Idealism in Hiding

Author: Gary Hart

“I am an idealist, without illusions.”  John Kennedy

The era of the assassin, at least those who use bullets, came to a close, praise God, fifty years ago.  To say that much has changed since is a massive understatement.  Whether the rise of the petty tyrant and the destruction of governing norms and behavior is here to stay or is a detour and frolic remains to be seen.  At the least it is safe to say that the idealistic tendency to see government as an instrument of fairness and justice is in hiding.

During the very brief Kennedy days the ideal of public service as a means to right society’s injustices (“ask what you can do..”) opened the way to the era of civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, worker safety, a war on poverty, and much else.  Today, priests of the right dismiss all this as “liberal big government” and applaud around the bonfire of its destruction.

This period of social progress, a better society, was less liberal than it was idealistic.  Now, idealism is being crushed everywhere it may be found.  The closest we have come to its return is tragically the cause of high school students appealing to their parents and the politicians they elect to save them from being killed in their schools.

The paleological media’s demented effort to crush any semblance of liberalism silently carries with it the deeper effort to crush idealism.  Any appeal to social justice is derided as a sinister cover for internationalism, world government, collectivism, and a plot against America.

Even as idealism, the struggle for a better society, is forced to hide, conservatism itself is being reinterpreted.  In its post-Rooseveltian period, that is much of the 20th century, it relied on a simple, bumper-strip doctrine: less government, lower taxes, and a big military.  This reliance on simplicity all the way through Reagan has given way to a much denser, and more dangerous mantra: nationalism, racism, consolidated wealth and power, unilateralism, and isolationism.

Conservatives of yesteryear find this theft of conservative doctrine bewildering.  They are at least as confused by the highjacking of their dogma as the rest of us are.  For they, at least as much as liberals, helped to create the post-World War II international order by which Western democracy would defend itself against any doctrine that would threaten it.

All this is brought to mind by the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death.  By most accounts he came to his idealism later in life, shortly before his tragic death.  It was seen as both an inheritance of his brother’s slowly expanding torch and his own pilgrimage towards social justice.

On this occasion we are witnessing a nostalgic longing for those days again, especially under current political conditions where any hint of idealism becomes grounds for denunciation.

Even the most serious students of American political history find it difficult to identify a similar conundrum, one in which the executive is at war with its own government’s legal systems, unilaterally abandons international security and trade agreements, and obsessively seeks to dismantle any legacy of his immediate predecessor.

Even as conservatism seeks to redefine itself by recapturing its commitment to international order and respect for law and order at home, liberalism is largely seeking redefinition through progressivism.  But, even during the Clinton and Obama years there was little appeal to the sense of idealism and civic duty that the Kennedy brothers resurrected from ancient republicanism.

Regardless of the nonsensical effort to make America great again by making it smaller, it may be that the means by which we restore our republican form of government is through appeal to citizen duty, civic virtue, and citizen participation.

Woodrow Wilson said that he knew he was an American because of his idealism.  And Justice Louis Brandeis said that “There is in most Americans some spark of idealism, which can be fanned into a flame.”

In short, the idealism hidden in the hearts of many Americans and most young people must be restored to American political life.  That was the belief of our Founders: we are a great Republic if we can keep it.



13 Responses to “Idealism in Hiding”

  1. Bill Pruden Says:

    Thank you for this moving tribute to the power of idealism. It is particularly appropriate coming from you who inspired so much of it in his his own followers while also making clear that your own idealism had been stoked by previous generations like the Kennedys among others. It is also an all too vivid reminder of the way so many of our current political leaders–starting from the top and unhappily crossing the partisan divide–are failing to draw upon the idealism of current citizens, especially, the young, but instead serve to fuel their fear, dividing rather than uniting in a way that crushes idealism. Instead, we get a new burst of cynicism. However, maybe, with the right leadership, we can turn that around. Indeed, the late comedian George Carlin was reported to have said, “inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” I think there may be some truth to that, but if our leaders would again seek to call upon our idealism, then perhaps even those who have turned to cynicism, could break through that disappointment and reclaim their idealism, and in doing so help spark the effort we need to right our ship of state.

