Over the course of a lifetime I have observed, joined, written about and learned much from political battles. When I was twelve years old I joined my father in marches for the civil rights and equal treatment of African-Americans. While it was not Selma or Montgomery, we marched in the heart of Orange County, at the height of the John Birch Society’s power and were not met with great acclamation. My white, middle class suburban childhood had shielded me from the horrors of segregation and “separate but equal”. When I failed to fully grasp the reasons for the protests, my father gave me the book “Black Like Me” to read, it is powerful indictment of bigotry and I have never forgotten the lessons about inequality contained in those 192 pages.
When I was sixteen years old, I watched Bobby Kennedy’s murder at the Ambassador Hotel, live on TV. The 1968 presidential election was the first I followed closely, and after winning the California primary, Kennedy was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and the presidency as well. My first political encounter with hope and change was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and we ended up with Richard Nixon and his merry band of cheats, crooks and felons in the White House. Which brings us to 1972 and Senator George McGovern.
This was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote, and the combination of Nixon, Vietnam and forged my liberal politics and Democratic partisanship forevermore. I ran a McGovern headquarters in Orange, California. Democrats were a distinct minority in 1972 Orange County and Republicans were not shy about dropping by to let us know how they felt about the traitorous and un-American senator from South Dakota. (A catchall personal attack Republicans would continue to trot out in virtually all subsequent presidential elections). Senator McGovern piloted 35 B-24 bombing missions over Germany during World War II but his opposition to the criminal Vietnam War was all that was needed to smear him as a coward. Even back then Republicans did not let facts get in the way of a good political narrative. Nixon eventually resigned in disgrace, but not before I experienced more time in the streets protesting the carnage in Vietnam.
The next galvanizing force in my political evolution was the eight years of Ronald Reagan. In retrospect though, he did compromise with Democrats on raising taxes, immigration reform and the social safety net. It might not mitigate Iran-Contra or 241 murdered Marines, but the guy was personable and pragmatic.
President Bill Clinton presided over the creation of 20 million jobs, two terms of peace and prosperity, a balanced budget and centrist policies, yet he was hounded and attacked relentlessly by Republicans for eight years.
Then came George W. Bush. I have written thousands of words denigrating the man, so I will not belabor that point, but we were all back in the streets again, protesting the worst foreign policy blunder in American history, the unilateral invasion of Iraq and the trumped up and falsified evidence used to justify it.
Every time we believe we have fought the last battle, you can be sure another one will come along. Today the protests are for the civil rights of gays and lesbians. As recently as 2004 Republicans viewed this as successful political wedge issue, putting 20 referendums on the statewide ballots to deny to gays marriage rights enjoyed by all other Americans. Today, a majority of Americans now support full equality and within a single generation we will have witnessed a great civil rights victory for another long discriminated against minority.
Marriage equality is a rare victory, because most of the time money, power and influence trumps protest movements. The 1965 Voting Rights Act is still under attack, over four decades since it was passed. Conservatives do not generally play the public protest game, the Tea Party was late to the game, but voices raised against entrenched power is what the Constitution and the First Amendment are all about, so I welcome them to the fight. Over the long haul you win some battles and you lose most, but we can never give up because just being out there is what keeps America as a beacon of freedom to each new generation and the world.