The new Children's Crusade

January 14, 2008
Seattle Times

Living on a college campus and watching the 2008 primary season unfold have sent me on a trip back in time. Suddenly, it is 1968, and I am a college freshman again, and the world seems, simultaneously, on the verge of ending and at the dawn of a new age.

It seems that way because, just as we were then embroiled in a dark period of generational conflict and social revolution, a fresh new voice in American politics rose up. His words pierced the fog of political rhetoric with lightning strikes of hope and possibility.

The country to which I had pledged allegiance every day had become enmeshed in a controversial war that many felt we could not win. Foreign policy was driven by the fear of world domination from a radical alien ideology, and American values and prestige were compromised by aggression and greed. I, like many students on college campuses, took to the streets.

Then, all at once, many of us were inspired by the eloquent voice of Sen. Bobby Kennedy, and by the challenge he offered us: not to rail against things as they were, but to contemplate how things could be, and to strive to make them so.

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice," he said, "he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Forty years later, the contest for the presidential nomination has thrust into the spotlight another powerful voice with a similar rallying call. Barack Obama, sounding a message that bears striking similarities to what was called "The Children's Crusade of 1968," has captured the imagination of young voters with a message of hope and change that is building into a current.

In the Iowa caucuses, Obama baffled the pollsters by capturing 60 percent of the voters under the age of 25, who turned out in unprecedented numbers, defying all predictions that the young people wouldn't show up.

The pundits might have been surprised, but I'm not. Living and working on a college campus for most of the past 30 years, I have learned to be taught by students. The young people of this generation bring to the self-absorption of adolescence a powerful sense of civic duty and social responsibility, a desire to leave the world a better place than they found it. They are not interested in ideological differences, in partisan loyalties, or in excuses for why things are not as they could be. They cling to an abiding faith in, if you will, the audacity of hope.

And the Obama campaign rhetoric about "hope we can believe in" not only resonates with this sensibility, it also strikes a chord with the conscience of my generation of Americans. When Obama says that "Hope is not blind optimism, it is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us, if we have the courage to reach for it," he speaks to the child in all of us.

I should know. I am a member of the baby-boom generation, a generation that some have said can never grow up, a generation that is accused, for some good reasons, of being stuck in perpetual childhood. (Case in point: Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are still on tour. And I still go to see them.) As a member of this generation, I couldn't help but note that in the same week Obama won the Iowa caucus and became the leader of a new children's crusade, the first baby boomer became eligible for Social Security benefits.

It pains me to say it, but it is time for us to pass the torch to a new generation, one that believes, as we once did, in "that thing inside us that insists."

I am inspired, every day, by the idealism, commitment and passion of today's youth as they prepare for their first opportunity to cast a vote for the person who will become their president. At a time in their lives when they are formulating their own ideas about their roles in society and testing their beliefs about the world, they need and deserve an invitation to participate fully in a broader public life. This is their time.

Fatigued by the partisan bickering, deception and ideological posturing of the past decade in American politics, it is time we give voice to the hopes of America's youth, to pay attention to what they have to say, to rekindle our own hope in their vision for America. Believing as they do that something better awaits us, they may very well elect the first woman or the first black man as president.

Bobby Kennedy's shocking murder on the night of his California victory in 1968 cautions us about the fragility of hope in a violent world. But his enduring message reminds us, especially in a time of fear and doubt and cynicism, that at the heart of the American idea is the necessity of a hope in which we all - both young and once-young alike - can believe.