Barack Obama, for what it’s worth and for whatever reason, seems to be tapping into that mysterious force. Many seem to be willing to ignore actual issues because they see in the young man from Illinois a non-specific inspirational quality. For example, many Catholics overlook his radical stand on abortion – as do many younger Evangelicals – in a way they never would with mere mortal candidates.
Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin defines populism as: “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”
He also suggests in his book, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, that populism is “more an impulse than an ideology.”
This explains candidacies that seem to transcend the race for a particular office and become, in fact, movements. That’s what was happening in 1968 with Robert Kennedy and it’s happening these days, for better or for worse, with Barack Obama.
Those of us old enough to remember those days have vivid memories of Robert Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, complete with an eloquent and moving eulogy by Ted Kennedy. And we remember that train traveling more than 200 miles from New York City to Washington, D.C. where Bobby would be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Evan Thomas, in his book: Robert Kennedy: His Life, wrote:
“As they had for Lincoln, many thousands – perhaps, for RFK, a million people – lined the tracks. The coffin, on a bier close to the floor of the observation car, could not be seen by bystanders. So Kennedy’s pallbearers lifted it up and placed it, a bit precariously, on chairs. Along the route of the train, Boy Scouts and firemen braced at attention; nuns, some wearing dark glasses, stood witness; housewives wept.”
The comparison is often made between RFK’s final trip and another one 103 years before involving slain president Abraham Lincoln. However, often overlooked is one other rail journey bearing the body of a fallen populist hero. That funeral train actually makes a better comparison to the Kennedy story.
The date is July 29, 1925 and a train leaves tiny Dayton, Tennessee. It bears the body of William Jennings Bryan – the populist and pacifist three-time Democratic presidential nominee. He died in his sleep on a Sunday afternoon a few days after the ending of his Scopes trial showdown with Clarence Darrow.
Though he had chronically fallen short of the presidency, he along the way earned the lasting loyalty and deep affection of a vast following of regular everyday people across the country. These common people felt that he was one of them and somehow, somewhere along the way, the unofficial title of “The Great Commoner” permanently attached itself to him.
During the previous five years the nation had mourned several fallen leaders: Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, and Woodrow Wilson. But those presidential state funerals fell short of the everyday glory surrounding Bryan’s semi-divine passing. As the special train made its way from town to town in Tennessee and Virginia on its way to the nation’s capital, it was met along the way by grieving throngs - people who personally identified with Bryan. What these largely rural Americans had in common with him was more than political affinity, it was deeper – something quite spiritual.
People came from miles around to rail stations in Tennessee towns like Garysville, Coulterville, Melville, Hixon, and Boyce, en route to Chattanooga - and Cleveland, Athens, and Sweetwater, beyond - all just to catch a glimpse of the flag-draped, bronze coffin. They took off their hats and bowed their heads.
When the train arrived at Knoxville shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon there were more than ten thousand people waiting at the station, and the decision was made to extend the planned stop there by twenty minutes to give the crowd time to process it all.
When they reached the next station, in Jefferson City, four young men, students at Carson-Newman College, climbed on a pile of railroad ties and sang a hymn.
The widow, Mary Baird Bryan, who was largely confined to a wheelchair due to severe arthritis, was deeply moved by the crowds she saw at each stop and “appreciated the sympathy” of those who came to pay their respects.
As night fell, the train crossed into Virginia stopping first at Bristol and then Lynchburg. At 2:15 a.m., Bryan’s daughter, Ruth Owen, was amazed to see a great crowd had gathered. She “ordered the doors of the funeral car opened so the crowd might pass through.” A few hundred made it through, but the train began to move on after ten brief minutes, disappointing hundreds of other mourners.
The journey ended with the train’s arrival in Washington, D.C. shortly before 8:00 a.m. on the 30th. It was met by hundreds of railroad employees who removed their hats in respect.
The next day, the funeral service at the church of the Presidents, New York Avenue Presbyterian, in Washington, D.C., was broadcast live across the country by radio for millions of Bryan’s fellow-citizens to hear. Then the bronze coffin was carried through the capital city and across the Potomac toward Arlington Cemetery. There “they laid the great pacifist to rest among the bodies of soldiers.” Flags flew at half mast across the country.
Barack Obama wants to claim the mantle of John Kennedy. But his candidacy is more like that of Robert Kennedy – with a little William Jennings Bryan in there somewhere. The issues today are not those of forty or a hundred years ago, but the “impulse” is very much in evidence. Political boundary markers are being obscured by a populist fog and redefined faster than pundits and other cultural surveyors can chart.
Obama is, in fact, a very effective populist – probably the most skillful one to come along in decades. That he gets so many to abandon or suspend long-held positions on this or that because he inspires them is quite impressive.
And not a little scary.