Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Future of Hope

We get hope in various ways from various places, inside and outside, in good times and bad. But there's often learning involved, and models. Something that we've seen work in the real world, and someone we could observe in some way, if even from a distance, and perhaps if even through a glass too brightly.

I'm reminded of this because in my meager campaigning efforts, I made some calls to swing states through the Kerry "phone corps" organized on the campaign website. I talked to a woman in Florida (I think it was), whose fifteen year old son was on the volunteer list, and my call to him hadn't been the first. She was a Kerry activist herself, and her son was involved in a political campaign for the first time, though she seemed to feel he wasn't ready for canvassing and phone banking activities. But John Kerry had sparked his interest.

I was fourteen when I got involved in my first political campaign, for John F. Kennedy. It was in a way the last of the old fashioned campaigns, and the first of the new media-dominated ones. I participated in what would be the last election eve campaign parade for many years in Greensburg, Pa. I imagine they've revived them now. John Edwards was speaking there yesterday.

It wasn't called a swing state in 1960. Greensburg was a pretty reliably Republican town inside a heavily Democratic county and region. We lived outside the city limits, in Democrat country. Unions were powerful, and though the tiny city hall was Republican, the big county courthouse was Democrat.

Now I'm out here in California, in a town where there are five Green candidates for city council, one of them named Harmony Groves, another Phoenix Fyre; three unaffiliated, one Democrat, and no Republicans. California was the key to Kennedy’s election, but this year nobody has even visited, certainly not in this little town. We're not a swing state. My sleepy little hometown of Greensburg was one of the first stops for John Kerry and John Edwards after Edwards was selected as the v.p. candidate.

But I know that in Greensburg now, as in Florida now and in Greensburg then, some young people are focusing their hopes on John Kerry, even as they are learning to define what they hope for. If he wins, as JFK did, they will be invested in learning even more. For instance, how to make their hopes happen. And what happens to hopes as they meet the present.

My hope is that they get that chance this time. The 1960 campaign was really formative for me, as was the thousand days of JFK's presidency. It happened to coincide with my experiences in high school forensics, in the system of extemp speaking and debating in competitions. I learned quite a bit from those experiences in those few years.

So in honor of all that, and in hopes that things will turn out well for John Kerry, I want to reproduce a column I wrote for the In Pittsburgh weekly in 1988, about those hopes on an election night when they were cut short.

Young Hearts

For awhile, there was hope. As the sky darkened to dusk beyond the glass wall of the Dukakis headquarters in Chatham Center [Pittsburgh], staffers started hearing about heavy turnouts and early strength in the key states.

The news sent another pulse of energy through the last hours of effort, as staffers collecting numbers from key precincts dispatched their troops---many of them college, high school and junior high students---to where they were most needed. Some volunteers had been up all night hanging leaflets on doors that said "Good morning! Vote Today/Dukakis-Bentsen." They'd been on the phones at the United Steelworkers phone bank, or canvassing and passing out flyers, knocking on doors and stopping people on the street, or simply standing at major intersections waving signs at passing cars. They returned for new instructions to this temporary office, where the message boxes for staffers were white Styrofoam cups tacked to a room divider. They picked at the wilting cold cuts and the pasta salad in the makeshift kitchen, then grabbed their maps and headed out again. For most of them, this was their first campaign.

I was fourteen when John F. Kennedy ran for President. That was my first campaign. I learned about primaries when he ran in Wisconsin; I learned poverty's name when he ran in West Virginia. I thrilled to my first roll-call of the states as I watched the 1960 Democratic Convention, and I taped his acceptance speech on a clunky cut-rate reel-to-reel: "But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises----it is a set of challenges. It sums up, not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook---it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security..." This was the speech that Vice-President Nixon thought was over the heads of the American people.

I went to the local "Citizens for Kennedy" headquarters. The director there may have been the first adult in the public world to take me seriously. He gave me a copy of Kennedy's book, "The Strategy of Peace," which I still have. I handed campaign literature to strangers outside supermarkets and on the street. Once my two best friends and I were sent by bus to a nearby town, Kennedy posters affixed to our persons, front and back, and we stuck leaflets in doors in the pouring rain. I'd read those pamphlets---I was prepared to discuss the issues with anyone. I'm sure we won a few votes---we were so young and enthusiastic, and so completely devoted. And so soaking wet.

Around 8:30 pm, the young Dukakis volunteers began returning from the polls and streamed into the Hyatt ballroom, under the big banner that said, "The Best America is Yet To Come." By then the staffers already knew the score, and their eyes had that peculiar shining---part tears, part defiant excitement. I asked Peg McCormick, the western Pennsylvania campaign director and CMU professor, what effect a Bush victory might have on the young. "If I were sixteen years old and George Bush was President, I wouldn't have excitement about the future---and that's what this is all about, it's the future, it's for them."

I asked the same question of Margaret-Anne McKibben, who teaches some of these high school students. "It could be emotionally devastating," she said. "It's like first love. You believe it with all your heart. And that's why these kinds are here---they really care. They believed that if you work hard, it'll happen. And all these young hearts---they really did work hard."

