Thursday, October 9, 2008

Last Campaign - a Great Read!

Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America is a riveting account of the 1968 Democratic Primary campaign of Senator Bobby Kennedy. For many reasons, this book is a worthy read regardless of your persuasion.

One, for anyone attracted to idealism, it's a lesson in the costs of those ideals. This is the story of how, in the national turbulence that was 1968, R.F.K. became more and more his own man. In a very short time, an 82 day campaign, the national soul was touched and lifted. Most would say to this day that Kennedy's life and mission was left unfinished- so much died with him the night he was shot in June, 1968. At the same time, one cannot help but appreciate what was accomplished in the space of a few days. Clarke attempts to answer how Robert Kennedy touched our national character by beginning his narrative with the funeral train route, and the crowds that gathered along those tracks to say good-bye. The rest of the book is the story of how our nation's politics were changed in this campaign- and WHY those crowds gathered around that funeral train route.

The book's relevance is unmistakable. Was Kennedy's campaign also the last campaign to inspire and lift us with what we share, what connects us as Americans and as citizens of the world? Was this the last campaign to call us to unite rather than divide? The year, 1968, was one of inner-city violence, assassinations of leaders, war protests, and ugliness of domestic poverty. Kennedy's dual message was consistent and clear: violence is not the answer (respect others and obey the law) and justice was needed. In the cauldron of 1968, both were urgently needed, and RFK was the lone voice in the primaries holding white and black America to the same standard.

Kennedy, according to Clarke, was an authentic witness for non-violence AND law and order because of his personal experience with violence, his older brother's assassination in 1963. He could also stand for social justice because of the time he spent with the sharecroppers of the Mississippi Delta, native Americans in South Dakota, farm workers in California, and his own work with a New York anti-poverty foundation. The time he spent with the poorest Americans was of course questioned by some staffers because, of course, there's no political advantage in being with people who don't vote.

In reading The Last Campaign, I learned more about my country and a hero that I had only idealized since I was ten years old. Although the end of this story is always depressing, the gift of time continues to clarify Kennedy's contribution. In a way, he accomplished more in the space of those 82 days than some of us do over the course of our lives. His campaign touched our national soul and psyche in a way that was and continues to be irrefutable. We can do amazing things with the gift of our lives in a short amount of time, and we can make our significant contribution in whatever time we have left. That's a great learning from this book. And that's inspiring!

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