Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
Robert Kennedy’s presidential run is the first political race I vividly remember. Even though I was young, nearly seven when he died, the enthusiasm my mother showed, some snippets of what he said, the way folks drew courage from his words have stuck with me through the years.
â€œWhat is objectionable, what is dangerous, about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.â€
My mother’s enthusiastic support for George McGovern, apparently the candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid” (Novak), in 1972 was another watershed moment in my political life. McGovern was not a popular choice in our small, conservative, rural town. Nixon was still popular, though his war, which even touched this small community, wasn’t. His landslide victory, powered by dirty tricks and nasty innuendo, taught me that a well-intentioned, courageous run for office is vulnerable to those willing to use the basest means.
That ’72 race was the first time, though unfortunately not the last time, I felt keen disappointment in an electoral defeat.
At the end of a long campaign, I believe I know our people as well as anyone. Based on this knowledge of Georgians North and South, Rural and Urban, liberal and conservative, I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over. Our people have already made this major and difficult decision, but we cannot underestimate the challenge of hundreds of minor decisions yet to be made.
I certainly didn’t know who Jimmy Carter was in 1971 (who did outside of Georgia?) but by his 1980 campaign, the first national election I could vote in, I was an admiring supporter. My first year at college, I volunteered to drum up votes for Jimmy “down East” Carolina (east of I-95). On campus, the “progressive” students were throwing their support behind Anderson. While Anderson’s economic policies, including his effort to invest in energy development, had some appeal, Carter, especially in that hell year of ’79, had demonstrated political courage in talking straight about our country’s problems (including race).
Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.
Jimmy Carters, 1979 “malaise” speech to the nation.
Reagan won North Carolina by a hair in 1980 (less than Anderson’s %2.85) but had a landslide in the electoral college. I knew that electing Reagan, a harbinger of style over substance in the Imperial Presidency, was a mistake. His many errors, both foreign and domestic, should have ended his presidency in ’84. Sadly, his incredible popularity with young voters, my peers, over those years made me a bit worried about our country’s future. In spite of Reagan’s formation of an illegal shadow “arms for drugs” government to support his Iran/Contra operation, numerous illegalities and other similar anti-democratic initiatives, his version of a “new day in America” wasn’t antithetical enough to cause a populist uprising.
George “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing! about Iran/Contra” Bush’s win in 1988, after Reagan’s debilitating tenure was more than disappointing.
Worse, the Democrats inability to field a credible defense throughout the 1980’s led me, and others, to realize that our political process had lost the necessary vitality to meet our country’s escalating challenges. Where was the “loyal opposition”? Heck, where was the “opposition”? If I had known that “Mr. Deregulation’s” administration would father the “Smirking Chimp’s” “torture-r-us” madministration that has plague our nation these last 8 years, I would have worked harder in 1988 to oust him. Daddy Bush’s administration became a breeding ground for all the worst war-loving, Orwellian 1984 emulating, Constitution hating champions of kleptocracy that his son let run roughshod over our citizenry.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that we don’t as a general community want to talk about it [racial issues]. We don’t want to talk about it in political campaigns. I’m guilty of that. We don’t talk about it in social settings. WE don’t talk about it in the work place. We used to talk about race a lot more often back when desegregation was being introduced to our society. There were more interracia l groups that said, “What is this going to mean? What is this going to be all about?” Then we quit talking about 1970 and we really haven’t talked since the so-called demise of desegregation laws. And the fact is that need to do more talking to each other, more bluntly, more commonly.
While the Democrats followed their defeat in 1988 by shedding the best elements of a populist and progressive agenda, finally stumbling upon a charming winner in Clinton, the general level of political discourse continued to devolve. Pioneered by race-baiting weasels, like North Carolina’s own Senator Helm’s protege Lee Atwater, the new politics introduced a mass-marketed vileness that continues to be repugnant to the proper functioning of popular democracy.
In 1990, I threw myself into the campaign to elect Harvey Gantt to the United States Senate. Harvey was a welcome antidote to Jesse Helms. Jesse’s antics were notorious. When my family moved to North Carolina in the late ’70’s I wondered how representative he was of the state as a whole. The only other Senator from North Carolina I knew was Sam Ervin. Ervin, I thought, didn’t want to desegregate the South but stood against calls to infringe upon our basic civil rights. While I grew to respect Ervin during the Watergate hearings, I wondered how the same North Carolinians that elected him could support a demagogue like Helms.
In the ’90 campaign, I had a chance to work directly on reforming North Carolina’s Helmsian reputation. Gantt was a stand-up candidate who spoke directly on North Carolina’s continuing socio-economic divide. As the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction, his win would be historic. We could replace the race-baiting caricature Helms with a candidate that represented a progressive South.
