Rhode Island has a long reputation of being a solidly Democratic state. Republicans in positions of power are so scarce that the fact that we have a Republican governor, Gov. Donald Carcieri, must be attributed partially to the gender of his Democratic opponent. If she had been a he, with her history in public office, we would be enjoying her second term. In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's success in RI, things may have changed for female politicians but back when Gov. Carcieri was elected, running-while-woman virtually guaranteed her defeat.
Thus it has been a source of wonder to me that my students, who had always tended to be apathetic and often, to my surprise, considering how Democratic RI is, conservative, suddenly took an active and hostile position towards George W. Bush. It appears that his legacy in the Ocean State is to have made many of them openly antagonistic to conservatives and especially, to him.
I noticed the change a couple of years ago. Perhaps my students had laughed off Bill Clinton's priapic misadventures because times were good; one can afford to be indulgent of peccadilloes if one's pockets are full. I noticed the hostility to Bush early in his administration. In one class discussion, the anti-Bush jeers turned to hostility and one student even suggested that someone should just shoot him. When these political discussions arise, I tend to pull back and let them have at it, telling them that I want them to think for themselves, not to parrot what I think. But on this occasion I jumped in and told him, "You must NEVER say that again; you should not even think it. You have no idea how devastating a political assassination is to a country or the effects it has on our people. Nothing is worth killing a president. If you don't like him, work to defeat him in the next election."
I never mentioned this incident outside my classroom. Once Obama started to run, I, like every liberal in the country, was afraid to mention the subject; we don't want to "tempt the evil eye." Everyone who is old enough to remember the sixties is seared by the memory of those terrible days when first John F. Kennedy was killed and then, less than five years later, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and New York Senator Bobby Kennedy were killed in close succession. I was too young to vote when Bobby was killed but I was old enough to feel the emptiness in our public life and to work for a candidate who could make a difference. Thus my first political involvement was to stuff envelopes for Bobby's campaign. It was a small thing but it gave me a sense of ownership; a sense that I was contributing to making our country a better place. On that terrible night, when I heard that he had been shot, I felt like our dreams were like balloons, flying high and then shot out of mid-air.
If Bobby had lived, Nixon would not have become president; the Vietnam war would have ended sooner; Henry Kissinger would have stayed in his rat hole; and thousands of Cambodians and Vietnamese would have survived the war. Our country would not have come to the edge of chaos because of the manipulations of Nixon and his plumbers. If, if, if...
There are still questions about JFK's and the Rev. King's assassinations, allegations that highly-placed political leaders and government agencies were involved, as well as disputes over the validity of the official findings. And there are scars on the body politic: Who really trusts the government? George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have raised governmental secrecy, incompetence, and duplicity to new heights resulting in an even deeper distrust of government that that left by Richard Nixon.
We are on the brink of electing Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, to the presidency. He appears to have the gifts needed to restore our faith in government and to inspire our citizens to ask, in John F. Kennedy's words, what they can do for our country. Unfortunately, his middle name, Hussein, is the same as that of an old enemy, and Obama is similar to that of another old enemy, Osama bin Laden. I wonder how they would play it if he were named Barry Jefferson Lincoln? You need not worry; he's black; they would find a different way to play the race card; racists always do.
By trying to characterize him as being different from us, and associate him with Arabs, therefore, terrorists, John McCain, the Republican nominee, and Sarah Palin, his feckless running mate, have found an effective way to play the race card and stir up the kind of race hatred that led to the 1960s' assassinations while feigning innocence. Republicans think they can treat this as a gambit in a game but they are tone-deaf to the tenor of the times. With people losing their homes, jobs, savings, and retirements, the hunt will be on for a scapegoat. When it happened in Germany, Hitler rose to the occasion and provided leadership and a convenient scapegoat: The Jews. Then they went after the Gypsies or Roma, the homosexuals, and the political dissidents.
Born in 1964, Sarah Palin is too young to remember the assassinations of the sixties but John McCain remembers and if he continues to allow race hatred to leech into his campaign unabated, we will all pay the price for it. With America's history of hatred fresh our in our common memory, we know that once this ugliness is let out of the box, it will be impossible to restrain. Like a plant suddenly exposed to light, air, and water, it grows wildly in response to the nutrients it couldn't get while in containment.
Some point to McCain's half-hearted attempts to stop the hatred emerging at his campaign rallies and argue that he isn't a racist. Unless he uses the bully pulpit of his candidacy forcefully to stop hate in its tracks, he will not escape the characterization. Racism corrodes and destroys public life. He may claim that he is not a racist but if he allows it to flourish in his campaign and is willing to harvest its fruits, then he is a racist and should be unmasked as such.