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    There have been no appeals to idealism of late (in fact, of very late) because it does not garner votes. And it does not garner votes because, for the past thirty years, the distribution of productivity-generated wealth upward, and the hollowing out of the middle class, has been matched by the steady erosion of classical studies in our schools. Even as we speak, the humanities are dying, especially in higher education. Seed does not take on parched earth. And idealism is easily mocked among voters who have been fed a steady diet of “get what’s in it for me” while attending schools that educate them in all the means (business, economics, accounting, etc.) to do so while providing little of the classical eduation in philosophy that Madisonian democracy relies upon. I do not think it was an accident that our idealistic host of this blog was a divinity student before he became a lawyer and then a politician. Who can claim a similar resume today? I cannot name any.

  3. Gary Hart Says:

    Ms. Miller, the floor is yours, and given events of the last 48 hours I doubt you will be interested in commenting on idealism. GH

  4. Eric Jacobson Says: at 1:37:

    “The 60s assassinations were very effective. And the men that were murdered at that time were never replaced. Never replaced. And so consequently we live in this very gray universe at the moment. Where we have the wealth concentrated to an ever-shrinking amount of people. If they can find a way of taking some of the rewards that are being produced by the strong section of the economy and making sure it falls into the hands of just more Americans, that’s the sort of country that I’d like my kids to grow up in.”

    — Bruce Springsteen (aka The Boss)

    “Be careful with mediocrities–especially if you see in their eyes the dangerously energetic sparks of megalomania.”

    –Yevgeny Yevtushenko

    I recently tweeted: “The murder of left-center US varsity leaders made the past half-century of conservatism possible.” . But as someone who came of age politically starting at about the time the right-wing was “shooting its way to power” I had always been baffled (essentially ever since) that non-conservatives had allowed the assassins to profit from their murderous deeds.

    Americans are many things, but timid and cowardly are not two of them. Yet is now impossible for me to avoid the conclusion that at the level of elites both “timidity and cowardice” and their kissing cousins “opportunism” and “going along to get along” became endemic and enabled mediocrities to supplant real Democratic leaders.

    For example: What, one wonders, went through the heads of those in their late teens and early 20s in 1968 (the age when people so inclined take the initial steps to enter politics) when they witnessed the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.? The poignant memoir excerpts compiled in this Counterpunch article document the mindset of “shock and awe” those obvious political “hits” evoked in America’s politically engaged citizenry: . The trauma was profound, not least because the “hidden hands” behind the assassinations remained shrouded in mystery by cover-ups in each and every instance.

    The assassinations caused and/or coincided with such profound changes that ambitious politically-minded Americans “got the messages” about the new “red lines” politicians were bound-by, and virtually everyone entering politics thereafter heeded those lines. This pertained to both domestic and foreign policy, including in obvious areas such as RFK’s critique of American materialism (never heard again) and in non-obvious areas such as the sea-change in U.S.-Israel relations (where our honest brokerage was now “out” and “Israel right-or-wrong” including unconditional weapon sales from America’s arms merchants, was now “in”), all with profound repercussions to the present day.

    Another sign that the assassinations profoundly intimidated the political class was the manner in which mainstream Democrats passively abided the “second death” the corporate media inflicted on the character and reputation of what one punk rock band insolently referred-to as “the Dead Kennedys”. Mainstream journalists’ vicious organized detraction/defaming (which no self-respecting political party would tolerate for any prolonged length of time) continued unabated for over a decade until ex-RFK aide Adam Walinsky spoke out against the interminable smears in the fall of 1983 in a NY Times op-ed titled “An End to Debunking”: . Key passage from Walinsky’s op-ed:

    “No one can be proud to mock his own youth, his own dreams of justice and excellence however flawed. But more than this, it has been frightening. To turn away from John and Robert Kennedy, at the last, is to turn away not from their mistakes but from what they challenged us to be. That was the best that was in us, and that is what we cannot afford to bury along with the memory of those who sought, for that brief moment, to bring it forth.”

