In this season of 1968 nostalgia, one anniversary illuminates today. It is the rise and fall of Robert Kennedy, who would have been elected president of the United States had he not been assassinated in June 1968. Having traveled with Kennedy up to the moment of his shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 5 June, I heard The Speech many times. He would “return government to the people” and bestow “dignity and justice” on the oppressed. “As Bernard Shaw once said,” he would say, “‘Most men look at things as they are and wonder why. I dream of things that never were and ask: Why not?’” That was the signal to run back to the bus. It was fun until a hail of bullets passed over our shoulders.
Kennedy’s campaign is a model for Barack Obama. Like Obama, he was a senator with no achievements to his name. Like Obama, he raised the expectations of young people and minorities. Like Obama, he promised to end an unpopular war, not because he opposed the war’s conquest of other people’s land and resources, but because it was “unwinnable”.
Should Obama beat John McCain to the White House in November, it will be liberalism’s last fling. In the United States and Britain, liberalism as a war-making, divisive ideology is once again being used to destroy liberalism as a reality. A great many people understand this, as the hatred of Blair and new Labour attest, but many are disoriented and eager for “leadership” and basic social democracy. In the US, where unrelenting propaganda about American democratic uniqueness disguises a corporate system based on extremes of wealth and privilege, liberalism as expressed through the Democratic Party has played a crucial, compliant role.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy sought to rescue the party and his own ambitions from the threat of real change that came from an alliance of the civil rights campaign and the anti-war movement then commanding the streets of the main cities, and which Martin Luther King had drawn together until he was assassinated in April that year. Kennedy had supported the war in Vietnam and continued to support it in private, but this was skillfully suppressed as he competed against the maverick Eugene McCarthy, whose surprise win in the New Hampshire primary on an anti-war ticket had forced President Lyndon Johnson to abandon the idea of another term. Using the memory of his martyred brother, Kennedy assiduously exploited the electoral power of delusion among people hungry for politics that represented them, not the rich.
“These people love you,” I said to him as we left Calexico, California, where the immigrant population lived in abject poverty and people came like a great wave and swept him out of his car, his hands fastened to their lips.
“Yes, yes, sure they love me,” he replied. “I love them!” I asked him how exactly he would lift them out of poverty: just what was his political philosophy?
“Philosophy? Well, it’s based on a faith in this country and I believe that many Americans have lost this faith and I want to give it back to them, because we are the last and the best hope of the world, as Thomas Jefferson said.”
“That’s what you say in your speech. Surely the question is: How?”
“How? . . . by charting a new direction for America.”
The vacuities are familiar. Obama is his echo. Like Kennedy, Obama may well “chart a new direction for America” in specious, media-honed language, but in reality he will secure, like every president, the best damned democracy money can buy.
As their contest for the White House draws closer, watch how, regardless of the inevitable personal smears, Obama and McCain draw nearer to each other. They already concur on America’s divine right to control all before it. “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good,” said Obama. “We must lead by building a 21st-century military . . . to advance the security of all people [emphasis added].” McCain agrees. Obama says in pursuing “terrorists” he would attack Pakistan. McCain wouldn’t quarrel. Both candidates have paid ritual obeisance to the regime in Tel Aviv, unquestioning support for which defines all presidential ambition. In opposing a UN Security Council resolution implying criticism of Israel’s starvation of the people of Gaza, Obama was ahead of both McCain and Hillary Clinton. In January, pressured by the Israel lobby, he massaged a statement that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people” to now read: “Nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel [emphasis added].” Such is his concern for the victims of the longest, illegal military occupation of modern times. Like all the candidates, Obama has furthered Israeli/Bush fictions about Iran, whose regime, he says absurdly, “is a threat to all of us”.
