In 1968, a generation of progressive political leadership in this country was wiped out when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down. In a series of events as effective as a Baghdad car bomb, we were deprived of what could have been a combined 60 or 70 years of their leadership. Think about it. RFK, had he lived, would be about the same age today as Ronald Reagan was when he left office.
The day after the November election, I dug around in the Mossback archives and found my Bobby Kennedy poster from the ill-fated year of his presidential campaign. It sits in my office as a reminder that once upon a time, Democrats weren't wimps. They could be tough, hard-nosed crime and commie fighters, and at the same time, they could talk to America in a way that appealed to the best in us.
Such is the power of hope. Such is the power of bighearted politics that is also driven by guts. And such is the power of charisma. Watching old footage of Bobby's 1968 campaign on PBS recently, I was struck by the cross section of people who flocked to his banner: young, old, blue collar, white collar, intellectuals, migrant workers, African Americans, the middle class—people who responded to the dreams Bobby embodied and encouraged.
But in Bobby, people also saw a ruthlessness that was necessary to win a great cause. While we might look back and think of the high-minded ideals of work, sacrifice, compassion, and justice that Jack and Bobby both called us to, we also remembered that Bobby was the guy who said, "Don't get mad, get even."
Anyone can have a dream, but as the Kennedys and King both knew, you have to be tough to make that dream a reality.
When I first sat down to write this column, I was reluctant to talk about the older Kennedys because the occasion for it is the upcoming visit to Seattle by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bobby's son (for details, see SW This Week, p. 39). I didn't want to spend time writing about the huge shoes he has to fill. But the fact is, for my generation, his name demands that we check him out and inevitably ask: Is hope alive?
RFK Jr. is an environmental advocate who says he intends one day to run for public office. He is a vocal and harsh critic of the Bush administration, and during my phone interview with him last week, I was very impressed. A friend who has spent time with him remarks about his smarts, his passion, his dedication to environmental causes, and his focus. Also, how he clearly comes from a world you and I don't inhabit: We don't go fly-fishing with foreign leaders, don't have a name, legacy, or bank account that commands attention. These are assets that many of the privileged have turned into burdens (RFK Jr. himself has a drug conviction in his past), but at 51, Bobby Jr. is using them to make a difference. His book Crimes Against Nature is a tough look at what the Bush administration is really doing to the environment, and refreshingly, his eco-rhetoric isn't the schoolmarmish mush that made you want to snooze when Al Gore talked about the planet.
During our interview, I asked him mostly about the property-rights movement. It is making new headway in Oregon and resurging here in Washington as Tim Eyman and the development lobby consider a new ballot initiative, similar to Oregon's recently passed Measure 37, which would compensate property owners if the value of their land goes down as the result of zoning and land-use laws.
"It's a propaganda campaign to deceive the public," says Bobby Jr. flatly. "There has never been a right to use your property in a way that injures your neighbor's property." The property-rights movement, he says, wants to exploit public assets for private gain. "The property-rights advocates have turned property rights on its head. . . . If government had to pay you not to put toxics in the air, not to dump sewage in water, the government couldn't print enough money to do that. They're about destroying the whole notion of community." They are asserting a constitutional right to pollute, he says. "Look around at the communities that are the wealthiest, and they have the most controls. . . . If we all agree as a community to obey these laws and guidelines, we'll all get richer."
He sees the media as the biggest hindrance to progress. The consolidation of ownership of newspapers, TV, and radio stations into a few corporate hands has pushed news executives to be more concerned with the needs of shareholders than the public. As a result, instead of substantive reporting, we get "sex, celebrity gossip, and hawking pornography." The media-savvy right wing has successfully painted environmental groups as tree- hugging weirdos. But there's nothing more mainstream, Bobby Jr. says, than wanting clean air and clean water for communities. Again, the message has been turned on it head. "The left," he says, "needs to start capturing the discourse of mainstream America."
Amen to that.
No politician is, or can offer, a panacea, but Bobby Kennedy Jr. seems to have some of the qualities that liberal leaders need right now. A gift for straight, tough talk and a knack for reminding us that America isn't a collection of special interests, but people with many common interests. As his father once said, the future will belong "to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society."
I sense that RFK Jr. has taken his father's words to heart.