedys inspire an optimism even greater and purer than, say, FDR?
Clarke: I think that one could say that they inspired the young more than any politicians in the 20th century. Certainly the Kennedys inspired young Americans to an extent that we haven’t seen until perhaps now, being equaled with Barrack Obama.
BW: Was the media freer in 1968 than it is today?
Clarke: I think it was freer because it wasn’t handcuffed by the 24-hour news cycle, so that reporters had a chance to reflect and get to know a candidate and think about their stories. They didn’t have to file everything instantly. They’ve almost become stenographers today, not out of any choice on their part, but because the way the news cycles are endless and the competition with the Internet.
BW: It seems as though there was a lot of accountability for Kennedy. He admitted to his mistakes.
Clarke: He believed in personal responsibility. And he would say again and again: I bear personal responsibility for what happened in Vietnam. In fact, he even said it in paid campaign advertisements that he ran in Indiana.
BW: You wrote in a 2005 New York Times article, “It is possible that a future president will evoke a similar reaction [as JFK’s Ask Not speech] with an inaugural address, uniting Americans in a common purpose, and opening a new era of idealism, optimism and national happiness.” Does Obama fit the bill?
Clarke: It depends on how the campaign is going over the next five months. I mean, if this becomes a nasty campaign full of swift-boating, people will be less receptive to the bloodied victor standing up and giving a great, inspiring, high-minded inaugural address after getting down in the gutter during the campaign.
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