The words stunned me. There had been no announcement at my school. I felt disoriented as he hustled us out to his car. I could see that the park across the street from our school was filling with hundreds of people; I could hear angry voices, and it did seem that some people had rifles. My older brother shouted for us to “stay down” in the back of the car as he raced out of the school parking lot and away from the gathering crowd in the park.
I remember a searing pang of horror and disbelief that King was gone. I really did not fully believe what I had just been told or what I was seeing around me as I watched people pour out of their homes in anger. That feeling was rivaled by the sense of frustration that people might respond to King’s death by resorting to the sort of senseless violence he would undoubtedly have decried. If King was dead, I thought, there was still a mission and a vision and a right way to do things. This terrible event did not extinguish my political hopefulness, even at the age of 10.
I remember just as vividly the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The next day was to be a school day for us, and even though the primary results were not in yet, my younger brother and I had gone to bed shortly after 9 p.m. the night of June 5. I recall being pulled into sudden wakefulness at around 10:15 p.m. by my mother who had come into our bedroom and turned on the small black and white television set my brother and I shared. There, the three of us sat on the edge of the bed watching the depressing newscast from L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel that Sen. Kennedy had been shot just moments after giving his victory speech and leaving the stage. Even as a young child I recall feeling numb and without words. Everyone in our household had been so excited by Bobby Kennedy’s entry into the presidential race that year. His was the voice of hope and different possibilities in the face of an unpopular war and tremendous social tumult over the rights of blacks and women.
Coming so swiftly in the wake of King’s assassination, the loss of Bobby could also have been grounds for giving up. But, in hindsight, I still felt the tide of history was on the side the dreams that King and Kennedy had articulated so powerfully. Pessimism did not hold sway. Not with me.
By the time of the Watergate scandal, I was in high school. Thanks to my involvement in speech and debate tournaments I devoured Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Reportmagazines each and every week. Though I did not yet have a driver’s license when it all began, I understood the significance of the deeds of Donald Segretti, E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy and “the Cubans;” I understood the significance of Judge Sirica’s rulings, of John Dean’s testimony, of the resignations of Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; and ultimately of the rise of figures like Sam Ervin, Peter Rodino, and Barbara Jordan. I consumed books like Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and Theodore White’s Breach of Faith. I truly understood the threat to the Democratic process and, ultimately, to constitutional governance represented by the actions and aspirations of the Nixon White House.
As polarizing as those times were and as wrenching as the build up to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 had been, politics felt as it always had for me: invigorating, fascinating and ultimately a path to the good.
If we leap past the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the Iran-Contra scandal, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the Clinton impeachment hearings and get closer to the present day, then it is clear how much has changed. Deep, structural changes in the way our politics plays out have occurred. These changes have, collectively, done more to damage our civic capacity than I had heretofore realized. It has made us, I fear, unusually vulnerable to demagogic appeals by overly ambitious politicians.
Let’s consider the key institutional changes that have taken place. One is the declining importance of political parties as meaningful organizations and the rise of individual candidates as the primary political commodity. The expansion of corporate power, the steady weakening of the labor movement and, shall we say, the thorough-going professionalization of other potentially progressive groups such as the civil rights and women’s rights organizations are key factors.
The rise and success of a right-wing, intellectual political sector is one further change. Then there is the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and total societal media saturation thanks to the web. Oh yes, did I forget to mention the growing mainstream acceptance and clout of African Americans and women? Then we get Sept. 11, 2001 and the crystallization of fear of a vast, stateless, foreign threat.
The result is a polity where political parties as such are hollowed out, where near cult status around individual candidates matters most (at the national level), and wedge-style politics is used to define electoral allegiances.