06 June 2008

Obama And The Dead Kennedys

I generally think of myself as a relatively new Brooklynite, but 40 years ago I briefly lived on State Street, not far from downtown. I don't remember when I moved there, though I think it must have been in May, or when exactly I left, though I know it was before the end of June, or even why I moved there, since I'd been living rent-free in an abandoned Lower East Side building that was quite comfortable - with electricity and running water, no less - by abandoned building standards.

I do recall why I left: I was unceremoniously booted out, with about ten minutes notice, by the landlord, a previously pleasant queen who took rather violent exception to the discovery that I had brought a girl onto the premises. Not having a lot of possessions, I bundled what I did have into a bedsheet - belonging, I'm pretty sure, to the irate landlord - and returned to the squat, where my friends and I marveled anew at the weird ways of bourgeois homeowners.

I'd stayed up late the night before, listening to the election results from the California primary; although this was deep in my waiting-for-the-revolution phase (the revolution being my anticipated salvation from the drug and interstate flight charges that had me holed up in New York in the first place), I still had an avid - ok, let's be straightforward here: geeklike - interest in all things political. Having heard that McCarthy, my favorite - or least unfavorite, anyway - had lost, I drifted disconsolately off to sleep with the radio still on in the background, only to be awakened by the news that the winner, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated.

I didn't sleep any more after that, so when I drifted downstairs around 9 am to receive my summary eviction notice, I was looking and feeling especially bleary-eyed. Although I understood that the real villain of the piece was my capriciously vindictive landlord, I couldn't help attaching a bit of the blame to Bobby Kennedy as well; if, I reasoned, he'd stayed out of the presidential race as he should have, then there'd have been no assassination, I'd have got a decent night's sleep, and I'd be far better equipped to deal with the present crisis.

And there you have an reasonably incisive insight into the workings of my 20 year old mind. Not the prettiest of pictures, I'll concede, but all silliness aside, I must confess to never having been particularly enamored of the middle Kennedy brother. I was not impressed with the way he crashed the party and snatched the presidential nomination away from Eugene McCarthy, I was not impressed with his specious and fatuous reasoning for doing so, and I'm bewildered at how he seems with the passage of time to acquire an ever nobler stature in the rear-view memories of my fellow baby boomers.

I was and continue to be a great admirer of John F. Kennedy, but Robert did little or nothing for me. He came across as a pale shadow of his older brother in nearly every respect, yet many of today's dewy-eyed aging lefties have canonized Bobby as the true standard-bearer of the Kennedy legacy (whatever that may be). Never mind that for all his pretty rhetoric, Bobby Kennedy's ambitions and ego very possibly lost the 1968 election for the Democrats and opened the door for another 7 years of war in Vietnam. There was no need - apart from the aforementioned ambition and ego - for him to enter the presidential race at all; McCarthy was doing just fine on his own. And what exactly did Kennedy have to offer apart from conventional lefty platitudes delivered in a thinner, more nasal version of JFK's legendarily evocative accent?

Maybe I'm missing something, but RFK's main appeal seems both then and now to have been a matter of image over substance. In looks as well as accent and manner, he provided the voters with an adequate simulacrum of his fallen brother. An adequate simulacrum, but not much else.

Am I missing something? Perhaps; it's hard to imagine that so many could see such merit in the man without there being something to it. And perhaps the 40th anniversary of his assassination is the wrong time to question his character or importance. It's just that the weeping and wailing seems to get louder each year, to the point where substantive analysis of his worth as a political leader becomes all but impossible.

It might be tackier still to challenge the RFK mystique at a time when the last of the Kennedys is facing a terminal illness, but with the accession of Barack Obama, easily the most Kennedy-esque politician we've seen since the 1960s, I can't help but wonder which Kennedy Obama is channeling: Jack or Bobby? If the former, I'm cautiously optimistic; if the latter, well, I'd almost rather see McCain win.


Anonymous said...

Are you missing something? Other than a brain, you mean? well, let’s see...
all kinds of maturity, definitely.
Good taste.
Did I mention honesty?
That enough for starters? Are you missing something? Jesus, Larry, only the good qualities, that’s all.
Pop punks for McCain, indeed.

Anonymous said...

while i understand having misgivings about Obama (im not a huge fan, hes still a bit conservative for my tastes) the alternative seems like such a piss poor option. i hope you wouldnt actually consider voting for McCain...how would you (the general you) tell your grandchildren that you didnt vote for the first black (and somewhat liberal) president? and instead went for four more years of right wing conservativism?

Larry Livermore said...

Geez, did I not express myself clearly enough? If so, my apologies; I had oral surgery earlier this week and I think my mind may still be a bit befuddled by the various drugs involved.

However, I have not come out in favor of McCain; I voted for Obama in the primary and am presently leaning toward him in the general election as well. But the reason he hasn't completely won me over yet, and what I was alluding to in the dual comparison with JFK/RFK, is that I'm not sure whether he's the real deal, which in my opinion JFK was, or a Hot Topic liberal like brother Bobby.

Jack Kennedy was able to champion the interests of working people and minorities without blundering off into la-la land, Bobby blatantly pandered to the goofballs and hippies of the New Left, and Obama seems to be treading a fine between those two courses. My sympathy for Obama is as much emotional as rational; somehow I very much want to believe that he has the character and fortitude to match his high-flying rhetoric. Bobby Kennedy was never able to sell me on this premise: I always felt that he would say whatever he thought might help get him elected.

Of course I'd like to help elect the first black president, if only as an emphatic in-your-face to all those self-righteous Europeans (and Americans) who keep telling me what a horribly racist country the USA supposedly is. But even that laudable goal wouldn't justify voting for a token or a cardboard cutout president based merely on the color of his skin. I think - and very much want to believe - that Obama has it in him to be not just a good, but a great president.
But he's still got a lot of convincing to do, and in order to do it, he's going to have to overcome some far harsher challenges than the minor quibbles I raised here.

Anonymous said...

"[...] I can't help but wonder which Kennedy Obama is channeling: Jack or Bobby? If the former, I'm cautiously optimistic; if the latter, well, I'd almost rather see McCain win."

Sensible and very well stated.

I don't understand the problem...