What to Expect From Tonight's Kennedy Catharsis
This is my third convention for Kennedy catharsis. When I was an 18-year-old staffer for Eugene McCarthy, I got into the convention hall for one evening of the Democrats’ 1968 Chicago convention – the night a film memorializing Robert Kennedy, who had been murdered two months previous, was screened. When it was done, many in the hall were sobbing. But nothing about Chicago ’68 was uncontentious. The Kennedy and McCarthy delegates, whose efforts to nominate an antiwar candidate had come to naught, and whose antiwar platform plank had been defeated by the Humphrey forces the night before, simply kept cheering and weeping for, if memory serves, something like 20 minutes, despite the efforts of Convention Chairman Carl Albert to gavel them to order. Inside the hall, everything was grief and rage, while outside, Chicago’s police riot was in full bloom.
Twelve years later, I was in Madison Square Garden the night that Ted Kennedy made his “Dream Shall Never Die” speech to the Democratic delegates and the nation. Kennedy’s defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter in that spring’s Democratic primaries had marked the end of any notion that a Kennedy would re-occupy the White House. In that sense, both the ’68 and ’80 evenings were moments of profound liberal defeat. By 1972, the liberal forces, under George McGovern, were able to capture the convention, but McGovern was never able to command anything close to the working-class support that Bobby Kennedy enjoyed from whites as well as blacks. In 1980, Ted Kennedy’s campaign was a kind of last stand for New Deal Democrats -- liberal unions and activist groups had flocked to his standard in opposition to Carter’s moves rightward on the economy, but they didn’t prevail. Kennedy’s speech, at once rousing and poignant, was a look backward at the causes he had championed -- rights for workers and minorities, health care for all -- and a pledge to continue his battle on their behalf.
If anyone ever delivered on a pledge, Ted Kennedy did on that one. Most of the progressive legislation of the past four decades bears his stamp. In every debate over health care or immigrant rights or the ability of workers to form unions, his voice -- the last voice in American politics that could boom across a convention hall so resoundingly you almost believed he didn’t really need a microphone -- was the most ardent, and his strategic smarts often the sharpest.
I do not know, of course, what Ted Kennedy is capable of saying tonight. His heart is surely the strongest one that American liberalism has had for half-a-century, but his voice, I fear, may not be the exultant bellow of old. What I’m certain of is that, as in 1968 and 1980, the emotion in the hall will be nearly unbearable, the mix of love and sorrow overwhelming.
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