Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kennedy, Kennedy, Trudeau and Obama: The View From the Cheap Seats

"When people stop being afraid, they rediscover their compassion"
- from the film ‘Amazing Grace’

There’s something different about this year’s Democratic leadership race in the U.S.

Maybe it’s the sense of urgency surrounding the Iraq War and the worsening U.S. economy. Maybe it’s the happy prospect of America finally electing either its first female or first black president. Maybe it’s relief at emerging from eight long years of Bush and Cheney’s dangerous incompetence and ruthless abuse of power.

For me, the fascination lies in the potential for real change. Not just a change in political regime, or ‘change’ as a campaign buzzword, but the kind of profound social and political transformation that neither of our countries has seen in over 40 years. The kind of change I have read about but was too young to remember.

I am a Trudeau girl. I was only four when Pierre Elliott Trudeau became Prime Minister and twenty when he finally retired, so the Canada I grew up in was, to a great extent, his Canada. Not all Canadians share my admiration for Trudeau (many in Alberta would happily piss on his grave), but no one can deny that he changed our country in some very fundamental ways. My admiration has only been reinforced by a biography I just finished reading that covers the years from his birth in 1919 to his election as Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister in 1968.

1968 was a pivotal year for many countries. In Canada, it marked a convergence of the social transformations that had been occurring for much of the past decade with the election of a leader and a party with the political will to translate those changes into concrete social and economic policy.

In the U.S., a similar convergence was happening with the candidacy of Robert Kennedy. Although his brother John was often, and maybe wrongly, credited with sparking the revolutionary social changes that had been sweeping the country, it was Robert who showed the most passion and the most potential to make those changes a permanent part of public policy and the political establishment.

That potential was snuffed out by Robert Kennedy’s assassination, just three weeks before Trudeau’s election as Prime Minister.

I am a romantic at heart, and I confess to a certain idealism when it comes to Trudeau and RFK. I think of Trudeau as being responsible for everything I love about my country, although it was actually his predecessor who brought in Medicare and started the ball rolling on a number of other key progressive initiatives. Similarly, I think of Robert Kennedy as the man who could have saved America, although it’s entirely possible that he would have lost his party’s nomination and the U.S. would have been stuck with Nixon regardless. And who knows what compromises he might have made had he actually become President.

Reading Trudeau’s biography, I was struck by some fascinating parallels. Both Kennedy and Trudeau were lawyers, highly intelligent, with personal charisma and a gift for oratory that inspired a devoted, almost fanatical following, particularly among the young. Both men came from a background of wealth and privilege, and yet from early on in their careers devoted themselves to the causes of the poor and the disenfranchised. Both were passionate and sincere in their desire to bring positive social change to their countries.

As of that fateful June in 1968, both men had served only three years in elected office.

Which brings me to Barack Obama.

Obama has been derided by his opponents as little more than a political preacher who has a way with words but has neither the experience nor the detailed policy proposals to back up the rhetoric. I would suggest that, while these things are important in an American President, Obama’s ‘way with words’ may be equally important, especially in the dark days ahead.

Significant political and social change never happens solely as a result of the actions of lawmakers or judges or political leaders. Change happens because people want change. It happens because we’re ready for change. Sometimes it’s because of a war, or an economic crisis, or both. Sometimes it happens because a large number of people just wake up one day and decide that the old way of doing things just isn’t good enough any more.

When a charismatic leader comes along at a time like that, history often views them as having brought about transformative change, when quite often it is simply that they came to symbolize and articulate changes that were already occurring.

Whether a person like that turns out to be a Churchill or a Hitler depends largely on whether they are speaking to people’s hopes or their fears. However, assuming their intentions are good and the proper checks and balances are in place, a leader like that can take the public’s desire for change and move mountains with it, largely through the effective use of oratory.

Franklin Roosevelt laid out a detailed and, as it turned out, highly effective plan for lifting America out of the Great Depression in his nomination acceptance speech of 1932. He ended it by saying,
"I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people."
Those words, and the more famous ones about fear in his inauguration address, called an entire nation to action and gave them the courage to radically change their way of thinking about economics, the role of government, and the obligations of a society towards all of its members.

