Four score and seven years ago today, just over ten years before I was born, Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) began. Nazi troops and sympathizers looted and burned 7,500 Jewish businesses and 267 synagogues. Nearly 100 Jews were killed and at least 25,000 were arrested. The world found out about this incident on the radio. It would be nearly nine years before Hitler was defeated and World War Two ended. How ironic that the 45th President of the United States whose last video contained blatant anti-Semitism was elected on the anniversary of this Nazi atrocity.
Twenty-five years after Kristallnacht, the earliest memory I have of being shocked into despair occurred while watching TV. It was the news broadcast by Walter Cronkite who announced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; two days later, just fourteen years old and in military school, I vividly recall watching Dallas policemen leading accused gunman Lee Harvey Oswald from his jail cell through a parking lot; suddenly, a man lurched forward and shot him in the chest. It was broadcast live on TV. Witnessing a live murder defines trauma for any teenager and I can easily elicit this memory.
For me, Kennedy's assassination and Oswald's subsequent murder was the beginning of a slow eradication of my trust in government. Few people believed the Warren Commission's Report that sought to assure a doubting nation that it was a deranged, lone gunman that caused JFK's death; Jack Ruby would later die in jail before more could be revealed about Oswald or other possible connections.
As Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One that afternoon in 1963, citizens around the world watched in disbelief, racked with grief and sorrow after the unthinkable had become a reality. The photo of Johnson -- one hand raised and the other on the bible, with the late President's widow by his side -- remain etched in the brain of many of my generation. Johnson would oversee the brutal war in Viet Nam that would eventually take 64,000 American lives and account for as many as 1,300,000 deaths of civilians and allied forces.
In the years that followed, while Civil Rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act brought placatory change domestically, Johnson continued his predecessor's ruthless campaign of carpet bombing an enemy 8,000 miles away, dropping napalm and Agent Orange on a country few people could even locate on a world map. The war machine was in full force and Johnson was its commander-in-chief.
After his first term, Johnson suffered a stinging primary defeat by anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary of 1968. Republican Richard Nixon had just announced his candidacy six weeks earlier. Johnson's loss left an opening for Vice President Hubert Humphrey and JFK's brother, former Attorney General Robert Kennedy; both stepped into the race only four days after McCarthy's surprise win. On that same day, although it would not be made public for more than a year, US ground troops massacred 500 infants and elderly Vietnamese in Mai Lai.
Two weeks later, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march in Memphis, Tennessee telling striking sanitation workers "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end -- nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through". When police broke up the demonstration, one young boy was killed, 60 were injured and 150 marchers were arrested.
Three days later, on the last day of March 1968, Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection and withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination. Each of these events, from the New Hampshire Primary to the march in Memphis, to LBJ's withdrawal from the race, comprised a constant stream of news that would change the political landscape ahead. For anti-war activists, there was some renewed optimism when Johnson left the race, but nothing would compare with what transpired just five days later.
On April 4th, after meeting with local leaders in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr. died an hour after being shot with a single bullet fired by a lone assassin. Robert Kennedy, upon hearing the news just before delivering a speech in Indianapolis, urged his audience "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world." Despite his appeal for calm, rioting broke out in Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Kansas City, and others communities across the country following King's assassination. A total of 46 people were killed across the country. I spent a night in jail in Columbus, Ohio after being arrested on the campus of Ohio State while working with a first aid group to help injured protesters.
Injustice at home was the counterpoint to the war effort abroad. By mid-April, 550,000 US troops were on the ground in Viet Nam, and in the months that followed, protesters on college campuses occupied buildings demanding an end to the war. Meanwhile, in mid-May, 2,500 people occupied an encampment called Resurrection City on the Mall in Washington, D.C. as a protest for living wages and full employment.
Then, less than two months after Martin Luther King was killed, on the night of June 4th and the California Primary, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed as he left the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco. Again, live footage seared our brains as millions watched Kennedy's lifeless gaze when he fell to the ground. Weeks later, on June 24th, police raided and demolished Resurrection City, arresting all 124 of its occupants. TV news carried the story with vivid video coverage.
