February 7, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 26
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The ‘wilderness years’ may now be behind us

Charles R. Stith

From Hillary Clinton’s campaign theme (“Ready for Change”), to the stances of Mitt Romney (which continue to change), to Ron Paul’s cash-strapped campaign (which could use some change), politicians and the American people alike have grasped that there is something different about this election season. That something seems to be personified by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. While many commentators, and now the Kennedys, see Obama’s magic as reminiscent of the Camelot era, I would suggest that what we’re seeing has even broader implications than the Kennedy connection.

As I have watched the Obama phenomenon unfold, it has become clear that there are many layers for examination. Beyond everything I’ve heard, there is something that has struck me about this election season — something that is allegorical in a biblical sense.

That is, it has been 40 years since the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. In the Bible, 40 years was the length of time that marked the season of “wandering in the wilderness.”

For those of us who were around when John Kennedy’s youthful optimism inspired us to national sacrifice, when Martin Luther King called us to overcome age-old barriers of race, and when Bobby Kennedy attempted to lead us across the chasm created by poverty and war, the last 40 years most certainly have felt like a wilderness experience.

In these years, the wars we’ve fought have been both symbolic and symptomatic of a sort of wandering from the principles that have grounded this country and the American Dream. The Vietnam War divided this country more than any other conflict except the Civil War. Though the Cold War reflected a chill in U.S.-Soviet relations, it was so hot that it devastated continents like Africa and debilitated its people in a way from which they are only now beginning to recover. Whether you believe invading Iraq was wrong or the surge is right, it is inarguable that the Iraq war has obscured our sense of national purpose and made the world, as well as many within our own borders, think less of us. This is the wilderness.

In this sense, our political culture has reflected our conflicts. Given the conspiratorial nature of the deaths of JFK, MLK and RFK, there has been a pale of suspicion and cynicism that has hung over this country like a dark cloud for the last 40 years. Whether it’s the “Southern strategy” of Nixon, the “malaise” that overcame Carter’s quest for a more humane foreign policy, or the present Supreme Court’s seeming intention to turn back every civil rights-era gain, from voting rights to school desegregation, the net effect is the same: As a nation, we seem to have been one step south of finding our way out of the morass in which we’ve been stuck. For the last 40 years, it has been as if we were lost in the wilderness.

What I’m offering is an observation. I am not trying to be a prophet. I don’t pretend to know whether Barack Obama is the 21st century Joshua who will literally lead us to the promise land. But, having said that, I do sense there is something going on.

I don’t know if it’s important for Obama to win, or if he will. I am not certain whether he is the embodiment of the hope we seek, or symbolic of an age that is the long-sought bridge to a better place. I don’t know if it’s possible for another politician in this race to tap in or tap their foot to the metronome to which so many seem to be moving. What I do know is the others in the race — be it Hillary, McCain, Romney or anyone else — need to understand that people are not simply calling for “change,” but a chance to move beyond where we are; not just politically and economically, but culturally and spiritually as well.

People seem to be grasping for the meaning we have sought for the last 40 years, or in some cases, given up seeking. Something has been unleashed during this election season. It is not simply what supporters see in Obama. It could be what we see, or want to see, in ourselves. Can we see ourselves, once again, as kindred spirits? Can we see ourselves, once again, committed to a common cause? Can we deconstruct, once and for all, the construct of race that has defined America’s story since the first Native American was felled and the first slave ship docked on America’s shores? Can we come to a new understanding of our role in the world — one that does not hinge on whether we can make “them fear us?” Rather, can we inspire “them” to follow us in pursuit of enduring values like freedom and fair play, the things that really make America strong?

There are a lot of things about which I’m unsure during this election, but there is one thing about which I’m certain: People seem to be saying 40 years in the wilderness is long enough. And I agree.

Charles R. Stith is the former U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania and is currently the director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama share a laugh during the 2006 convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Washington, D.C. As the campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination has kicked into high gear, the battle between the two potential history-making candidates has grown increasingly tense. (AP photo/Evan Vucci)

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