Churchill isn’t remembered as great policy maker or military leader, and yet he is credited with saving England from extinction, purely through the power of his words to inspire his people to resist despair and hold strong whatever the cost.

John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, but it was at his inauguration when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" when an entire generation of young Americans was suddenly inspired to take up social service both in the inner cities and abroad, bringing home with them a broader sense of the world and a fervent social conscience.

Trudeau completely reformed and modernized Canada’s divorce, abortion and homosexuality laws as Justice Minister, but it was when he said, "The State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation" that Canada stopped seeing itself as a stuffy, prudish provincial backwater and suddenly found itself at the vanguard of the sexual and social revolution of the 60s. And his talk of a "Just Society" fit exactly with how Canadians wanted to perceive themselves:

"The Just Society will be one in which all of our people will have the means and the motivation to participate.
The Just Society will be one in which personal and political freedom will be more securely ensured than it has ever been in the past.
The Just Society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities.
The Just Society will be one in which those regions and groups which have not fully shared in the country's affluence will be given a better opportunity.
The Just Society will be one where such urban problems as housing and pollution will be attacked through the application of new knowledge and new techniques.
The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit population will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity.
The Just Society will be a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured and individuals are permitted to fulfil themselves in the fashion they judge best."

I don't how the news might have affected him, but that seminal speech was delivered just four days after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

The brilliance of that speech, and other similar ones by RFK and Martin Luther King, is that they are as much a reflection of the audience as of the speaker. They make us realize that we actually want to be compassionate and tolerant and to make our world and our country a better place. Then they make us believe that we can do it. That’s when we know we’re ready.

Effective, progressive policies and legislation are essential to any major reform effort, but it is in those moments when rhetoric and the impetus for change move in tandem, when a leader articulates the hopes and dreams of the people and then inspires them to realize those dreams - those are the moments when truly great things can happen.

So to those who dismiss Barrack Obama as having nothing but ‘empty rhetoric’, I would suggest that you are underestimating the power of words to bring about change. Even if you don't believe he has what it takes as an administrator or an economist, there are certainly plenty of those who can fill out his cabinet, and it may be enough that he has inspired hope at a time when pessimism and apathy seemed inevitable. He has gotten people excited and engaged in a way that we haven’t seen in four decades, and that alone may be what it takes to truly bring about fundamental, lasting change in America. Assuming Americans are really ready for change.

It's not my country, but as a friend and neighbour I really hope they are.

I am not completely naïve. Every leader in history has had feet of clay, and no one has ever truly lived up to our expectations or our idealized version of them after they’re gone. All too often they disappoint - as I was so deeply, deeply disappointed by that other Clinton.

The logical approach, therefore, would be to never expect too much - to look at our political leaders as nothing more than flawed human beings who we hire every few years to serve as bureaucrats or accountants or CEOs who hopefully won’t screw up the country too badly before the next election. Most of the time that's good enough, but not now. Not when change is so desperately needed.

I refuse to give up my idealism and my search for the Bobby Kennedy or Pierre Trudeau of my political fantasies. Not because I believe that such a person could single handedly change the world, but because they might just inspire me to do so.

(Cross posted to my diary at DailyKos. Mmmm... 32 comments.... instant gratification!)

1 comment:

  1. That's a brilliant essay. I share your enthusiasm for Trudeau and for Robert Kennedy. (Unlike you, I actually got to vote for Trudeau!)

    It would be wonderful if America could be led by someone with the vision of a Trudeau or a Robert Kennedy. Where you and I might differ is that I have not been inspired by Barack Obama. And it's not just because I'm a lot older now.

    To my mind there seems to be something missing in Obama's speeches. He does not convince me that he really stands for the same liberal democratic principles that inspired Trudeau and Robert Kennedy. He has extensive experience as an elected representative and, to the best of my knowledge, he has not shown the passion for change that I would have expected from someone who is truly committed to the principles that he now espouses.

    In the case of both Trudeau and Robert Kennedy we saw plenty of evidence of their commitment before they ran for leader.