Jan 31, 2008

December 29, 2007: Reach Out In the Darkness, Sympathy For The Devil, Requiem For Benazir

“I think it’s so groovy now
That people are finally getting together
I think its wonderful now
That people are finally getting together
Reach out in the darkness
Reach out in the darkness
Reach out in the darkness
And you may find a friend” --Friend and Lover

I was standing in line at a gas station when that song so rarely played stabbed my consciousness like hot steel on a cold night. It seems so long ago now as we approach yet another presidential election cycle, the 10th such season of promises, since that song was popular, since that terrible time when the universe came unhinged. There was a certain inexorable logic behind that season of tragedy. The nation was deeply divided between rich and poor, black and white, young and old, war and peace. The Tet Offensive had demonstrated the total bankruptcy of our war policies and the nation, after several long summers of rioting and rage was bracing itself for another “long hot summer”. Yet we had emerged strong and promising, pregnant with possibilities, challenging the established order, dreaming things that never were and asking “why not”?

First Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota emerged to challenge Lyndon Johnson for his party’s nomination. In February, McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in New Hampshire. By mid-March Robert Kennedy, after re-assessing his situation was drawn into the race, and by the end of March Johnson announced his retirement. It seemed as if the heavens had parted and a new dawn had come to America. But throughout the season dark clouds loomed on the horizon like the ugly protesters that ringed the outer fringes of the Kennedy rallies.

I remember watching on television Robert Kennedy announce his candidacy for the presidency on March 16 from the old Senate chamber. Kennedy had been drawn into the battle much sooner than he had wanted, preferring to defer a presidential bid until 1972 or 1976. But the conflicts both at home and abroad had caused many of his friends and political supporters to look elsewhere and Bobby knew that his national stature demanded that he step forward. I watched with a certain foreboding as he picked up the mantle of his brother and began the campaign hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

As April Fools day dawned Johnson had fled the field and it seemed as if victory would come without firing a shot. But within days the long national nightmare began. Martin gunned down in Memphis and the rioting that followed, the entrance of Vice President Humphrey into the race to carry the standard of the party regulars, and finally, after winning all the remaining primaries save Oregon (which went to the anti-war McCarthy); Bobby too was gunned down as he reached for his party’s nomination. Within 90 days it was over, all that remained was to vent our rage at the convention. It was like a Greek tragedy beginning with the hubris of youth, and ending by cursing the fates; beginning with so much promise and ending with the ultimate booby prize: Richard Nixon.

“Let me please introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I lay traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reach Bombay”--- The Rolling Stones

In this frame of mind I returned home. Going into the living room, I turned on the television and up came the financial news network. I was watching the market numbers and noticed on the crawl space a news report that former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated following a political rally. I turned to CNN and followed the initial reports that she had died following an explosion set off by a suicide bomber. Later this was revised to include shots fired at her motorcade at close range. It felt like de ja vu all over again.

The truly redeeming quality of politics is that by participating one can experience a certain mobility otherwise unattainable. Through political action one can transcend one’s station in life and meet not only interesting, though largely self-absorbed individuals, but on occasion rub shoulders with the powerful. In 1968 I was drawn into the Kennedy campaign, first working with his advance men organizing a political rally at Campau Square in downtown Grand Rapids, and then later in Indiana running a sound truck and doing door-to-door work in Michigan City and Marion. And so it was that four years later a son of a poor factory worker found himself in a Hotel room in Cambridge Massachusetts sitting on a bed talking politics with Benazir Bhutto.

She was 19 at the time, a freshman at Radcliff, daughter of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, young, intelligent and articulate. I was 23, a senior at Grand Valley State. We were drawn together as participants in the Harvard Invitational Model United Nations held at Cambridge Massachusetts. She was representing, of course, Pakistan. I was representing, not so obviously, the United States. I was deep in my senior thesis on the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 when I received a call from Dr. Junn, the head of the political science department asking if I wanted to participate in a model U.N. sponsored by Harvard. I asked which country we would be representing and he told me the United States. It seemed a set up: why with all the colleges and universities to choose from would Harvard ask a small teachers college in western Michigan to represent the United States? The answer: Vietnam. Here was a golden opportunity for the debate teams of Harvard and Yale, not to mention several others to beat up on United States foreign policy. We would be the perfect “straw man”.

