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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Something's happening here

Ask anyone who was around in 1968 what it was like and the answer will likely be "horrible."

Martin Luther King Jr. shot and killed in Memphis in April. Robert F. Kennedy gunned down in Los Angeles after winning the California primary in June. Riots in urban neighborhoods and at the August Democratic convention in Chicago (the latter being a police riot).

Ask a political junkie when liberal started to become a dirty word and odds are they will answer 1968. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (not to mention George Wallace) exploited the turmoil and launched what has been a 40-year run of conservatism.

But is the tide finally turning?

A bunch of talking heads on CNN yesterday suggest that maybe it is.

Why?

The national mood today is probably as sour as at any time since 1968. An unpopular war that has tarnished this nation's reputation abroad. Exploding prices on everything from milk and rice to gasoline and home heating oil. A deeply unpopular president -- but one who lacks the good common sense of Lyndon Johnson and insists on being considered relevant when he is not.

America in 1968 was also at the end of the glory days of the civil rights movement. The successes of the Voting Rights Act and the Great Society had given way to urban unrest and the rise of militant black nationalism. King's murder was symbolic as well as all too real.

The draft kept feeding young men into the endless maw of Vietnam -- and both sides were rebelling. Many conscripts said "hell no, we won't go" and many opted to "turn on, tune in and drop out."

What Nixon would later dub "the great silent majority" didn't like what it saw. Some clashed with the youth. More voted for Nixon and Agnew who ran on a "Southern Strategy" that was designed to exploit that divide.

They won and those forces have held sway for 40 years.

The twin deaths of King and Kennedy thoroughly demoralized the liberal movement. For a young white suburban kid, RFK's death was life-changing, much as King's death must have been to my urban, black counterpart.

Hope was literally taken away by bullets. And forces of darkness (let's not forget the Nixon-Agnew combo represents the only White House team to have been impeached and indicted while in office) took hold.

That's why the 2008 Democratic primary was so extraordinary. Buoyed by a surge of interest on the part of young voters, unlike anything since the late '60s, a woman and an African-American man chased the nomination before Barack Obama claimed the prize. This campaign -- and this outcome -- was inconceivable 40 years ago.

Obama embodies the same set of hopes that Bobby Kennedy carried four decades ago (and what made Hillary Clinton's comments, however they were intended, so egregious). Looking at the images taken by Look Magazine photographer Paul Fusco as the train carrying Kennedy's coffin wound its way from New York to Washington is like watching a funeral for hope.

But there are now faint glimmers that it has returned.

Something is happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. But to mix musical metaphors, it is a clear that it's been a long, strange trip and we may be reaching an important destination.

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