Thinking about the death of Senator Edward Kennedy causes me to reflect on my own life and political activism. First, I was struck by the fact that “Teddy” was only one year younger than my father. The Senator always seemed eternally youthful, optimistic, and idealistic. I harbored in the back of my mind, up until the time his brain cancer was announced, that somehow – someway – he would still end up as President someday.
But, I was there for his last battle in 1980, supporting him and his United Automobile union allies in Detroit. In many ways, it was the last shoot-out in the Democratic Party between the liberal/progressive forces longing for a return of the New Deal/Great Society and the emerging new pro-corporate Democrats.
Not that the corporatism of Carter and his economic moderation was not offset by his championing of human rights and a rational energy policy, rather those of us who pushed Kennedy in 1980 realized that the “stagflation” – simultaneously high unemployment and high inflation – associated with Carter and the Democrats would likely pave the way for the rise of Ronald Reagan and his politics of deregulation and casino capitalism.
Ted Kennedy would later, during a tribute to the intellectual architect of the [John] Kennedy/Johnson War on Poverty Michael Harrington, call himself a European style “social democrat.” This idea of an America that took care of the least of its brethren and joined the rest of the advanced industrial nations with universal health care was what we were fighting for in 1980.
Harrington, the co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, had gone on an early tour to test the waters as a progressive presidential candidate himself. But most of us understood that he was a “stalking horse” for Teddy. Harrington’s frequent trips to Detroit showed that there was tremendous support within the progressive wing of the labor unions for a run by the last remaining Kennedy brother. I had the privilege of chauffeuring Harrington around from meeting to meeting on a few occasions and talking strategy with the likes of the legendary Millie Jeffries and Saul Wellman. The two were once old Left adversaries, but both agreed that Carter had to be challenged within the Democratic Party.
The Michigan caucuses that year came down to who could turn out the most forces. Then-Mayor of Detroit Coleman Young stood strongly with President Carter. The Mayor’s real fear of Reagan, mitigated by Carter’s largesse to the Motor City that at one point reached a 70% match of the entire Detroit budget through various federal grants during 1980 election year, caused him to pull out all stops to deliver the caucuses to the sitting President. The UAW threw the massive political resources of the international union into the caucus fray. Ultimately, it came down to the role of the Associated of Communities Organizing for Reform Now (ACORN), that ended siding with Carter in exchange for delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Sadly, the ACORN forces were some of my closest allies and the political commune I lived in and partially owned at 12749 Kilbourne on Detroit’s east side often was referred to as “ACORN East.” That summer ACORN’s interns and students sent from Minnesota by a little-known college professor, Paul Wellstone, worked out of my house.They continued to do so through 1984.
I remember what appeared to be a scuffle in the New York delegation during the 1980 Democratic primary where Harrington was accused of blocking Carter delegates from speaking. We fell a few delegates short at the convention, and from putting forth our dream of a resurrected Camelot. I stayed away from the Democratic convention, instead organizing demonstrations in Detroit at the Republican convention where not only Ronald Reagan was nominated, for the former CIA director George Herbert Walker Bush emerged as his Vice President.
It was the last gathering of the New Left tribes and the 60s countercultures. I worked very closely with the San Francisco Mime Troupe who were organizing the “:Reagan for Shah” committee. I played the role of a young Republican pleading with Reaganites to have Reagan declare himself Shah and get rid of the liberals who were ruining the country. I few were quite drunk and sympathetic saying, “That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
I regretfully sat out the Carter campaign in 1980 and instead worked for Barry Commoner and the People’s Party. I recall the slogan, “The 5% Solution.” If we could just get 5% of the vote, we would have a real environmental worker’s party on the ballot. Like the dream of a re-born Camelot, the structure of American politics has long worked against a viable left-wing third party.
Still, I can’t help but wonder these days as I ponder the life of Ted Kennedy and his tremendous perseverance in the U.S. Senate during the dark days of Reagan and Bush who were both elected in 1966 to public office for the first time. Voted in as enemies of the Great Society, the New Left, and the 60s counterculture, they represented a violent reaction against the idealism of the 1960s.
Kennedy remained the last and greatest idealist of the 60s. Even during the hell-black night of Bush the Second. Let us pray that his death inspires Barack Obama and others to rekindle the dream that endured with Kennedy physically and hangs heavily in the air as we mourn his passing.