Friday, June 6, 2008
THE BACK OF THE BUS
In 1968, before political campaigns were completely scripted, Robert F. Kennedy insisted on taking his entourage through some of the country's most impoverished neighborhoods. These were not just pass-throughs or convenient photo ops, but chances to get out and meet people. RFK disregarded the advice of his advisors and campaigned in impoverished Indian reservations. He spent real face time in places like Bed-Stuy. He spent hours with Cesar Chavez and strongly supported the cause of Mexican-American farmworkers. Even though RFK had begun his career with a spotty record on civil rights and had authorized the FBI wiretap of King as attorney general, Kennedy's openness to the plight of impoverished and poor blacks won him widespread support among black voters in 1968.
The night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, April 4, 1968, RFK had one of his most extraordinary and unscripted moments, breaking the news to a stunned crowd. In a preternaturally low voice, haunted by his brother's death, he nearly wept as he recited a poem from Aeschylus. Listen to it. It's profoundly moving. The crowd listened in stunned silence. Such powerful moments are rare in American politics.
Flash forward. John McCain has taken his superficial tours to Selma, Alabama; Inez, Kentucky; Youngstown, Ohio; and New Orleans. And Obama started his career on Chicago's South Side, still one of the grittiest and most troubled neighborhoods in the country. But in this years' highly scripted campaign, expect both candidates to spend most of their time "hunting where the ducks are," that is in mostly white, suburban and exurban places.
I'm scribbling these notes from Baltimore, one of my favorite Rustbelt cities (now immortalized on HBO's brilliant series, The Wire). As I do in every city, I ride public transportation (today, the bus) across Baltimore. It's the best way to get to know a city and its working-class and poor population. I sat next to a guy who looked like Stringer Bell (who would never set foot on a bus) and across the row from someone who looked like Omar's grandmother, minus her shot-up Sunday crown. In the mid-afternoon, the bus was full of elderly people, many with canes and coughs. I struck up a conversation with a young woman in a security officers' uniform heading to work the 3pm-11pm shift who supports Barack Obama but isn't sure if she's going to vote in November. The bus headed up Charles Street, passing the shabby but still grand architecture along the ungentrified stretches of Charles north of Penn Station.
If I had my way, I would ask all of our leading candidates to stand around waiting a long time for the bus, riding down the potholed streets, and striking up conversations with the people they met. For sure, they would be reminded of the critical importance of the public transit for millions of Americans. And maybe, just maybe, they would see the need to bolster the meager federal spending for our woefully underfunded bus and train systems. And if they could get a few moments of quiet and stare out the window, like I did, they would see a beautiful city whose physical resources are unnecessarily wasted and whose people are still suffering too much. But I dream. But maybe, on this anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's untimely death, I can dream of a country where poor and working people aren't left at the back of the bus--a bus that is running too slow and too late on a road that is very bumpy. We should hope and fight for better.