August of 1968 witnessed the Republicans nominating Richard Nixon over Californian Ronald Reagan; the Democrats would choose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their candidate while 10,000 protestors and supporters of George McGovern outside the convention took to the streets. Chicago police arrested 175 marchers beating some of them unconscious; 100 filled hospital emergency rooms while those who remained chanted "the whole world is watching!" The entire protest was broadcast live on television.
Forty days later, segregationist and former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had entered the Presidential race as an independent candidate, named retired Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay as his running mate. When asked about the use of nuclear weapons, LeMay casually responded, "I think most military men think it's just another weapon in the arsenal.....there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. I don't believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon."
To say that such a statement horrified millions would not be overstating the reaction; in the same way, the President-elect's comments about nuclear weapons have shocked us all. Incredibly, on Election Day in 1968, George Wallace, an avowed white supremacist received 13.5% of the popular vote - nearly 10,000,000 people favored his candidacy; Hubert Humphrey received only 500,000 votes less than Nixon, just .7% short of victory. This, too, was a shocking defeat for Democrats 48 years ago and a sobering recognition of the divisions of the populace.
The laws of physics tell us that at the extreme, everything changes into its opposite. An expanding balloon will eventually burst and contract; when our intestines fill, they will eventually empty. Only a short time ago, the Democratic Party seemed destined for unity while Republicans spoke of total disarray and chaos. How quickly things have reversed.
Those same laws remind us once again that what has a beginning, has an end. Decades of economic disparity and indifference in this year's election have caused a shrinking minority and angry, disenfranchised constituency to bring a halt to the deadlock. For better or worse, a businessman outside the political system convinced enough of them that he alone could bring the change they wanted. Such is the nature of the political system of our democracy.
Blame might move emotions and win elections, but it's not a verb I choose to employ as I seek to regain my footing after this election cycle. Neither third party candidates nor media attention can be blamed for this result. By its very nature, shock can sneak up on you but some people correctly predicted the outcome. As the numbness fades, it often leads to despair. This is a place baby boomers have been before - another "setback" the Democratic candidate spoke of in her eloquent concession speech.
When Richard Nixon ran for a second term in 1972 against George McGovern, I truly believed the South Dakota Senator had a reasonable chance. Nixon won in a landslide, carrying 49 of 50 states and 18,000,000 more votes than his opponent - the widest margin of any election in history. I was so disenchanted that I left the country disillusioned and angry. Nixon resigned in disgrace less than two years later; his vice president, Spiro Agnew, convicted on charges of bribery, tax evasion, and money laundering, resigned ten months before him.
In this election, you may not have even noticed that three out of the four state referendums tightening guns laws passed. All of the sudden, in Nevada, California, and Washington, children and families can begin to feel just a little bit safer because of these victories. Hawaii elected the first and only Asian American woman senator, Mazie Hirono. Three other states put new women in office as well. Pramila Jayapal becomes the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress representing her district in Washington State. And those are just a few of the fortunate blessings of this election.
The natural progression of emotions, when grief, fear and anger overwhelm, is a profound numbness that can stupefy the best among us. Disbelief precedes depression as a feeling of hopelessness permeates our chest. Shoulders heavy, the burden of reality can seem too much to bear as we sit exhausted and bereft.
But then there is this thing called resilience, not succumbing to the negativity but rebounding with the same optimism, hope, and determination that was so evident only days before. Fear, anger, and grief are all natural emotions, and they all play tug-of-war with love. Make no mistake: our capacity to rebound is a measure of our very own love of life itself. There is work to be done, and there is more time to play as well.
The unknown is that place in which all human beings actually reside. While being groundless and lost, we can at the same time leave behind our chattering mind and celebrate our next breath with a smile in the presence of compassion for ourselves and others.
One final principle of physics comes to mind that concerns what we can see and what we cannot. Basically, it states that what has a front has a back; it goes on to remind us that the bigger the front, the bigger the back. For all the horror and negativity that media thrives on that gets piped through the airwaves and internet, there is an equal amount of love and beauty to be shared -- things we know in our heart are the most important and newsworthy.
Maybe - just maybe - the true gift of this election will strengthen the bonds of our friendships and love of family, the equanimity we recognize in others we admire, and the possibility that what we cannot see is as big as what has emerged in front of us. Moving beyond those first three natural emotions - fear, anger, and grief - you will find love abiding in the heart. I invite you to go there with me, breathe from that place, and let's get back to work.
Our children are watching.