Saturday, May 24, 2008

This Side of History

In a campaign where unfortunate, often outrageous statements have served as the most distinctive landmarks, Hillary Clinton’s latest broadside bears all the blithe insanity of a desperate basketball team fouling a 90% free throw shooter in the hope that he’ll miss everything from here on, and they’ll hit four or five half-court shots in the next 7.3 seconds. If you haven’t heard, or wish you hadn’t, Clinton had this to say on the mounting absurdity of her continued presence in the race:

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it."

The rest of the political universe (at least those who are not preoccupied debating whether talks with Iran would be more akin to giving away the Sudetenland or losing a NASCAR race to a Frenchman) is, predictably, disquieted. The calls for Hillary to bring the ship in to shore are growing louder; as Newsweek’s Howard Fineman put it, “this is a campaign that needs to be put out of its misery real soon". My first reaction is “Forget its misery; how about mine?” But this is about much more than pained rhetoric or Machiavellian opportunism. To decry Hillary Clinton’s cynical self-justification is to shift the blame unfairly from her indifference to something much larger.

Since 1968, idealists have, not unjustifiably, feared the worst. To a lot of people, Hillary Clinton seemed to be saying “I’m going to hold on, because hey, you never know what could happen to this once-in-a-lifetime black leader”. Calmer heads must prevail, however. I don’t doubt that a few of Clinton's supporters (especially in the Davey Crockett states) are that virulent, but to ascribe this sort of malice to someone who is quite obviously crumbling is a temptation Obama supporters shouldn’t permit themselves. More than that, it trivializes what is really on the line here.

Returning to 1968, the real message in Clinton’s poor choice of words is her ignorance of how she fits into the larger context of the Democratic heritage. Hillary Clinton has vowed, even within the last week, to take the fight to the convention, and that invokes its own, subtler nightmare: few backroom deals could encapsulate the dispossession of the progressive movement like Hubert Humphrey, who barely bothered to campaign, securing the nomination by virtue of his pre-existing hold on the delegates. While it would be foolish to claim that Clinton hasn’t bothered to campaign, when she’s exhausted a seemingly infinite number of political lives in this process, the fact is that the Clinton camp had not planned on a post-Super Tuesday strategy. As P.G. Wodehouse once said of a hapless foil, “He had confused the unlikely with the impossible, and as a result he was taken by surprise.”

The surprise, however, is not how badly Clinton miscalculated, nor that the establishment has turned on her. The exodus of superdelegates followed the emergent mathematical probability, not the other way around. The real surprise of what everyone thought would be a historic campaign is this: Hillary Clinton landed on the wrong side of history, spurred by her own worst impulses as much as the advent of a remarkable new voice. By invoking Bobby Kennedy, she invoked the most sacred iconography of the Democratic Party, an iconography in which she (and her husband) have no place at present.

However, the Democratic party has been left with an iconography of false choices. Their most shining legacy, so we've been told, is a pair of fallen brothers; the rest of the story is populated by lovable losers, ineffective stiffs, and vile compromisers, with a few worthy fighters thrown in. This is not meant to ignore Martin Luther King, Jr's fifteen-year struggle, which, while it transcended mere politics, is surely inextricable from the transformation of the Democratic Party and the schism with the Dixiecrats. Nor is it meant to diminish at all what John and Bobby Kennedy accomplished in their too-brief allotments.

However, we know what is at stake: for the Kennedys' brilliant but incomplete legacy to be Barack Obama’s inheritance would be the greatest tragedy yet. No one can know fate, but the dream must be to lead with a wisdom that endures, not to spend another forty years of darkness lionizing one more noble sacrifice. In the pernicious political universe we inhabit, moral victories will no longer suffice. The threat is so dire and real that, paradoxically, we are better off not speaking of it, and in a time of such flickering hope, that is Hillary Clinton's real transgression.

Democrats have always had the reputation for eating their young, and this explains much of the futility, compromise, and bitterness of the past few decades. The most meaningful breakthroughs, at least since my parents came of age, have traditionally required that the young, and young-at-heart, eat the establishment instead. Geraldine Ferraro and her ilk have been quick to pin Hillary Clinton’s downfall on a conspiracy of the boy’s club, but the fact is that Hillary Clinton had the boys in her pocket not six months ago. What makes Obama’s ascendancy so refreshing, and so in keeping with the true Democratic spirit, is that he recognized when others did not that while he could not win without the establishment, they had to embrace him more than he embraced them.

The difference this time is that it should not be about who’s eating whom. Obama’s detractors have comforted themselves by dismissing his movement as a cult, but it would not be unreasonable or derogatory to say that it is a church. More importantly, it is a church in which all should be welcome. Hillary Clinton, by virtue of this latest verbal ordeal, might appear to be past help, but, for better or worse, her supporters might well determine whether the party eats its young yet again. To ensure that it does not will require the best efforts of everyone involved, and while it might be a bitter consolation to everyone who staked their hopes on her campaign, averting civil war is her best chance of journeying back to the right side of history.