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Bobby’s Ghost Highlights Generational Divide

New America Media , Commentary, Russell Morse Posted: May 29, 2008

Editor's Note:A young generation cannot afford to have specters of assassinations past to spook the optimism and hope generated by Barack Obama’s candidacy says New America Media commentator Russell Morse.

Many eons ago, this past January, I fielded a dozen phone calls from young friends of mine, responding to Barack Obama’s surprise victory in the Iowa primary. Some of them were astonished, some in disbelief. Most of them asked over and over again, “What does this mean”? One of these calls ended with a darkly glib joke. After a few minutes of excited banter, a cynical friend of mine said, “Yeah, but how long before he gets shot?”

We both laughed, of course, because we are a jaded and sarcastic lot, members of a generation very nearly destroyed by irony. We laughed because that’s what we were supposed to say in the face of hope and optimism: someone will take this from us, tragedy will strike, hahaha. We listened to ourselves engage in a parody of our own tired obsession with post-postmodern disillusion and apathy. And laughed again at the self-awareness of it.

Last week, when Hillary Clinton alluded to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy while explaining her decision to stay in the race, however, the joke stopped being funny. The New York Post quickly discovered (in an obscene font size) that Hill rhymes with Kill and the candidate may have sealed her own fate with what she contends was a misinterpreted comment.

I spoke with a young Obama supporter after the story broke who didn’t know what the big deal was. Although he is generally quick to Clinton criticism, this latest horror didn’t register with him. And it didn’t much register with me, either. It turns out that Clinton has once again highlighted the stark generational differences at play in this election.

To explain: I know nothing about JFK or Bobby Kennedy or Dr. King as men. My generation wasn’t there for those movements; we didn’t witness the glory or the tragedy. My understanding of these iconic figures came through grade school black history pageants and Oliver Stone films.

The staggering tragedy of these deaths only crept into my consciousness this past April, when I traveled to Pennsylvania to cover that state’s Democratic primary. I met a 60-year-old black woman in Philadelphia who shared the timeline of her political involvement, which in many ways stopped in 1968 and started again in 2008. She told me her family was afraid to turn on the television back then because it seemed like every time they did, another great man was stolen from them.

As much as her words impacted me, I still will never know what that was like. And maybe that’s good in that it allows me to be less jaded than members of the generation that witnessed it.

Maybe that’s what is missing this election season: a serious examination of our generational differences. As much as we have probed our disturbing patterns of racism and sexism in these months, we have overlooked some very telling age-based truths.

Consider, for example, that come November, a man who survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II will share a polling place with a woman who was 10 years old on Sept. 11, 2001.

This month, Vanity Fair decided not to run Miley Cyrus’ back-baring photographs on its cover and opted instead for a portrait of Bobby Kennedy and the tagline The Hope, The Tragedy and Why He Still Matters. I read the story and, inspired as I was, it was hard to extract why, exactly, he still mattered. I asked a young blogger friend of mine for her thoughts on the Kennedys and she wrote back:

“The only political legacy I’ve lived under is the Bush Family. I mean, if Hillary wins then I guess it will be the Clintons as well . . . But the Kennedys represent a legacy that my generation will never have, like something you see in a museum and it looks nice but you’ll never know if they were good or bad because you never got to know them.”

The same week that issue of Vanity Fair hit the stands, news broke of Ted Kennedy’s malignant brain tumor. Almost instantly, I heard in that tragic development some premature, inverse echoes of 2004, when Ronald Reagan died in June of the election year. What followed then was a brief and wondrous Reagan-fueled Republican Renaissance, brushing aside conservatives’ uneasiness about the administration and saving the president’s job. I wonder now if Democrats will have a similar self-love affair, longing for the days of Camelot and casting Obama as King Arthur.

In any case, it won’t register with most of us. Instead of heaping the burdens and curses of previous inspirational leaders on the back of Barack Obama, his young supporters seem to be watching his story unfold in real time with the optimism and glee of political virgins.

And even if we’re not that pure, we know that in America’s modern democracy, you don’t have to assassinate someone to derail a political movement. I was reminded of this watching HBO’s fictional re-telling of the Florida Recount of 2000. For most in my generation, this was our first big civics lesson.

Late in the film, Kevin Spacey’s character is sitting at a bar talking candidly with a colleague. By this point, the two of them have given every second of every day and every ounce of energy to Al Gore’s campaign and the fight is almost over. Kevin Spacey turns to his colleague (played without cigarettes but with a cartoonish Boston accent by Denis Leary) and says, “You know what’s funny about this whole thing? I’m not even sure I like Al Gore.”

I am certain that he was not alone in that sentiment. The same could be said for John Kerry: the bland alternative to deranged fear mongering. These are the only elections we’ve known.

And that’s why this one matters. We can’t be troubled by the threat of assassination or another generation’s ghosts.

Related Articles by Russell Morse:

Is Hillary Clinton Pulling a Ralph Nader?

Clinton Limps Past the Finish Line

Bossy Old White Women Rule


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