Monday, January 19, 2009

Two Train Journeys, 40 Years Apart

A little more than forty years ago, thousands of Amercans watched as the train bearing the remains of Robert Francis Kennedy rolled slowly by on its journey from New York to Washington, D.C. Last Friday, another train traveling over the same line carried Barack Obama and Joe Biden from Philadelphia and Wilmington, respectively, to Washington. The cold weather and security concerns prevented huge crowds from gathering to watch the Obama train, but there were people who made the effort to watch it pass by.

The pundits and Obama's own staff have likened the president-elect's rail journey to that of Abraham Lincoln. But the analogy is flawed. Lincon was to take the helm of a nation on the brink of civil war. His journey was interrupted not by rallies, but by riots. The country was divided, and Lincoln's election had brought the crisis to a head. Lincoln wanted to be a uniter, but his principled opposition to the expansion of slavery made union impossible.

For me, Barack Obama has much more in common with Robert Kennedy. While I did my part as a high school volunteer for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and considered RFK a usurper, I came to realize that Kennedy was the only candidate who could bring a divided nation together. The people who said they'd vote for Kennedy or George Wallace seemed totally oxymoronic, but we humans are contradictory. People whose prejudices led them to follow segregationist Wallace were also attracted to Kennedy, a man who had former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader (now Congressman) John Lewis on his staff.

Obama has received the votes of many who might have supported a racist candidate in 1968. His optimism and "Yes We Can" spirit have broken barriers between races and between political viewpoints. He has given us the kind of hope that America hasn't seen since the death of Robert F. Kennedy. His presidency is one legacy of the two dreamers who died forty years ago--Kennedy and Martin Luther King, jr.

I can't watch the first video without tears welling up in my eyes. The second, while not as beautifully photographed, reminds us that Barack gives us the hope of fulfilling the dreams of both Kennedy and King.


Lisa said...

This is just a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for this, Steve. The first is heart-breaking but beautiful, especially his last lines. Aren't we all blessed, really?

steve said...

Lisa, Elizabeth--Thank you. I'll be working during the inauguration, though my wife, daughter Sarah, and son-in-law Desh will be in Washington, on Edward Kennedy's office balcony. (Sarah and Desh have a friend who's a staffer for EMK.) I hope to have a report on their adventures in the next few days.

Usman said...

Steve, Nice post, and shows how the Americans feel in general about their new president.

Anonymous said...

When Bobby Kennedy was murdered, I was serving in the Air Force in Lubbock, Texas. Almost every local I knew well enough to hear voice their thoughts was actually glad he was killed.

It makes me sad to remember that time.

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, thanks so much for the reminder that RFK was a giant among visionaries who also deserves to be remembered and honored on this historic day. K.

steve said...

Usman--Good to hear from you. Many thanks.

Gerry--I'm sorry to hear the story. There were all the stories that people in Texas cheered when JFK was assassinated, but I had my doubts. From your story about RFK, maybe the earlier stories are true as well.

Karen--Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Beautiful thoughts.

Olivia said...

Frankly, I get nervous at the unending comparisons between Barack Obama and Lincoln, MLK, RFK, JFK, and I don't have to explain why, do I?

I get it that he's new, fresh, and the first of his kind to take the office, just as Lincoln and JFK were of their kind (one an emancipator and one a Catholic *gasp*).

But still, I get nervous...and in addition they just need to let him be himself. I am sure he will set his own tone over the next 4 years and cause a creative flurry as pundits try to come up with a title for this new era.

Kellie Davis said...

Thank you for posting these, Steve!

I look forward to seeing how it is going in a few months. Right now it's "Kennedy this, MLK that." The pomp and circumstance were happy, but now, we have to see how he will lead.

steve said...

Charles--Thank you.

Olivia--Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I suspect it's partly my generation. I was 16 when King and RFK were killed. From 1968 on, we've had either Republicans or fairly conservative southern Democrats. This is the first time since 1960 that a candidate I can get excited about has won the presidency.

What Obama and RFK have in common is an ability to unite the nation. After stealing the 2000 election with help from five "justices," George W. Bush won in 2004 by bringing out his base and actively suppressing the votes of everyone else. Clinton won in 1992 mainly because Ross Perot took more votes from George H.W. Bush than from him. But Obama won with a fifty-state strategy, winning Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina.

I'm sure he will be his own man, but for me, he's also a redemption of the last forty years. The may very well be the beginnign of the Obama era. I heard historian Eric Foner say that Obama's election marks the end of the Reagan era.

Kellie--You've removed your "Tea" cosy and are blogging under your own name! I'm optimistic--and that's something for a guy who grew up reading Bierce and Mencken.

Peter said...

Steve, that first film is a tear-jerker, for sure. And the faces -- as Clinton claimed of his first cabinet, they look like America. I haven't seen that too much since RFK until I went to an Obama rally this past fall.

And everyone so still in respect and mourning. It's hard to picture a nation so still.

RFK was my favorite politician of my youth. The parallels with Obama are striking -- the cool (both in the sense of popular and unflappable) exterior with the practical, nonidealistic (some may end up saying ruthless) approach to governing, the call to public service, and the appeal to youth.

steve said...

Peter--Thank you for your thoughtful comment. An earlier RFK train, running over the former Wabash Railroad, was dubbed the the Ruthless Cannonball. The press even made up a song, to the tune of "The Wabash Cannon Ball." A short excerpt:

"The blacks in Gary love him,
The Poles all fill his hall;
There are no ethnic problems on The Ruthless Cannonball."

Lilith des les Caves said...

I was living in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County when Robert Kennedy was murdered. It struck me when I saw the kitchen of the Hyperion Hotel, used as Angle's headquarters from season 2 through 4, that that room was where they took his body after the shooting. I can't see those scenes without those memories.

I attended Catholic school during those days. I don't think I left the TV from the beginning of that train ride to burial, except to eat. It was as if all my hope for the future died with Bobby.

I guess that sums up my own thoughts of Obama... he ran on hope and symbolizes the same for most of us... even in these dark economic times. IMO he's the smartest man in the room, so to speak, which is what I want from my President... not someone to drink a beer or joke around with.

Wonderful piece. Cheers.