We called a meeting of the several members of our delegation and I was chosen chairman, principally because I had written several papers on Vietnam and was something of the resident expert on the subject. This made me in effect the United States Ambassador to the United Nations playing the role of then UN Ambassador George H.W. Bush. I preferred to see myself as a young Adlai Stevenson but was forced to consult the record, largely one of abstaining from votes on Security Council resolutions that characterized the Nixon White House. Fortunately I knew the history of Vietnam and American involvement in it as well as all the arguments in favor of our prosecution of the war. In addition I was an outspoken early critic of the war and knew the arguments of dissent. So it happened that I became the unanimous choice to sit at the Security Council and face the debate teams of America’s most prestigious universities.

The first day was a rough go. Villanova, representing Germany stood with us, but the school representing France bolted to our adversaries and followed the Chinese by launching an all out attack on American “imperialist” foreign policy. Represented by the University of Utah, who had spent two weeks with the Chinese delegation at the UN in New York, the debate teams of Harvard and Yale representing countries like Cuba lined up with several others to oppose our intervention in Indochina. At the end of the first of the three day session our delegation met at our hotel suite to map out strategy given that many of the participants were not faithful to the policies of the governments they were purporting to represent but were instead using the forum to express personal opinions. We determined that drastic action was needed. I asked how much money we had brought with us. Dr. Junn gave me a figure and asked why. I responded that we must now do what diplomats the world over have always done—order large quantities of alcohol and play the gracious host. In a word: PARTY!

We sent someone out for the requisite liquor and let it be known that our suite, which in due course became the entire floor, would be scene for an “international” social event. It was during a bit of banter with my friend from Utah, a slightly older man who had fought with the Montignard tribesman in Vietnam and who would later, playing the Chinese role magnificently, refer to “running dog American Imperialism” that I was elbowed by a young lady who introduced herself as the representative of Pakistan and asked if I could speak with her. We went to a room and she impressed upon me the urgency of the United States introducing a Security Council resolution concerning India and, if memory serves, had something to do with Kashmir. I told her I would do the best I could and we talked for some time about Pakistan and its relations with her neighboring countries, Kashmir, and the United States.

The next day I met with her again, but unfortunately things were tight at the Security Council as I struggled to stave off a full fledged assault on the United States. Benazir stopped by and importuned me once again but I tried to explain that I had greater problems to deal with at the moment. She left disappointed. Finally, midway through the second session, the Council voted by a majority of one to strike Vietnam from the agenda. We had dodged a bullet but there were still issues in South Africa, Rhodesia, and elsewhere that consumed the time. Mostly it was theatre. I had stopped while walking through the “yard” and bought a socialist rag being hawked by a vendor which I read whilst the Chinese “Ambassador” from Utah railed on about “American Capitalist Imperialist Aggressors”. The Chairman of the Security Council, who was in real life a legal counsel to the United Nations, asked me in a terse Eaton accent if the United States had any response. I remember saying’ as I peered up from my worker’s party rag, “It is the position of the government of the United States that the ranting of the honorable ambassador from the People’s Republic is unworthy of comment and that if he is interested in serious boilerplate I have a copy of an excellent publication he might find informative”. In any case events dictated that Pakistan would not emerge as a major player as long as the Cold War lasted. I had tried to teach an important lesson in international politics: that the United States has no friends, it has only interests and that United States support could be uncertain.

But it was not Benazir’s nature to remain undeterred. Critics, and there were many in Pakistan, saw her re-emerge as a political figure too closely allied with the United States. She had promised to allow the Americans to use Pakistani territory to establish bases of operations against the growing lawlessness in the tribal provinces along the Afghan border where Bin Laden is believed to have taken refuge. But most importantly she represented, as her father before her, an attempt to transform Pakistan from tribal Feudalism into a modern secular liberal democratic state.

I sensed all those years ago that Benazir was in large measure enamored with all things American, attending an American university, adopting western dress, and with her father attempting to impose a western style republic on a tribal culture. I felt then it was risky business. Many transformational political figures have paid the last full measure for their effort. The Gracci brothers in ancient Rome, Julius Caesar for creating pax Romana, Lincoln, the Kennedy’s; and in her own part of the world Mahatma Gandhi, Neru, Indira and Rajib Gandhi, her own father. I watched with a certain foreboding as she went home to once again pick up the mantle of her father, hoping for the best but fearing the worst; and as I watched her bloody return from exile I told my wife that Benazir was going home to die. It had the inevitability of 1968 about it, as certain as the setting sun.

Go gently into that good night Benazir Bhutto; we are left now to reach out in the darkness.

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