    Sen. Hart’s 1984 Democratic presidential nomination race tag-teamed with Walinsky’s article, evoking precisely that latent Kennedyesque ethos and substance and Hart’s near-victory caused Kennedy-debunking to subside (and Jesse Jackson’s third-place showing did likewise with respect to ML King, Jr. debunking). But then, tragically, the right-wing and its media empire struck back via (in sum) a preemptive presidential coup d’etat during Seven Days in May 1987, leaving Hart badly defamed (although for a flyspeck indiscretion by today’s standards) and the public stunned that yet another idealistic Democratic varsity leader had been “disappeared” by assassination albeit this time “merely” of his character.

    What never reappeared in the ~30 ensuing years (until Bernie’s 2016 candidacy) were mainstream Democratic presidential aspirants and office-holders who were genuinely unbought unbossed representatives of the American people and their best interests. All (with the further exception of Dennis Kucinich) were beholden to varying (but considerable) degrees to the conservative (Republican-lite) political agenda of the donor class. (The Kennedys essentially self-financed their campaigns with their Dad’s fortune. Hart had no such family fortune and raised just enough funds to get-by from individual donors and refused all PAC money.)

    As a consequence post-Hart Democratic presidential aspirants could neither properly advocate (as candidates) nor deliver (when in power) policies that improved the quality-of-life for the American multitudes. On the contrary, every metric of same stagnated or declined steadily for the ensuing ~3 decades. Per the George Carlin adage commenter Bill Pruden adverted-to in this thread above, this failure of purportedly progressive Democrats to “deliver the goods” turned Americans into a nation of justifiably-disappointed cynics.

    These stagnant quality-of-life metrics included (perhaps most importantly) non-raises in wages, something that occurred in significant part because these Democrats (and the Republicans with whom they shared/alternated political control of the country over 3 decades) stood idly by while U.S. corporations by the thousands relocated what Michael Dukakis called “good jobs at good wages” to “parts unknown” as the late great chef Anthony Bourdain called the poverty-stricken under-developed world he explored on his CNN show with distinction, mostly but not exclusively through the prism of food. America’s CEOs were more interested in how they could leverage these poor hungry peasants into a pliant pool of grateful exploitable windfall-profit-generating cheap labor.

    On the watches of the conflicted Democratic (mis)leaders of 1988-2016 (and that of their Republican partners in U.S.-ruling-class-socio-economic domination) the American Dream effectively died for the vast majority of the U.S. public. That is: Most Americans lost the ability to have dignified middle-class lives instead of lives of constant “quiet desperation” (ala many of playwright Arthur Miller’s fraught characters).

    By 2016 the fury at elites-across-the-board on the part of everyday Americans was palpable and the stage was set for a populist uprising. And when 2 versions emerged, a regressive and enlightened one respectively–in the language of the old Highlights Magazine I used to read in the dentist office as a youth: “Goofus” Trump and “Gallant” Bernie–Gallant wasn’t nominated and Goofus won the 2016 general election.

    As Don the Con-man’s followers have been slowly-but-steadily coming to realize since the transition (when the great bait-and-switch became evident with the appointment of what Sen. Schumer accurately dubbed a “swamp Cabinet”), the president’s administration is a Potemkin Village (a PR-based mirage) averse to- and incapable of formulating and implementing policies consistent with Trump’s populist, protectionist and non-interventionist rhetoric, policies that (if implemented in their enlightened versions) would actually improve the lives of his working class voters.

