One of my early memories is of being six years old, getting ready to go to school early one morning. My mother had turned on our small black and white TV, and on it I saw a long, solemn procession moving slowly down a street, with many people bearing a raised casket in the middle of the crowd (or was it a long hearse?). The sight filled me with an intense grief that I didn’t understand, and I had to start wailing and running around the house. My mother was startled and tried to shush me, and my father herded me out the door to school with my sister, without another word about it.
Years later I was able to piece back together the scene, and realized that it was Robert F. Kennedy‘s funeral ceremony I had seen on television that morning. My parents, never big Kennedy fans, had not been paying much attention to the broadcast, but it affected me deeply. The scene came up again in a major recurring dream I had when I was nine, and to some extent has remained with me throughout my life.
I believe what I was feeling was collective grief, the sense shared by so many that a great hope had been lost. It is impossible to view our current election season—or any presidential race, for that matter—without hearing that cultural overtone ring loudly again when things heat up. As they are doing now, with or without help from the upcoming anniversary of RFK’s assassination on June 5, 1968.
My first civic post was in second grade, when I was elected secretary of our class council. I thought secretary was a modest position to start with, but my true ambition was to be President of the United States. Not the first woman president, just president. By fifth grade I had rethought that career plan, and decided it would be nice to be on the Newbery Award Committee instead, as I would get to read all the best children’s fiction each year.
In ninth grade, my last year of junior high, I ran for student body president. Twice. To this day, I do not know what possessed me to run again the second semester after having been defeated the first. All I can guess is that I genuinely thought I would do a great job, and felt that I was a better candidate than the others. I don’t remember any adult trying to dissuade me from running, but I remember all too well the hurt that came from defeat. My sole consolation was that, according to the vice principal, I had picked up 200 more votes the second time around.
The first time I ran, my chief opponent was my friend and classmate Jacques Hébert. Everyone loved Jacques. He came from a well-respected African-American family, he was tall, good-looking, athletic, smart, and kind. Of course Jacques won, and I didn’t really begrudge him the loss. The second time around I lost to the second most popular boy in school, but he didn’t have nearly the character or intelligence of Jacques. That one hurt.
All this came back to me this morning, as I puzzled over the dream I had just before waking. In the dream, I see Barack Obama drinking coffee in a café. I greet him, he is an old friend on the lecture/writing/traveling circuit, like several people I know. He looks absolutely exhausted, so I invite him over to my house for dinner and a rest before moving on to his next gig. He accepts gladly.
We drive over in my car, and when he comes into the kitchen I introduce him to my two daughters who are seated at the counter. I tell them, “Say hello to Barack Obama,” and then it occurs to me that this will be a huge deal for them, because they might be meeting the next president of the United States. But to me there is no glamour, he’s just an old friend.
This dream was surprising to me, mostly because I have not been a big Obama supporter. I never trusted his rhetoric about a “new type of politics.” It has always seemed to me that anyone with the ambition to be President must have an astute grasp of politics in general, and “new” or “old” is just a marketing term. His health care proposal, compared to that of Edwards and Clinton, was disappointing, and combined with his inexperience and conciliatory stance toward the right wing of Congress, I feared that the net effect of an Obama presidency would be a profound disillusionment among his ardent followers.
That to me has been the most worrisome aspect of his candidacy: the inevitable popping of the hope bubble, and the damage it will do to the young people who are now engaged in our political system because of his campaign of hope and change. I fundamentally do not want to see another generation become as apathetic and cynical about the process of democracy as my generation has been. And too, I don’t think I can bear to go through more years of political disappointment myself, either.
Yet my dream felt like an admission that he would in fact be the Democratic nominee, something that until today I had not really come to terms with. Obama’s anointing by the Kennedy clan is just another unsettling tone added to the cacaphony of hopes, dreams, fears, and projections already swirling around the country. That cultural harmonic of hope betrayed is ringing loud and clear, and I dread the coming months.
I am not one of those Clinton supporters who would vote for McCain—Gods forbid he ever enters the White House again except by invitation to tea. At least if I do vote for Obama, as seems inevitable at the moment, my dream reminds me that it will be a strategic choice, not a romantic one.
And the fact that Obama looks a lot like my old friend Jacques—I will just try to put that out of my mind. Of course the qualified woman loses to the cute guy in the class. I was really hoping that dynamic would change before my daughters were of voting age, but it looks like we will have to wait another several years before a woman has a chance to just be elected president.