On the war in Iraq, Obama the dove and McCain the hawk are almost united. McCain now says he wants US troops to leave in five years (instead of “100 years”, his earlier option). Obama has now “reserved the right” to change his pledge to get troops out next year. “I will listen to our commanders on the ground,” he now says, echoing Bush. His adviser on Iraq, Colin Kahl, says the US should maintain up to 80,000 troops in Iraq until 2010. Like McCain, Obama has voted repeatedly in the Senate to support Bush’s demands for funding of the occupation of Iraq; and he has called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. His senior advisers embrace McCain’s proposal for an aggressive “league of democracies”, led by the United States, to circumvent the United Nations. Like McCain, he would extend the crippling embargo on Cuba.
Amusingly, both have denounced their “preachers” for speaking out. Whereas McCain’s man of God praised Hitler, in the fashion of lunatic white holy-rollers, Obama’s man, Jeremiah Wright, spoke an embarrassing truth. He said that the attacks of 11 September 2001 had taken place as a consequence of the violence of US power across the world. The media demanded that Obama disown Wright and swear an oath of loyalty to the Bush lie that “terrorists attacked America because they hate our freedoms.” So he did. The conflict in the Middle East, said Obama, was rooted not “primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel”, but in “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam”. Journalists applauded. Islamophobia is a liberal specialty.
The American media love both Obama and McCain. Reminiscent of mating calls by Guardian writers to Blair more than a decade ago, Jann Wenner, founder of the liberal Rolling Stone, wrote: “There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline . . . Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon ‘the better angels of our nature’.” At the liberal New Republic, Charles Lane confessed: “I know it shouldn’t be happening, but it is. I’m falling for John McCain.” His colleague Michael Lewis had gone further. His feelings for McCain, he wrote, were like “the war that must occur inside a 14-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls.”
The objects of these uncontrollable passions are as one in their support for America’s true deity, its corporate oligarchs. Despite claiming that his campaign wealth comes from small individual donors, Obama is backed by the biggest Wall Street firms: Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, J P Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, as well as the huge hedge fund Citadel Investment Group. “Seven of the Obama campaign’s top 14 donors,” wrote the investigator Pam Martens, “consisted of officers and employees of the same Wall Street firms charged time and again with looting the public and newly implicated in originating and/or bundling fraudulently made mortgages.” A report by United for a Fair Economy, a non-profit group, estimates the total loss to poor Americans of color who took out sub-prime loans as being between $164bn and $213bn: the greatest loss of wealth ever recorded for people of color in the United States. “Washington lobbyists haven’t funded my campaign,” said Obama in January, “they won’t run my White House and they will not drown out the voices of working Americans when I am president.” According to files held by the Centre for Responsive Politics, the top five contributors to the Obama campaign are registered corporate lobbyists.
What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s. By offering a “new”, young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party — with the bonus of being a member of the black elite — he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US anti-war and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.
America’s war on Iran has already begun. In December, Bush secretly authorized support for two guerrilla armies inside Iran, one of which, the military arm of Mujahedin-e Khalq, is described by the state department as terrorist. The US is also engaged in attacks or subversion against Somalia, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bolivia and Venezuela. A new military command, Africom, is being set up to fight proxy wars for control of Africa’s oil and other riches. With US missiles soon to be stationed provocatively on Russia’s borders, the Cold War is back. None of these piracies and dangers has raised a whisper in the presidential campaign, not least from its great liberal hope.
Moreover, none of the candidates represents so-called mainstream America. In poll after poll, voters make clear that they want the normal decencies of jobs, proper housing and health care. They want their troops out of Iraq and the Israelis to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. This is a remarkable testimony, given the daily brainwashing of ordinary Americans in almost everything they watch and read.
On this side of the Atlantic, a deeply cynical electorate watches British liberalism’s equivalent last fling. Most of the “philosophy” of new Labour was borrowed wholesale from the US. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were interchangeable. Both were hostile to traditionalists in their parties who might question the corporate-speak of their class-based economic policies and their relish for colonial conquests. Now the British find themselves spectators to the rise of new Tory, distinguishable from Blair’s new Labour only in the personality of its leader, a former corporate public relations man who presents himself as Tonier than thou. We all deserve better.