    These voters didn’t recognize in real time in 2015-2016 that they were being duped by an agent of the very conservative establishment Trump claimed to be opposing on behalf of his supporters. A pivotal challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee will be to talk these betrayed-by-Trump-voters down from their “bad acid trip” and convince them that he (or she) WILL improve the quality of their lives in a way the incumbent cartoon-president fraudulently promised-to, and cannot possibly actually do.

    One key to that will be to identify members of a Shadow Cabinet that (unlike the venal jokers and conservative sycophants surrounding the gaslighter-in-chief) have the inclination, gravitas and competence to “do the right thing” by the American people. How an idealistic presidential candidate will find such qualified people is an open question given the 50-year drought of conscientious politics during which essentially all employees of past Democratic presidents have served (virtually inherently disqualifying them from serving a future idealistic president.)

    The policy specifics called-for in a 2020 non-conservative presidential platform are beyond the scope of this comment, but I would offer one last piece of big-picture advice to a would-be idealistic Democratic presidential candidate in 2020:

    Recognize that Americans are involved in a profound domestic “family feud” that requires us to emancipate ourselves from our financial elites supremacists and all the vested and special interests that dominate our country and oppress our people (in sum: to REALLY “drain the swamp”). It is a crisis we must resolve before we can properly assess how to become productive players anew on the world stage. Fortunately, we are not as indispensable to the world as our elites think we are. Nor is the world particularly indispensable to us, given our gargantuan land mass, population and military prowess.

    The Boss (or “Bruuuuce!” as he is known to audiences at his compelling concerts) put it well in a 2012 anthem on his Wrecking Ball album: “Wherever this flag is flown we take care of our own.” See .

    Therein lies our path to a just America and great society.

  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I’m at a loss for words.

    Just kidding!

    What can stop Trump? I’m guessing just the Mueller investigation, and then only if his report is a no-holds-barred shellacking of this president, so to speak.

    I’m not sure what exactly motivated Trump’s outburst (on the basis of lies, no less) following the G7 gathering – wasn’t that a lovely summit – or the outbursts of his top two economic advisers (best wishes to Larry Kudlow but, I thought for sure he was on the verge of having a heart attack right there and then on the set of CNN’s State of the Union!) Clearly, none of them have the first clue about trade or trade deficits or they aren’t willing to be honest about it.

    Defeating Trump in 2020 (yes, I have finally given up on the notion that he won’t serve out his full first term) is going to take an about-face in the strategy of Democrats and an extraordinary Democratic presidential nominee. Short of Senator Biden and Governor Brown on the ticket (with you in a central advising role), and assuming for the sake of argument that Mueller will come up short himself, I fear we’ll all be in for another four years, God forbid. (How’s that for idealism!?)

    Let’s talk Democratic strategy!
    (Ms. Miller??)

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    You are most generous towards the United States president, Elizabeth, as citizen of a nation we have considered one of our two best allies. Whatever it is worth, a majority of American citizens is still trying to figure out what our president was up to in your country. Whatever it was, it made no sense, but we are getting used to that. For whatever it is worth, you have the apologies and best wishes from a lot of Americans.

  7. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I appreciate the sentiments, Senator Hart, and I know it’s not Trump’s America … not yet, anyway. 🙂

    An effective way to respond to Trump’s antics would be to stay clear away from engaging in kind but rather focus on his policies, explain why they are largely bad for America and offer up new ideas and an enlightened approach, domestically and internationally. This is essentially the tack that prime minister Trudeau is taking. I think world leaders are FINALLY figuring out who Trump is and I hope they see the error of their ways when it comes to their once chummy public stance with him. They need to stop smiling and laughing, in his presence and from afar.

    In figuring Trump’s actions at the G7 and, indeed, his actions throughout his presidency, particularly on the foreign policy end of things, it could very well be that Team Putin has something on Trump – something that we might presume to be very bad or something that is even worse than that. Which would certainly explain a great deal of Trump’s bizarre behavior.

