Politics & Prejudices: The importance of Bernie

Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, July 2015
Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, July 2015 Photo by Gage Skidmore

Nearly a half century ago, a serious candidate for the presidency actually went around telling the voters the truth, and daring them to try to make this a better country.

"Some men see things as they are and ask why. I see things that never were and ask why not." Robert Kennedy said that over and over in the spring of 1968.

When he spoke at a medical school in Indiana, to call for something like universal health care for all, one of the white students asked sarcastically, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you're proposing?"

Kennedy said, "From you. You are the privileged ones here." He noted that they were virtually all white, and studying in comfort while poor black kids were fighting in Vietnam.

"It's easy for you to sit back and say it's the fault of the federal government. But it's our society too," he said, saying they had an obligation to make it better. Try to imagine, for a moment, Hillary Clinton saying such a thing today.

President Barack Obama wouldn't have said it either, though he may have tried to defend his health care programs.

There's been only one candidate since with the courage to speak truth to power, even when everyone agreed it wasn't politically good for him: Bernie Sanders. And to near universal astonishment, he's winning millions of votes.

We'll never know if Bobby Kennedy would have been elected president, or how much he might have changed things. The night he won the California primary, a loser named Sirhan Sirhan put a bullet in his brain. He might not have won the Democratic nomination even if that hadn't happened; the establishment forces were squarely against him. But he tried.

Fifty years later, Bernie Sanders has picked up the torch. Bobby came from a lifetime of privilege himself, and was one of the youngest men — 42 — ever to run for president.

Bernie is the oldest man ever to make a serious run for the job. He will be 75 in early September. He grew up in a Brooklyn tenement and never had been anywhere near to rich.

Bobby had that famous toothy smile; Bernie usually seems to be scowling. Bobby was a devout Roman Catholic; Bernie is a basically nonreligious Jew.

But they both upset the status quo. (Interesting that people, especially their supporters, usually called them as "Bobby and Bernie," as if they were loved and trusted friends.)

They both inspired young people to get into politics and forced society to grapple with issues it wanted to hide.

"Let us wage a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders on Wall Street and elsewhere whose politics and greed are destroying the middle class," Sanders tells audiences. Naturally, he gets accused of "class warfare." Most of those who throw around that charge should know; they've been waging it on the poor for decades.

Bernie Sanders doesn't seem to care what they think. Nor does he spend much time courting those veteran mainstream political columnists and talking heads who were first condescending and patronizing to the little socialist from Vermont — and then irritated as he started winning.

Clinton after all, was supposed to be "inevitable." Yet a funny thing happened; Bernie Sanders, who doesn't take money from huge "super PACs" — ended up raising millions and millions in small donations from average men and women.

There is a difference; Bobby Kennedy's biggest support came from the black community. This year, Hillary Clinton is winning the black vote by overwhelming numbers.

That, in fact, is what has kept her in the race. She hasn't fared very well with white voters. In the Wisconsin primary, she won Milwaukee, which has a significant black population — and lost every single county elsewhere in the state.

Still, Hillary Clinton is more than likely to be the Democratic nominee. She has gotten more popular votes in the primaries, and is overwhelmingly favored by the establishment superdelegates, some because they want jobs and influence.

Naturally, if she is nominated, everybody not a bat-shit suicidal Nazi or whacked-out crazy seeking to bring on the rapture will be morally and practically obligated to do whatever they can, including selling their children, to defeat with Donald "Mussolini" Trump or Ted "Savonarola" Cruz.

Yet does anyone really think Clinton would change anything substantially for the better?

You know the answer, just as sure as you know why Clinton won't release the transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street firms, speeches for which she was paid vast sums.

Want to guess whether she'll do anything about the terrifying economic inequality increasing since 1981?

Want to guess whether she'll do anything about the $1.4 trillion student loan debt crushing the future of this country?

The only candidate talking about those things, and many others, is Bernie Sanders. American politicians have been knee-jerk supporters of anything Israeli governments wanted to do, no matter now friendly. They fear the wrath of the Israeli lobby.

Sanders is A) the first Jew to ever win a presidential primary, B) the only candidate to have lived and worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and C) the only presidential candidate in either party willing to seriously criticize Israel.

"We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity. We are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time," Sanders has said.

Both those statements ought to be self-evident. Yet our relationship with our longtime ally and client state has become so distorted that simple common sense seems radical.

What I do find curiously infuriating is all the people who say, "Oh, I agree with Bernie, but I can't support him because he couldn't possibly get everything he wants accomplished."

Well, of course he wouldn't. No president ever does.

What Sanders says is: I am going to do my best to try to create a country in which children are not living in poverty, in which kids can go to college, in which old people have health care.

Will I succeed? I can't guarantee you that, but I can tell you that, from a human point of view, it is better to show up than to give up.

Bobby Kennedy knew that too, back in his pre-drone and pre-smartphone world. "Perhaps we cannot make this a world without tortured children," he'd say, quoting the French philosopher Albert Camus. "But we can make this a world where fewer children are tortured. And if you don't help us do this, who will?"

Whatever else, a President Sanders would change the conversation. We'd be talking about how to make college affordable. We'd be talking about how to revitalize the middle class, not how to make the richest richer.

We'd be far less inclined to plunge into new wars.

Well, this year, while Cruz waved his Bible and Marco Rubio talked about Donald Trump's dick, a little guy from Brooklyn by way of Vermont tried to do something.

And I have to believe Bobby would have seen Bernie as a kindred spirit. "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," RFK said.

His dream was that "crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring," those ripples could "sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression."

So far this year, 8 million people have voted for someone who is really willing to try.

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