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Arianna, RFK and John Kerry
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I’ve been a fan of Arianna Huffington since Election Eve 1996, when, still a year or so before her full transformation from conservative/libertarian political wife (her then-husband was running for the Senate in California) to radical activist and political straight-shooter, she spent the night “in bed” with Al Franken on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. It was uproarious good fun, and revealed Ms. Huffington to not only be Franken’s comedic equal, but also a thoughtful, even wise political thinker.
Arianna had initially embraced the rhetoric of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America (even acting as a keynote speaker to the Republican Majority Retreat starting 103rd Congress), but after two years of “the Contract” Ms. Huffington was showing signs of the healthy cynicism of the betrayed. Not long after the ’96 election she would out herself as a lapsed-Republican and begin calling on Gingrich et al to keep their high-sounding promises to the poor. She was never asked to speak to the Republican caucus again.
Since that time, Arianna has become an increasingly articulate champion of a kind of political populism that is whimsical, self-deprecating, searingly insightful and staggering in its indictment of both Republicans and Democrats. Her populism is also deeply spiritual -- she has spent a great deal of time with several progressive religious leaders, including Jim Wallis (www.sojo.net & www.calltorenewal.org) and Tony Campolo (www.tonycampolo.org) -- and it’s impossible to listen to her calls for justice, equality and genuine fairness in America without hearing the echoes of the prophets, all while remembering that politics is indeed the art of the possible, and that purity is the realm of the dead.
Indeed, Huffington is one of the few national voices who continue to speak boldly for those who have no voice in America.
In this she deliberately invokes Robert Kennedy -- or at least the final year or so of his life. The brother of JFK, RFK had been transformed -- nay, converted -- from a principled but not atypical politician into a passionate, focused, moral voice for what he understood as “for the soul of the America.” His campaign for President -- and he would have beaten Nixon handily -- made Bobby Kennedy my one sole American political hero, the only politician to rival the power, presence, charisma and conviction of early Pierre Elliot Trudeau but with the moral compass of non-politicians like Dr. Martin Luther King.
(The one possible rival to RFK for my would-be political hero-worship is Sen. Harris Wofford, with whom I had the privilege of spending a couple of days in Selma, Alabama a few years ago at a Habitat build. Wofford’s resume is, to state it plainly, unmatched in American civic life. An academic who together with his wife became the only expert on Ghandian non-violence in the U.S. -- he had spent extended periods with the Indian activist in the years before his assassination -- Wofford tutored Dr. King in the early 50s, serving as an aid de camp to the civil rights leader until the end of his life; in 1965 he was the only white man in the “lead” group of marchers accompanying Dr. King over the Edmond Pettus Bridge at the Selma to Montgomery Alabama voter registration march. Listening, first hand, to Sen. Wofford's recollections of those days are among the moments I most treasure.
In 1961 Wofford was appointed the Kennedy administration’s chief liaison to the Civil Rights movement, and then along with Sergeant Shriver co-founded the Peace Corps in 1962. In the early 90s Wofford ran for the junior Pennsylvania seat in the US Senate, and then was appointed by President Clinton to help create and then head the Corporation for National Service and Americorps. He is also a passionately committed Christian. I have an autographed copy of his book Of Kennedy’s and Kings, and it is among my more valued possessions.)
But back to Arianna, and this simple point: I commend Ms. Huffington to you, and specifically her ongoing agitation of Presidential would-be John Kerry.
The latest column from Ms. Huffington calls on Kerry to fulfill the echoes of RKF in his own life and times.
And indeed, these are dangerous times. We are in great moral peril, but not because Barney Frank wants permission to marry. America stands knee deep in decadence, our self-indulgent soullessness dragging us to the precipice of Rome, where if the wise listen closely they can hear the hoof-beats of the coming Visigoths. Our SUVs, double-lattes and even our “pro-active” military doctrines will not protect us when it all comes crumbling down on us.
We need, ever so desperately, something like moral leadership (and by that I don’t mean the moral one-upmanship of the FCC, the Bishop of Denver or the current President). We need a vision of ourselves and our nation that is suggestive of something like justice, that considers the impact of our actions on our neighbors, near and far, as a first-principle of our political, economic and cultural lives, not as an after-thought of convenience or expediency. Moral leadership will call on all of us to sacrifice, and will envision and equip us as we simplify our lives for the sake of the generation of poor and oppressed that are now in peril, and for the generations to come.
I’m not a big Kerry fan. He’s become aloof in his old age, stiff and uninspiring. Having too quickly embraced the unelectable Howard Dean, the Democrats panicked and moved with equal haste to find a candidate who could “beat Bush,” and too quickly embraced Kerry. Had they been a bit more patient they might have taken the time to discover that John Edwards was as thoughtful, elegant and visionary as he was likeable. And electable. And, on a purely political consideration, Edwards’ ability to talk about his own “born again” conversion experience after his son’s death would have taken some of the alleged “moral high ground” from Bush. The Democrats under Kerry remain vulnerable on “religion” in the Bible Belt, and Edwards as their candidate would have solved that for them in a way that he won’t be able to as Kerry’s inevitable VP.
When will they learn?
All that being said, Huffington clearly and rightly understands that there remains something potentially inspiring and noble in Kerry’s life and history, and in her latest column she challenges him to unearth it, and reinvent his campaign to reflect that good, godly soul.
That impetus to greatness, those echoes of RFK in Kerry’s soul, may not ultimately save us as a nation from the judgment that will follow the Bush doctrine, but it may open our eyes in time to at least give us time for a Lee Atwater-esque collective, cultural deathbed conversion, and with it, the possibility that the world might once again have something like respect for this country.
Please go to her column now and be inspired….