National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Back to the Mountaintop




The delayed fulfillment of a dream interrupted by assassins’ bullets in 1968 was realized 40 years later with the resounding and epochal victory of President-elect Barack Obama this week.

The back-to-back assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968 put the struggle for racial, social and economic justice on a long, slow march. But when the self-serving machinations of the worst opponents of those hopes began to break down in the last four years, the world discovered that the spirit was still alive, as it burst forth into the most magnificent explosion of the highest of human aspirations perhaps ever seen.

The campaign of Barack Obama was the perfect vehicle for this profound resurgence, the man’s evident gifts to inspire and motivate underpinned by a humble personal background, razor sharp intellect, and a body language of quiet resolve, commitment to the public good, and confidence.

The television images of the Rev. Jesse Jackson standing among hundreds of thousands in Chicago’s Grant Park to hear Obama’s victory speech told the story of the last 40 years of struggle, and eventual triumph.

“America is a better nation because we’ve struggled,” Jackson, himself never able to gain real traction as a presidential candidate, told a TV interviewer the next morning. Talking about the rougher days of the civil rights movement, the demonstrations, the violence, even the inner city riots, Jackson said that they were necessary preconditions for Obama’s ability to run a campaign “above” race, and to win.

“The walls had to come down before the bridges could be built,” he said. Jackson often stood almost alone as the keeper of the civil rights flame during the darkest years of the neo-conservative revolution and the ferocious rise of the bigoted religious right.

Obama is not better than Jackson. He stands on his shoulders, even though he distanced himself from all the trappings of the earlier struggles to carry out his mission.

Buoyed by all that’s gone before, Obama’s campaign was able to slay the right wing dissembling machine that had successfully exploited fear and ignorance in earlier campaigns. Two factors were critical to this success: a penchant for punching back aided by new information technologies.

The meteoric rise of political reaction that swept the U.S. in the wake of the Carter years put liberal and progressive forces back on their heels for decades. Their voices went silent as hundreds of potty-mouthed thugs took the radio talk show circuit to arouse hate and venom across the land.

As recently as the 2004 Democratic campaign, the liberal answer was to “take the high road” and to try to ignore the relentless gutter attacks coming from the other side. The name of George W. Bush was never mentioned at the Democratic convention, while Sen. John Kerry was being savaged by the unconscionable “swift boat” campaign.

But things changed when street fighter Gov. Howard Dean, the first to spark the nascent potential for an inspired Democratic revival in a short-circuited presidential bid in 2004, took the helm of the party. He immediately directed the party to a “full court press” approach, insisting on dropping the selective state approach, and to make the party competitive in all 50 states.

The move drew forth a new breed of activist, many of whom got their first taste of inspired grassroots activism’s potential in the Dean campaign’s early days. With them, and the new policy, came a complementary, fresh desire to fight back against the GOP’s deceitful fear and rumor machine.

And they had new tools to do the job, something the GOP’s bottom feeders didn’t anticipate. Through thorough organization on the Internet, the Democrats had an almost instantaneous ability through e-mails, cell phones and text messages and instant messages to combat lies and deception with counterpunching exposes and corrective measures.

It worked to neutral the negativity that eventually swept over the McCain campaign, something McCain’s handlers didn’t see coming and probably still don’t understand.

So, with a willingness to hit back, and the means to do it, a campaign rooted in the 1960s legacy of justice and truth prevailed over the thuggish merchants of bigotry, lies and fear in the historic campaign of 2008.

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