But 1990 wasn’t Harvey’s, North Carolina’s or my year for progressive reform. The problem? Harvey Gantt is black.
Helms’ Rovian brigade accused the Gantt campaign of running “black only” radio ads, tarred Gantt’s initiatives as communist, claimed Gantt’s support of equal rights for all – including homosexuals (gasp!) – anti-American and capped off their river of crap with this famous “white hands” ad
You needed that job. You were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.
I put a lot of heart and soul into that Gantt campaign. In a way working for Gantt was an opportunity for a catharsis – channeling the disappointment I felt from years of Reaganism and Reaganism-lite – into a positive attempt to help set a new path for North Carolina.
I wouldn’t come close to putting that kind of effort into a campaign until Gore’s 2000 run. With Bush’s and the neo-cons fortunes rising within the Republican party, I knew that 2000 was a game-changer of an election. It was obvious that the Cheney/Norquist wing of the GOP was salivating over the buffet a new Bush administration promised. Their reckless, anti-democratic, Orwellian policies might have a fighting chance to flourish with the smirking chimp as figurehead. I hoped that Republican stalwarts, like the then apparently honorable Senator John McCain, would temper these radicals agenda.
Not the case, as recent history has borne out.
The Republican Party in North Carolina said Wednesday it’s launching a television ad calling Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama too extreme for the state, despite the objections of GOP presumptive nominee John McCain. In an e-mail to state GOP chairwoman Linda Daves, McCain said the advertisement was “offensive” and urged party leaders to withhold the ad.
“I don’t know why they do it,” McCain told reporters on his campaign bus Wednesday in Kentucky. “Obviously, I don’t control them, but I’m making it very clear, as I have a couple of times in the past, that there’s no place for that kind of campaigning, and the American people don’t want it.”
McCain said he hasn’t seen the ad but it has been described to him, “and I hope that I don’t see it.” The advertisement raises the specter of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, beginning with a photo of Obama and Wright together and a clip of Wright’s contentious remarks about America.
Which brings us to today, a short 30 days from our country deciding whether it will be four more years (or more) of a disastrous Bush plus agenda or the promise, but by no stretch an iron-clad guarantee, of real, substantive change.
“Evidently there’s been a lot of interest in what I read lately,” she [McCain’s VP pick Sarah Palin] said. “I was reading today a copy of the New York Times. And I was really interested to read in there about Barack Obama’s friends from Chicago. Turns out one of his earliest supporters is a man who, according to the New York Times, was a domestic terrorist, that quote ‘launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and the United States Capitol.’”
Saturday’s New York Times story, an investigation into whether Obama had a relationship with Ayers, concluded that the men were never close and that Obama has denounced Ayers’ radical past, which occurred when Obama, who was born in 1961, was a child. It also found that he has downplayed their contacts.
“This is not a man who sees America as you and I see America,” Palin said of Obama. “We see America as a force for good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism. … Our opponents see America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who would bomb their own country.”
Pal around with terrorists? Unconscionable though not unbelievable coming from the well-oiled Republican smear apparatchik.
The children of Helms, notably Rove, casually display such villainy as part-and-parcel of their practice of politics. That McCain, who was on the receiving end of similar Rovian sponsored lies during his 2000 South Carolina primary (“Would you vote for McCain if you knew he fathered an illegitimate black child?”), is so desperate to win should be caution enough to reject his run but I know better.
Nearly forty years of my own personal history of American politics has taught me that the tactics of smear, the strategies of the non-answer answer, the closing of the ranks, the avoidance of the media, the “big lies” (here’s 107 from McCain), backdoor racism (Bobby May[PDF]) can work their magic on the ill-informed, detached, jaded, cynical, prejudiced and selfish parts of our American electorate.
Yes, Obama’s prospects appear to be on the rise. The day for change, at least in the presidency, might be upon us. But nothing is sure (still time for our own Gulf of Tonkin in the Hormuz Straits).
And if Obama wins, the battles – as the recent $850 billion Wall St. giveaway Democatic cave-in demonstrates (read Keillor’s “They’re Stealing from You and Me — Where’s the Outrage?” or listen to Kucinich on following the bull) – will continue. The war to wrest control of the Congress from the hands of the powerful to those of the people will be hard fought. To win we need a strength of character from our elected officials that we haven’t generally seen this last decade.
If the battle be won, I’m not as confident as I was when I started voting in 1980, that the governed are that interested in the quality of their governance. Recent Chapel Hill politics have provided a few examples of Carter’s malaise.
Then again, I don’t plan to withdraw or cede ground. And I certainly won’t give up either nationally or locally on a citizen-led democracy.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”