Monday, January 21, 2008
In June of 1968, my parents took us four kids on a trip to Washington, D.C. My dad had some work to do at the National Archives. We stayed with the family of Jim Everett, a CIA agent recently returned from Europe. There was a lot of political talk around the table that I didn't understand. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated two months earlier, and the primary season was pushing toward the conventions. My parents were Eugene McCarthy supporters. The Everetts (and all us kids) were in love with Bobby Kennedy.
I was a month from turning 12. My brain was almost entirely devoted to girls and sports. I found the two Everett girls (who were maybe five to seven years older--one was home from college, I think) fascinating, especially the younger one, dark and curvy, who spent some time one evening explaining (alas, not demonstrating) what it meant to get to second base, third base, etc. I was enthralled. The whole etc. was really beginning to capture my imagination.
So political ideas were peripheral to me. But I remember being amazed when we saw Resurrection City, the vast tent city that sprawled over the National Mall. Dr. King had helped to organize the Poor People's Campaign, and in the wake of his assassination, a huge march had been organized and had ended in D.C. And now here were poor people and activists from all over the country, living in tents. It was my first real exposure to the civil rights movement. Up until then, it was just stuff that happened on TV.
Our hosts' experience abroad had their whole family interested in political issues, or maybe they'd always been. My mom and the Everett women talked a little feminism here and there. I remember the eldest daughter playing folk songs with her dad one night--a little Pete Seeger, some S&G, Peter, Paul & Mary. My appreciation of this was on the "wow, cool guitars" level. I was still playing my Sears Silvertone and the all-but-untuneable $20 Marco Polo electric I'd found at a garage sale the previous summer. I knew about six chords, and was impressed by the Everett's virtuosity.
We were there about a week. We'd drop Dad at the Archives building and go off to the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, all that. And in the evenings, everyone was closely watching the primaries--instead of baseball. What were they, crazy?
I woke up one morning to the sound of women crying. I came upstairs and the daughters were red-eyed and the moms blowing their noses, watching TV.
Bobby was dead. My mom was really wailing. I was young and stupid enough to think, "But you didn't even want him to win. What are you so upset about?" The whole mood of the trip changed. You'd see people crying on street corners. There were vigils all over, and of course a huge one at Resurrection City.
I saw Jackie Kennedy and her kids on TV, but the images conflate with JFK's funeral somehow. The one thing that stuck was Ted Kennedy's eulogy, the sound of his voice quoting, "some men see things as they are and say 'why?' I see things that never were and say 'why not?'" The sorrow in it! The guy looked like he'd rather have had it happen to him.
I remember thinking, if my brother got shot, I don't think I'd be that upset. But to lose Bobby. To me, Bobby was the future. Young (it never occurred to me that he was actually older than my parents), smart, energetic, handsome--dashing, even. He was like a shiny trophy that the country might win if we were cool enough.
We weren't, of course. We'd already killed JFK and then Dr. King--the ultimate "I see things that never were and say 'why not?'" guy, probably the closest thing to an actual Christ figure ever to appear in U.S. politics. We were in an unjust war that was going disastrously, there were race riots all over the country, and King's legacy was on the lawn in D.C., holding thousands of candles for yet another light that had gone out. At least that's how it looked to me.
I date my interest in politics to that trip. My dad, every day, was going into the National Archives, where (as he'd shown us one morning) he passed a very real-looking copy of the Declaration of Independence in a glass case right up front. Walking around the stunningly designed city, all that classical white-marble architecture, riding that amazing subway system and having my mom point out our own Senator Symington getting off a train (I was just old enough/young enough to chase him down the platform yelling "Senator Symington!" and ask to shake his hand). And I'll never forget standing in the Lincoln Memorial, reading the Gettysburg Address and feeling those magnificent sentences send chills down my spine. I think all of that--the importance placed on the events there, the idea that politics mattered, that protest was woven into it, that it was a life-and-death struggle, really--that was the formative moment for my political awareness.
And that, my friends, is why I think it's a profound moment in American history when two of the leading presidential candidates are a woman and an African-American. To me, it's a fulfillment of the promise Lincoln spoke of and the hope that JFK and Bobby seemed to embody, and of course, the dream Dr. King asked us all to share. All four got shot. But somehow the promise and the hope and the dream didn't entirely disappear--despite relentless efforts to dismantle them. Without Dr. King, there'd be no Barack Obama in serious contention for the White House. Whatever your political views, the mere fact and magnitude of his candidacy is to be celebrated. Martin Luther King, Jr., you continue to rock.
Plus, we get a day off of work because of you, so we can sit around and write stuff.