I sit here, watching Barack Obama’s DNC speech via YouTube on my Apple TV. I listened to Bill Clinton’s the other day on my headphones at work. Lately, with the ignorance permeating the American climate, I have been feeling the stirring of old familiar convictions, and I’ve been drawn to these orators.
I remember when I was 14 years old, in November of 1992, I showed up to school wearing a Bill Clinton T-shirt and covered in Clinton-Gore buttons that I gave out to my classmates and teachers over the course of Election Day. (You have to admit, such a move is bold as a 14-year-old, considering the potential for ridicule is exponential. But no one teased me, they just took my buttons and gave me high-fives.) When I was in graduate school, in 2004, my mother took several weeks off work to move to New Hampshire and campaign for John Kerry, or rather against George W. Bush. I have voted in every presidential election since I’ve been able to vote. I am a middle class citizen who can afford such things as Apple TV, whose mother can afford to leave work to campaign for her beliefs, and who has not quite given up on her government—certainly not this administration—at least enough that I still want to hear what all these guys have to say for themselves. And every once in awhile I like what I hear.
I like what I’ve heard at the DNC. I like that Bill is the same old Bill, and told it like it is. (“Arithmetic.”) I like that Barack spoke of citizenship, and “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” I like that the message of my party at this convention is that “we’re all in this together;” as idealized as that might be, it’s something to strive for, and not fight against. (What choice do we all have but to move forward, anyway?) I like that the women (Michelle, oh my!) and men of my party stand with their heads squarely on their shoulders, in front of a sea of different-colored faces, casually dismissing empty accusations, and moving people to tears instead of inciting people’s rage.
While the orators of my party didn’t leave much to be desired, there was a guy in 1966 who may have said some of this even better. Of course, this was back in a time when there was still something romantic to be found in the words of politicians. His speech came up at my office the other day, when we were discussing citizenship, and the divisive “us-them” mentality that seems so stark today. I’d heard of the speech, but never heard it, and a co-worker recited some lines that gave me the chills. I immediately looked it up: the Day of Affirmation speech that Bobby Kennedy gave in Cape Town, to a group of South African students. The speech that made “ripple of hope” a phrase always associated with RFK. My mother worked for his campaign too, and was there in the Ambassador Hotel the day he died, ten years before I was born. We had a picture of him hanging in our house as I was growing up.
I’ve found different versions of this speech online. You can find the extensive news-release version here, and the pieces that Ted Kennedy used to eulogize his brother here. Both are worth reading all the way through, but some of the best pieces from the eulogy (below) can’t be found in the published transcript, for reasons not worth wondering about. Both are awe-inspiring.
…Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.
For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.
Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.