    As for the Democrats – I think they would all do well to take a lesson from the Canadian prime minister, for starters, before they figure out who they are and how to go about persuading a healthy majority of Americans (including some who voted for Trump) that they deserve their votes. And, of course, they need to choose an extraordinary political leader to be their next presidential nominee.

  8. Elizabeth Miller Says:


    >>>> … but if our leaders would again seek to call upon our idealism, then perhaps even those who have turned to cynicism, could break through that disappointment and reclaim their idealism, and in doing so help spark the effort we need to right our ship of state.

    I couldn’t agree more with that and it is exactly what Democrats need to do. I have given up on Republicans and can’t imagine any of them (who are ready or capable of standing for election in 2020) possessing the requisite political courage to do that.

    That’s why I am so obsessed with Senator Biden and one more presidential run. There is no one else who I am aware of who better fits the bill. It will take an extraordinary political leader to right your ship of state after Trump and start the Herculean effort to begin to bring the country together. Indeed, the Augean stables come to mind …

  9. Elizabeth Miller Says:


    What do you think of Governor Jerry Brown as a leader?

    And, what about a Brown/Biden … I mean a Biden/Brown presidential ticket? Ah, they’d be co-presidents anyway. 🙂 I think there a few powerful folks who are nicely positioned to begin a strong campaign for such a ticket.

    As for education, I agree with what you say and would ask if civics is part of the curriculum these days in your schools. That might be a valid focus, these days.

  10. Elizabeth Miller Says:


    I’m still reading your very, very long piece, links included – I’ll be back!

  11. Neil McCarthy Says:


    I like Jerry Brown a lot. I think he has been consistent throughout his life in treating public service as a calling and in fulfilling his obligation to advance the public good. I have not always agreed with him and particularly opposed his late ’70s/early ’80s endoresement (in effect) of Prop. 13, which gutted Californaia’s higher eduucation system. But all in all, wheher he’s been Governor, Mayor, Attorney General or Governor (again), he is a dedicated public servant. He doesn’t believe in holding office just for its own sake doesn’t let ego get in the way of going good.
    And his last eight years in California have been as flawless as it gets.

    Brown/Biden or Biden/Brown would be fine. The Democrats might. however, want to think of putting Sherrod Brown (Ohio) on the ticket or Jennifer Granholm (Michigan) given what happened in those states in 2016.

    The biggest problem with Brown and Biden may be age. Brown will be 82 in 2020 and Biden will be 77. I suppose if they are healthy, that would not (and should not) be a problem. But politics is not fair and to some extent at least the public views the Democrats as a party of old policies that no longer work. I think that is wrong and that an updated New Deal (as it were) is what the country needs; such a program would involve free college education (you could tie it to a national service program and make it a sort of 21st century GI Bill), enhanced health care (either through Medicare for all or support of Obamacare), nationwide broad band (which is one of the real engines of economic growth nowadays), a new National Labor Relations Act (to greatly strengthen the ability to unionize, which is not remotely on par with what other countris have on that front), and enhanced social security (Americans, other than public sector employees, basically have no pensions; IRAs and 401ks are grossly underfunded; and baby boom poverty among the aged is, I predict, one of our next big problems). I would lead with all of this and then follow with all of the social issues positions we are known for (pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-discrimination, etc.), because I think you have to win back those Trump voters who had voted twice for Obama in order to resurrect the Obama coalition that Hillary thought would easily put her over the top but that evaporated. And I think the way to do that is with pocket-book issues.

    Returning to Biden/Brown, one question I have is whether they (as spokespersons for this “New Deal 2.1”) would be listened to by America. We may need new blood (that was one of Obama’s central strengths in 2008 and one of Hillary’s weaknesses — however unfair — in 2016). Frankly, I do not have a long list of names. Maybe Hickenlooper from Colorado (what does our host think of him) or Martin O’Malley from Maryland (who got lost in the sauce of Sanders/Clinton in the Democratic party primaries in 2008).

    In any event, to be continued I am sure . . .


