After Bobby Is This Liberalism's Last Fling? Bobby Kennedy's Campaign Is the Model for Barack Obama's. Both Offer a False Hope That They Can Bring Peace and Racial Harmony to All Americans

By Pilger, John | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2008 | Go to article overview
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After Bobby Is This Liberalism's Last Fling? Bobby Kennedy's Campaign Is the Model for Barack Obama's. Both Offer a False Hope That They Can Bring Peace and Racial Harmony to All Americans


Pilger, John, New Statesman (1996)


In this season of 1968 nostalgia, one anniversary illuminates today. It is the rise and fall of Robert Kennedy, Who would have been elected president of the United States had he not been assassinated in June 1968. Having travelled with Kennedy up to the moment of his shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 5 June, I heard The Speech many times. He would "return government to the people" and bestow "dignity and justice" on the oppressed. "As Bernard Shaw once said," he would say, "'Most men look at things as they are and wonder why. I dream of things that never were and ask; Why not?'" That was the signal to run back to the bus. It was fun until a hail of bullets passed over our shoulders.

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Kennedy's campaign is a model for Barack Obama. Like Obama, he was a senator with no achievements to his name. Like Obama, he raised the expectations of young people and minorities. Like Obama, he promised to end an unpopular war, not because he opposed the war's conquest of other people's land and resources, but because it was "unwinnable".

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Should Obama beat John McCain to the White House in November, it will be liberalism's last fling. In the United States and Britain, liberalism as a war-making, divisive ideology is once again being used to destroy liberalism as a reality. A great many people understand this, as the hatred of Blair and new Labour attest, but many are disoriented and eager for "leadership" and basic social democracy. In the US, Where unrelenting propaganda about American democratic uniqueness disguises a corporate system based on extremes of wealth and privilege, liberalism as expressed through the Democratic Party has played a crucial, compliant role.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy sought to rescue the party and his own ambitions from the threat of real change that came from an alliance of the civil rights campaign and the anti-war movement then commanding the streets of the main cities, and which Martin Luther King had drawn together until he was assassinated in April that year. Kennedy had supported the war in Vietnam and continued to support it in private, but this was skilfully suppressed as he competed against the maverick Eugene McCarthy, whose surprise win in the New Hampshire primary on an anti-war ticket had forced President Lyndon Johnson to abandon the idea of another term. Using the memory of his martyred brother, Kennedy assiduously exploited the electoral power of delusion among people hungry for politics that represented them, not the rich.

"These people love you," I said to him as we left Calexico, California, where the immigrant population lived in abject poverty and people came like a great wave and swept him out of his car, his hands fastened to their lips.

"Yes, yes, sure they love me," he replied. "I love them!" I asked him how exactly he would lift them out of poverty; just what was his political philosophy? "Philosophy? Well, it's based on a faith in this country and I believe that many Americans have lost thisfaith and I want to give it back to them, because we are the last and the best hope of the world, as Thomas Jefferson said."

"That's what you say in your speech. Surely the question is: How?"

"How... by charting a new direction for America."

The vacuities are familiar. Obama is his echo. Like Kennedy, Obama may well "chart a new direction for America" in specious, media- honded language, but in reality he will secure, like every president, the best damned democracy money can buy.

Embarrassing truth

As their contest for the White House draws closer, watch how, regardless of the inevitable personal smears, Obama and McCain draw nearer to each other. They already concur on America's divine right to control all before it. "We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good," said Obama.

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