Saturday, July 19, 2008

*The Real Robert Kennedy- A Sober Liberal View From PBS's American Experience Series

Click on title to link to the Public Broadcasting System's "American Experience" episode on Robert Kennedy.


Robert Kennedy, American Experience, PBS, 2004

It is somewhat ironic that at just the time that when presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, a recent addition to the Democratic Party pantheon of heroes and heir apparent to the Kennedy legacy, is claiming the nomination of the party that the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy during the presidential campaign of 1968 is being remembered in some quarters. That event holds much meaning in the political evolution of this writer. The Robert Kennedy campaign of 1968 was the last time that this writer had a serious desire to fight solely on the parliamentary road for progressive political change. So today he too has some remembrances, as well. This documentary from the Public Broadcasting System’s "American Experience" series only adds some visual flashes to those remembrances.

In a commentary in another space I have mentioned that through the tumultuous period leading to the early spring of 1968 that I had done some political somersaults as a result of Bobby Kennedy’s early refusal to take on a sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Moreover, I committed myself early (sometime in late 1967) to the reelection of Lyndon Johnson, as much as I hated his Vietnam War policy. Why? One Richard M. Nixon. I did not give Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent campaign even a sniff, although I agreed with his anti-war stance. Why? He could not beat one Richard M. Nixon. When Bobby Kennedy jumped in and Johnson announced that he was not going to run again and I was there the next day. I was a senior in college at the time but I believe I spent hundreds of hours that spring working the campaign either out of Boston, Washington, D.C. or elsewhere. Why? Well, you can guess the obvious by now. He COULD beat one Richard M. Nixon.

It was more than that though, and I will discuss that in the next paragraph. I took, as many did, Bobby's murder hard. It would be rather facile now to say that something of my youth, and that of others who I have talked to recently about this event, got left behind with his murder but there you have it. However, to show you the kind of political year that it was for me about a week after his death I was in the Hubert Humphrey campaign office in Boston. Why? You know why by now. And for those who don’t it had one name- Richard M. Nixon.

But let us get back to that other, more virtuous, political motive for supporting Bobby Kennedy. It was always, in those days, complicated coming from Massachusetts to separate out the whirlwind effect that the Kennedy family had on us, especially on ‘shanty’ Irish families. On the one hand we wished one of our own well, especially against the WASPs, on the other there was always that innate bitterness (jealousy, if you will) that it was not we who were the ones that were getting ahead. If there is any Irish in your family you know what I am talking about.

To be sure, as a fourteen year old I walked the neighborhood for John Kennedy in 1960 but as I have mentioned elsewhere that was a pro forma thing. Part of the ritual of entry into presidential politics. The Bobby thing was from the heart. Why? It is hard to explain but there was something about the deeply felt sense of Irish fatalism that he projected, especially after the death of his brother, that attracted me to him. But also the ruthless side where he was willing to cut Mayor Daly and every politician like him down or pat them on the back and more, if necessary, to get a little rough justice in the world. In those days I held those qualities, especially in tandem, in high esteem. Hell, I still do, if on a narrower basis.

Okay, that is enough for a trip down memory lane back to the old politically naïve days, or rather opportunistic days. Without detailing the events here the end of 1968 was also a watershed year for changing my belief that an individual candidate rather than ideas and political program were decisive for political organizing. That understanding, furthermore, changed my political appreciation for Bobby Kennedy (and the vices and virtues of the Democratic Party). That is the import of this well-produced (as always) portrayal of the short life and career of Robert Kennedy. If in 1968, with my 1968 political understandings, I stood shoulder to shoulder with Robert Kennedy my political evolution and his political past, as detailed here, have changed my perceptions dramatically.

This documentary highlights the close relationship between Robert and his older brother John starting with the Massachusetts United Senate campaign in 1952 (and that would continue in the 1960 campaign and during John Kennedy’s administration right up to the assassination). We are presented here, however, with the ‘bad’ Bobby who was more than willing to join Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare” anti-communist campaign and the anti-labor McClellan Committee campaigns against Jimmy Hoffa in particular. There is no love lost between this writer and labor bureaucrats like Hoffa (or his son) but a bedrock position then and today is the need for labor to clean its own house. What purpose does government intervention into the labor movement do except to weaken it? Bobby was on the other side on this one, as well.

Under the John Kennedy Administration Robert, moreover, played a key role in putting a damper on the early civil rights movement in the South (as well as putting a 'tap' on Martin Luther King at the behest of one J. Edgar Hoover), the Bay of Pigs decision and aftermath , the Cuban Missile Crisis confrontation with the Soviet Union and the early escalation, under the rubric of counter-insurgency, in Vietnam. As readily observable, where I had previously downplayed my opposition to some of Bobby's positions I now put a minus next to them. That is politics.

Finally though, I will frankly admit a lingering ‘softness’ for Bobby. Why? The late political journalist Jack Newfield one of the inevitable 'talking heads' that people PBS productions, a biographer of Robert Kennedy I believe but in any case a close companion in the mid-1960’s and a prior resident of the Bedford-Stuveysant ghetto of New York City, made this comment about a Robert Kennedy response to his question during a tour of that area. Newfield asked Kennedy what he would have become if he had grown up in Bedford-Stuveysant. Bobby responded quickly- I would either be a juvenile delinquent or a revolutionary. I would like to think that he meant those alternatives seriously. Enough said.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

*The Circle Game- The Songs of Tom Rush

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Tom Rush performing Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game.


The Circle Game, Tom Rush, 1968

If I were to ask someone, in the year 2008, to name a male folk singer from the 1960’s I would assume that if I were to get an answer to that question that the name would be Bob Dylan. And that would be a good and appropriate choice. One can endlessly dispute whether or not Dylan was (or wanted to be) the voice of the Generation of ’68 but in terms of longevity and productivity he fits the bill as a known quality. However, there were a slew of other male folk singers who tried to find their niche in the folk milieu and who, like Dylan, today continue to produce work and to perform. The artist under review Tom Rush is one such singer/songwriter.

The following is a question that I have been posing in reviewing the work of a number of male folk singers from the 1960’s and it is certainly an appropriate question to ask of Tom Rush as well. I do not know if Tom Rush, like his contemporary Bob Dylan, started out wanting to be the king of the hill among male folk singers but he certainly had some things going for him. A decent acoustic guitar but a very interesting (and strong baritone) voice to fit the lyrics of love, hope, and longing that he was singing about at the time. This was period when he was covering other artists, particularly Joni Mitchell, so it is not clear to me that he had that same Dylan drive by then (1968).

As for the songs themselves I mentioned that he covered Joni Mitchell in this period. That is represented here by a very nice version of Urge For Going that captures the wintry imaginary that Joni was trying to evoke about things back in her Canadian home. And the timelessness of Circle Game, as the Generation of ’68 sees another generational cycle starting, is apparent now if it was not then. The Rockport Sunday (instrumental) combined with the sadly haunting No Regrets used to get much play by this writer after some ‘relationship’ problems didn’t get thrashed out satisfactorily in the old days. This is classic Tom Rush. Get It.

Joni Mitchell Circle Game Lyrics

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star
Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and dawn
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we con only look behind
From where we cameAnd go round and round and round
In the circle game.

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and dawn
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and roundIn the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeurComing true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game