The latest polling continues to suggest that Peter Welch will fill Bernie Sanders’s seat in the United States Congress, and VDB’s own scarred political nose says that the margin will be fairly decisive.
Americans seem to have slowly committed to structural change, and they now want to vote for those willing to embrace it — shout about it — rather than those merely pretending to it.
But even if tomorrow Martha Rainville were shipped by the Bush Administration straight to the border region of Pakistan — where she single-handedly tracked, overpowered and bound Osama Bin Laden — and she somehow managed to sneak into Congress, VDB would still be a clear winner this election cycle.
Because thanks to the Welch campaign we’ve seen some of the most amazing political theater in the politically star-spangled history of Vermont: first Barack Obama, and today Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Kennedy came for an environmental rally in UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel, and not a moment too soon: the ordinarily savvy Jim Douglas has left himself wide open with his opposition to last session’s Wilderness bill, and both the Welch and Parker campaigns have been looking for an effective way to dramatize the environmental stakes.
Effective and dramatic it was. Oh, yes.
It doesn’t hurt that the rally came at the tail end of a campaign season in which righteous anger is available almost exclusively on the Left. Even the soft-spoken and the statesman-like are growling these days.
And so the rally began with Madeline Kunin, and she was up in arms. She talked for a second about her work on behalf of women candidates both in Vermont and nationwide, and then she dropped the bomb: “Frankly,” she said, thin hands clenching the sides of the podium, “I would love to vote for a woman in this election.
“But I also love to vote for the right man.”
It was a passionate line, and the undertone was anger — a genteel anger of the sort Kunin can generate, but anger just the same. And in the words of Scudder Parker, and Bernie Sanders, and Pat Leahy, and then Peter Welch, there was that same anger, a little less refined and rougher-edged as it built, something beyond frustration and almost close to gospel.
But it took Robert Kennedy to give it complete expression. In appearance, Kennedy is every inch — well, a Kennedy. He is very tall, a good half an inch taller than Leahy, ram-rod straight, and he looks as though he were born in a crisp blue suit. The forehead is high, the hair full, the eyes dark, the nose dropping sharp and clean over the dynasty smile.
As he waits to speak, Kennedy taps his heels, jiggles his knees, a nervous energy playing over him and through him, down finally into his clasped hands and terminating in the thumbs, which twiddle relentlessly, as he waits his chance to say what he has come to say.
When he stands and begins to speak, the blue-suited, red-tied body looks so straight and tall and perfect, and the hands gesture so fluently, that you expect the voice to match.
And it does not match, not even remotely.
The voice of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is strangled and weak, and it is more than a bit nasal, and sometimes it’s plain difficult to hear for a second. The voice is tortured, as though Kennedy were continually struggling through a cough, struggling to swallow something too dry or too large to pass his windpipe, struggling always to recapture his full volume.
But there is no full volume, no moment when the voice comes clear and strong; it is always, every second, the sound of a man fighting to be understood.
And it’s overwhelming, devastating, for precisely that reason.
Because when it comes to his area of policy expertise, Kennedy is fighting to be understood and has been for years, and he’s clearly as angry as he can humanly be about George W. Bush and “his corporate paymasters,” and the “science-fiction nightmare” they have made of the state of Vermont, and the Adirondack mountains near Kennedy’s own home in New York.
And so in that way, the voice comes to seem as though it couldn’t be any more perfectly suited to his particular ends, in the way that the voices of Neil Young or Bob Dylan seem absurd only until you listen long enough to recognize them as the sound of your own heart.
Kennedy is so angry that the words roll together, and there isn’t even a glimmer of daylight between the sentences. He talks very fast, compulsively, as though someone or something might burst through the door at any moment and haul him away before he has a chance to finish. [Photo: Don Shall]
Without thinking, in his moment of anger, he uses all of the tools of the trade he’s picked up unconsciously over the years: the waving finger, and the thick, chowdery Massachusetts accent, and the way that a great speaker will demand applause, rather than ask for it.
The facts and figures are so familiar to him, so dear to him, that they roll off effortlessly, and he drives them home in that strangulated voice.
And he names names. It’s not a thing you’re used to hearing, because somehow it breaches decorum and because most politicians aren’t deep enough in the weeds to know the names and titles and crimes of all those they’re facing off against. But Kennedy knows them, and he calls them on the carpet, one after the other, and tells you the monstrous things they’ve done and he lets you know that he’s angry and disgusted with these people.
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is a seductive and a horrible figure at the same time, and when he stands before a crowd, when he’s really worked up, eyes bulging, he shouts, “Gimme that meat axe!” to the people gathered before him. And the crowd roars every time.
Kennedy’s pitch is never that violent, never that blunt, but it draws on the same deep populism. Of Martha Rainville, Kennedy said that she wants to treat “the planet as if it were a business in liquidation,” and of GOP cronyism and corporate welfare, he said “they want capitalism for the poor, and socialism for the rich.”
He was angry, this Kennedy, and his voice was moving so quickly, and against such natural obstacles — but for all that so deeply in synch with the emotions of the crowd — that when he finally stopped, and drew a breath, he seemed not to realize that he was finished.
The crowd seemed not to realize he was finished.
Then he did realize, and he gave the shy Kennedy smile, and walked straight to Peter Welch and shook his hand.
And that’s when the place went mad.