I stayed up all night to watch the election returns, because it all came down to California. After a few hours sleep, I awoke in mid-morning to watch JFK read, in a voice thick with a morning cold, Nixon's concession telegram. My candidate had won. I had relatives in Washington and I took my first long bus trip alone to visit them on Inaugural weekend. We watched the parade on Friday, toured the monuments on Saturday, and on Sunday we went to the Georgetown church where JFK was known (by me) to go. We lucked out. We sat several pews behind him, and on his way out, the brand new President of the United States---my President---shook my hand.

When I was 15 I knew the names of everyone in the Kennedy cabinet (with a little time, I can recite them still.) I knew his speeches, filled with allusions to philosophers and statesmen; speeches about courage, commitment and moral responsibility, challenging the country to look beyond their immediate present to the future they created with every decision they made. I watched his press conferences, filled with fact and wit. I knew details of his programs---the minimum wage increase, the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America---and I followed his battles with a reluctant Congress. I learned about the many facets of leadership, as I learned about the world. The next time I was in Washington was for the great Civil Rights march, but I never thought of this as opposing him. He understood dissent. He was my President. I imitated him in my extemp speeches. I played touch football, and learned to like Boston clam chowder, and to aspire to be educated and seek after greatness.

I was 16 when I watched the world almost end in the Cuban Missile Crisis. (When we came back to homeroom one day, someone had drawn a big mushroom cloud on the blackboard, ha ha.) I read and listened to everything about those events, and learned about decision-making, about strategy and the interplay of personalities, and about different kinds of strength. Then came the nuclear test ban treaty, and I learned what the presidency could be as a force for good, from a President who was so obviously learning and expanding his horizons every day, as I was.

I was 17 when my President was shot to death in Dallas. Kennedy had appealed to our youth with his sense of urgency, and held out to us the opportunity to make a difference, to move forward and not just fight to keep from slipping back; to get at what he always called the unfinished business of America. That sense of urgency filled those three years, the only three years in my conscious lifetime when I looked to a President for leadership. Then the man he defeated for his party's nomination became President and escalated the Vietnam war; then the man he had defeated in the general election became President and prolonged it, and lied and cheated and subverted the Constitution. The nightmare had begun.

That was 25 years ago, as a spate of television documentaries will remind us this month, interspersed with the dopey grin of George Bush, a President-elect whose campaign makes him impossible for me to respect; and the vice-president-elect of the United States of America, Dan Quayle. To me, the history of the presidency since JFK has been a prolonged insult, a black comedy, a tragedy of the absurd, starring twisted or ineffective men.

Even several of the Dukakis staffers from out of state were very young, just out of college. Reagan had been President for more than a third of their lives. Vibrant, intelligent and eager, they've never had a President to emulate, to respect. But there was no overwhelming pall of gloom in the ballroom as the networks made their fatal projections. It wasn't like Boston in 1972, when McGovern workers sat stunned in front of TV monitors, and the ballroom was empty and as quiet as a tomb. The Dukakis kids ran to the TV sets in the four corners of the room to cheer the good news they got, including the fruits of their own efforts: a 120,000 vote plurality in Allegheny County. They talked about catching up on sleep and laundry, and took snapshots of each other, and cherished the bonds they'd made and the feelings that only those who have fought together know. They found what strength and hope they could in each other.

But still...two college students watched Lloyd Bentsen speak to his supporters in Texas. "Mike Dukakis and I waged a campaign that's worthy of the American people," Bentsen said. "Too bad the American people weren't worthy of the campaign," one of them said. "The American people suck," said the other. This was their first campaign. The first one (she's a freshman) said it will be her last. The second (a junior) said she'll be back.

At one point, when Teddy Kennedy was being interviewed, I turned and looked at those who were watching the TV---there was something special in the eyes of the older ones. They remembered.

The young campaigners listened to comments from the podium by Peg McCormick, and County Comissioner Pete Flaherty, and United Steelworkers President Lynn Williams, all of whom took pains to tell them of the progress and the contribution they'd made, and gently urged them not to be discouraged. And when the ballroom became quiet and everyone clustered in the four corners to hear Mike Dukakis make his concession speech from Boston, he also singled out his young supporters, and urged them to realize the satisfaction of working to help others and---a specific Kennedy echo---of making a contribution. He called politics " a noble profession." In Boston, the crowd started chanting, "92!" In the ballroom here, a young voice shouted, "Don't give up!"

When Mike and Kitty Dukakis disappeared from the screen, Kenny Blake's band played again, and the young staffers and volunteers clustered together and hugged and said goodbye. Then they danced. And then the music stopped.
* * * *

Now the young Lieutenant Governor in the Dukakis administration is the repository of the hopes of young hearts like those in 1988 and 1960. Our hope is that as a result of their efforts, the music won't stop so soon. It'll still be playing on Inauguration Day.

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