    A very inspiring piece from Senator Hart.

    I am not a fan of Trump at all. Yet the summit in Singapore means he is a contender for a full four years and some.

    I unlike our terrific Elizabeth here, am not a fan of Trudeau, he has made the sister party of mine in the UK too illiberal and too old and new left for my liking,to remove abortion as a conscience matter was an outrage , to mandate a candidate or prevent their selection a disgrace.

    The piece here mentions RFK. His grandson Joe is my candidate to beat the incumbent to become the occupier of the White House, he is in my view very able and likeable , one to believe in.

  13. Eric Jacobson Says:

    I was saddened to learn just now of the recent passing of Richard Goodwin, speechwriter to the Kennedy brothers and LBJ.

    I still remember being surprised at Goodwin’s unkempt look, consisting of (as the LA Times noted in his obituary) “thick eyebrows and a mess of wavy-curly hair” when I had the privilege to meet with him once in a small group setting.

    As I wrote in my comment above in this thread, the 1968 assassinations ended (though they didn’t necessarily have to permanently) the hopes of the enlightened members of the generation of young adults in 1968 who wished to help advance what Goodwin dubbed “the Great Society”. John Hutchison, the author of a second compelling Counterpunch piece on the reaction of RFK’s supporters to his assassination, expressed the mood well:
    “The long trail of grief for Robert Kennedy is, of course, grief for ourselves. He listened to us, and he acted, ferrying our measured wrath and the nation’s bewilderment in hopes it would not be too late. I remember the cynicism I harbored in late-1968, and the glib yippie-prankster irony my activism subsequently became. But I recall something else in that transformation of trust into defeat. A radio interviewer asked me who I preferred in the upcoming Nixon – Humphrey election. “Alexander Dubcek,” I answered, and realized that anything we might express which was that unrealistic and that sensible would ensure that one day we would be back.” See (last paragraph).
    I confess to having had similar feelings 4 times relative to Sen. Hart’s political fortunes: First when his loss in the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary in April 1984 dropped the chance of his winning the Democratic Party’s nomination that year to almost nil; second upon the demise “overnight” of Sen. Hart’s first 1988 presidential campaign on May 8, 1987; third when his comeback campaign fizzled (completely) in Iowa in early 1988; and fourth in May 2003 when Sen. Hart ended the exploratory phase of a contemplated 2004 presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination with a decision not to run. (For Hart supporters, May is the cruelest month.)

    I hasten to add that it is NOT Sen. Hart’s fault that more than a few of us (some who now post comments here and many others who don’t) decided to emulate Henry Adams in the 19th century, who famously said in his autobiography (writing of himself in the third person): “As for Adams, all his hopes of success in life turned on his finding an administration to support.” By which he meant a genuinely reformist president. None ever materialized during the first Gilded Age.

    Richard Goodwin made the most of his opportunity to support and serve 2 at-least aspirationally-reformist presidents, doing so with such distinction and dexterity that the standard he set may never be surpassed.

    For one small example, Mike Baracle tells the story of Richard Goodwin’s in-person meeting with Che Guevara and Goodwin’s subsequent conveyance to JFK of a box of Cuban cigars Che gave Goodwin (to give to the president) as a gift from Fidel (one of which cigars JFK lit-up without hesitation or security concerns!?). See link at top of this comment. I wonder what the nation’s self-described “last idealist” and author of “I, Che Guevara” (written under his pseudonym John Blackthorn) featuring Che’s aging alter ego “Ernesto Blanco”), thinks of the story?

    If memory serves, in the host’s novel Mr. Blanco runs for the Cuban presidency (in a post-Castro/transitioning era) in an unstructured way. Some of us still believe the novel past can easily be American political prologue. Indeed, we have never stop believing, in Hutchison’s phrase, “that one day we would be back.”

    PS. All the above apart: Happy Father’s Day to the proud father of John Hart and Andrea Hart!

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