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Remembering Bobby

Thirty-six years later, here we were — the Bush backer and the Kerry volunteer — divided by so much, yet united in a common vision of what might have been.


We were sharply divided about the election. My old friend favors the president, believing that President Bush has effectively defended America against terrorism. I support Sen. Kerry, regarding him as a more-than-adequate alternative to a disastrous president who has led us into an endless war of occupation for reasons having nothing to do with terrorism.

Our discussion grew sharp, but remained friendly. I suspect the nostalgic context helped, but what helped more was our discovery — rediscovery — of common ground.

We're both still in mourning for Bobby Kennedy.

My classmate grew moist-eyed remembering the promise of national greatness which seemed to die with Bobby. I recalled a recent PBS retrospective — and Bobby's words, spoken only hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Bobby had quoted from Aeschylus' "Agamemnon," and the ancient words had somehow calmed an angry crowd on a day when cities elsewhere were bursting into flame.

Thirty-six years later, here we were — the Bush backer and the Kerry volunteer — divided by so much, yet united in a common vision of what might have been.

In our differences, my old school buddy and I symbolize much that has gone wrong with America since 1968. We represent two branches from a single trunk — the great tradition of mid-20th-century liberalism — of which Bobby Kennedy was the last tribune.

To complete the analogy, this common trunk — which should have remained one, graceful column, soaring ever upward — is instead a blasted trunk, its upward progress halted as a though shattered by a bolt of lightning. The heirs of the liberal tradition have become two contending branches, shooting off in opposite directions from the blasted place. The greater branch calls itself "conservative," while we of the lesser branch retain the name — but not the vital spirit — of liberalism.

The lightning bolt needs no description. We who lived through the late '60s and early '70s remember the lightning — the divisive war; the assassinations; urban rage and fiery riots; Watergate; and the first appearance of the internal security state, with its growing apparatus of intrusion and repression.

What we tend to forget — except at rare, nostalgic moments — is the optimism of the early and mid-'60s. Despite the challenges of racism and poverty and the looming menace of nuclear war, Americans of those days believed there was nothing we could not achieve.

In those long-gone days, pragmatism and idealism were not opposites, and liberalism was not confined to Massachusetts Democrats. Progressive governors arose everywhere. In North Carolina, Terry Sanford, a Southern Democrat; in Washington, Dan Evans, a liberal Republican; and in Virginia, Linwood Holton, a Southerner and a moderate Republican. These and others like them envisioned a future bright with hope.

Those were heady times. In our lifetimes, we confidently expected to end poverty and racial division at home, offering the world a practical lesson in toleration and democracy. In our lifetimes, we would abolish war, decommission nuclear weapons and bring development to the impoverished, post-colonial world. In our lifetimes, we would colonize the Moon, walk on Mars and probe the outer limits of the Solar System.

In those days, America truly represented the hopes of humankind.

Too many laments recall how that unbounded confidence was shattered, leaving behind an America divided by a common memory of a time when nothing was impossible.

Today's "liberals" retain part of that great liberal tradition: the spirit of relentless self-criticism which spurred the drive for national self-improvement. But modern liberals have lost the faith that our national shortcomings can be corrected, laying us open to the charge of pessimism.

Modern conservatives cling to another part of the legacy, the spirit of American exceptionalism, a belief that this country has a unique, historic destiny. But conservatives have lost sight of the premise that the achievement of justice, equal opportunity and genuine compassion at home is the first step toward transforming the world. Too often, the example they would offer is one of crass material success and overweening military power.

On Nov. 2, my old high school buddy and I will vote for opposing candidates. No matter who wins, America will remain divided — perhaps for another four years — perhaps until the Class of '69 grows old and starts dying off, leaving to a rising generation the task of redefining the American dream.

Sooner or later, if America is ever again to lead the world, some generation must claim the legacy of America's great, optimistic liberal tradition, which welcomed self-criticism as the first step toward building a nobler future and insisted that America lead the world by example, not by force. S

Frederick T. (Rick) Gray Jr. is a native of Chesterfield County. A teacher, actor and political activist, he served as secretary of the commonwealth of Virginia from 1978-1981.

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