…and I remembered.
I remembered a man from the past. I remembered a man who entered politics as a young man, but who grew and matured. A man who entered the Department of Justice at a time when that was a scarce commodity. An eager, enthusiastic young man who saw disappointment and loss, and grew. Unlike many politicians of his day (and most politicians of today) he was not afraid to admit mistakes and to learn from them.
The movie was “Bobby.” The man is Robert F Kennedy. Today there’s a lot of myth, caricature, and just plain misinformation about the man. I’m not sure this movie does anything siginificant to dispel any of it, but that’s not the point. If you’re too young to remember Bobby, if you didn’t live those years, this movie may not add much to your understanding. But pay attention, not to the fictionalized parts of it, but rather to the clips from speeches and press reports.
The movie is about Robert F Kennedy’s last day, but it’s only peripherally about Bobby himself, and I think that what he would have wanted. Other people were wounded at the same time he was killed, and the movie centers around their lives, the events of their day that led them to that place and time, that led them to their appointment with a bullet. These people, from a busboy to a hotel manager to socialites and the powerful, mattered also. And Bobby would have been the first to insist they should be the heart of the story, not him.
The movie invoked memories for me. Memories of a man who thought it more important to stand for something, than to stand against it. As Attorney General he once said, “I happen to believe the decision is right. That does not matter. It is the law. Some of you hapen to believe it was wrong. That also does not matter. It is the law.”
I wasn’t an early supporter of Bobby. But the man’s attitudes and principles still played a major role in shaping my own. I disagreed with him, but learned from him. Ideals matter:
“…there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities — no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems. It is not realistic or hard-headed to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgement, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief; forces ultimately more powerful than all the calculations of our economists or of our generals.”
It’s a lesson no one remembers today: it’s not what you stand against that matters; it’s what you stand for. It’s why I am neither Democrat nor Republican. Both parties today have become obsessesed with opposition — they oppose each other the way a knee jerks after being tapped by the doctor’s rubber hammer. Neither party has a reason for this opposition, something they stand for. All they want to talk about is what they stand against. In the economy of ideas, both are poverty-stricken.
The reasoning is simple, but still it escapes the leadership of both parties: As long as I stand for something, and you stand for something, there’s a way we can get together and move forward. I can do something to help you, and you can do something to help me. But when both of us merely stand against something, then no progress is possible. If I help you and you help me, the best we can manage is a steady-state equilibrium: no decline, but no advancement, either.
It’s not a matter of “practical politics.” Practical politics, by itself, achieves nothing. Only when we in engage in it in support of an ideal does it begin to achieve anything significant.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans need to decide what they stand for. Not in terms of specific legislation, but in ideals and principles. Those ideals and principles will then inform the legislation, and will serve as a basis for the political wrangling to follow as we all engage in the necessary work of lighting up our city and country with a glow that will light the world, to use the imagery of Bobby’s brother John, or the work of creating that shining city on the hill, if you prefer the imagery of Ronald Reagan.
If your opponents are demons, then you cannot work with them. But once you acknowledge they also want the best for their country, the way you want the best, and all you are doing is merely disagreeing on some parts of the definition of “best,” you have a means to progress. But once you succumb to the temptation to brand people who merely disagree with your policies as “evil” or “stupid” you’ve shut the door on progress, and you’ve harmed us all.
I could continue to develp the theme, but instead I’ll step back and let Senator Robert Francis Kennedy say it for me:
“I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.
“We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.
“….But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
“Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
The Democrats focus on stopping the Republican agenda; The Republicans return the favor and focus on stopping the Democratic agenda. And so we as a country stop. People, we need to focus less on stopping and more on starting.