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Speaking the truth in the age of Trump


On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Simon Royal reflects on the place for beauty and truth in the brutal, fork-tongued world of politics.

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For better or worse, some images are indelible: the Napalm girl in Vietnam, that Holden hanging over the maw of the Tasman bridge…

Back in the early ’90s, when I was a young(ish) post-grad student, I came across a simple black and white cartoon that’s still with me today.

A bedraggled Uncle Sam, shell-shocked by Vietnam, the civil right crisis and the gathering Watergate scandal, is huddled by the torch on John F Kennedy’s grave. It seems his only comfort.

Sam’s doing what countless have done over the years in Arlington cemetery: watching the eternal flame’s liquid-like dance and thinking, ‘Look at all we’ve lost.’

The Australian had published the cartoon in November 1973, marking the 10th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder.

Its power lies in the invocation of a golden age, though the term golden has recently suffered an unfortunate drenching of innuendo. In this context, though, it means a time of goodness and greatness, compared to the general lousiness of the here and now. It’s such an utterly seductive notion, which is why it lies at the heart of both good stories and simple, effective political slogans. You do remember Make America Great Again? But rarely is such a rendering an accurate history, where events are more nuanced than black, white or golden… and even orange.

It’s a bit premature at this point, as some have done, to be calling time on the American experiment. The Republic has endured serious self inflicted wounds before. Trumpageddon may yet unfold, but The Donald has a way to go to match the high crimes and misdemeanours of Richard Nixon. We learned just two weeks ago that Nixon was involved in efforts to scuttled the Johnson administration’s peace negotiations in Vietnam, lest they cruel his election prospects. Granted it doesn’t have the same delicious karmic qualities as piddling Russian prostitutes, but it has other virtues such as being a verified fact and vastly more serious.

The union also survived the civil war, with its death toll roughly equal to that of all of America’s foreign conflicts combined.

Nevertheless, watching Trump take the oath of office will be like seeing Bobo The Clown photoshopped into The Last Supper. To the millions who voted against him it will be a shocking act of vandalism. Though fewer in number, to the millions who voted for him it’ll be just what they wanted: someone who, like them, doesn’t belong in this picture.

Leaving aside the strangeness of a world where a billionaire is seen as outside ‘the system’, it’s possible Trump’s presidency will improve the lives of Americans disenfranchised by economic and social change. It’s possible that, instead of a self-aggrandising word salad (not my term, sadly), he offers an inaugural address of coherent vision and beauty. It’s just that in his first 70 years Donald J Trump has shown scant evidence of an interest in, or aptitude for, any of those things.

Trump’s not the first unlikely champion of the underdog. Almost 50 years ago another wealthy, privileged man spoke to America’s legions of dispossessed. Today, of all days, it’s worth looking at what that man said, and indeed the beauty with which he said it. Beauty in politics has been in short supply of late.

I’m not thinking of JFK’s inaugural speech. Unlike Meryl Streep, it is overrated.

Rather it’s a few, mostly extemporaneous words delivered by his brother Robert on the night Martin Luther King was murdered.

Kennedy spoke uncomfortable truths. That’s bravery. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t.

The younger Kennedy was in the midst of his 1968 presidential campaign, a frenzied and often times chaotic affair. Kennedy said and did things defying conventional political wisdom.

As RFK’s plane landed in Indianapolis, he and his entourage learned the terrible news of King’s death.

He got onto a flatbed truck in the middle of a largely black neighbourhood and spoke.

It’s not soaring oratory, indeed at times it’s almost halting. That, and the softness of his voice, help make it genuinely beguiling. It’s quite something for a man known, with good reason, as ruthless Bobby for much of his career.

Kennedy told this crowd of angry disenfranchised black people – people disproportionately the subject of violence  – that they equally were responsible for the path America might take that night.

He spoke of his own burden to make wise decisions, given he too could understand the anger that comes from losing someone to violence.

He didn’t, as so many do, invest in himself the sole agency of change.

Kennedy spoke uncomfortable truths. That’s bravery. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t.

Afterwards the crowd did something remarkable. They went home. It’s been long and widely reported that Indianapolis was one of the few major American cities not to have had riots that night.

Robert Kennedy took this angry group and five minutes later had moved them to another place.

He did it with words. They are the most valuable currency for change that a politician can possess. They have been steadily devalued long before Trump, a process that unarguably has helped pave his way.

The degradation occurs every time a leader, for example, promises no carbon tax and then introduces one. Or characterises that as a big fat tax, when it’s exactly what they’d called for earlier. Or dissembles about the causes of statewide power blackouts. Or pontificates about mutual obligation in the welfare system while impulse shopping for apartments.

Trump’s not the first to treat meaning and facts as mutable, though he does bring an unmatched athleticism to the task.

It’s often said Robert Kennedy was the only white man in America who could have addressed that crowd, the only man who could have delivered that speech.

The last contention is certainly true. There’s a blood price to RFK’s words. It was paid by John Kennedy in Dallas. I think part of RFK’s pain was that he knew he’d been anointed by that act of violence; given an ability to say thing others couldn’t.

But that shouldn’t shroud a crucial point. Robert Kennedy chose to give this speech. He’d been asked not to. People were worried about the crowd’s volatility. And they remembered Dallas.

In a peculiar form of reverse snobbery, Kennedy was later quizzed over why on earth he’d quote Greek poetry to an inner-city black audience.

Kennedy was flawed, but in speaking from his wounds the crowd saw and heard truth.

The understated reference to his brother’s loss astounded many closest to him. They’d not heard RFK speak of it publicly before, and too soon enough they never would again.

It’s not fair to say that no one in public life today makes choices like Robert Kennedy; they do. It’s just that too many choose the other way, the word salad way. Perhaps they might reflect on that now.

That night in Indianapolis Kennedy showed that what we say, and how we say it, matters greatly.

And, I think, he showed beauty always trumps ugly.

Simon Royal is an Adelaide journalist.

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