I know my heroes from books, from grainy filmstrips and stories told by elders. I smell their lives in the dust on the jacket of the third biography to the left on the fourth shelf of the fifth bookcase in the den. They are my absent teachers, ever present and gone forever. I am, because they once were.
John F. Kennedy was murdered eight years before I was born. Medgar Evers was murdered eight years before I was born. Malcolm X was murdered six years before I was born. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered three years before I was born. I have borrowed as best I can attributes from all of them so as to craft within myself a complete person, a moral person, angry and resolute and generous, and yet I have spent not one second in this world while any of them were alive. The true north of my moral compass is aimed at ghosts.
Not all of my heroes are gone. Being a New Englander for nearly half a century — Boston and then New Hampshire — I have been well aware of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for a long time. The Democratic Socialist, the anomaly within the binary reality of our two-party system who kept getting re-elected to Congress by astonishing margins of victory. This year, he decided to run for president straight into the teeth of the most powerful and well-funded political dynasty the Democrats have to offer.
Nobody gave Sanders even the slimmest hope of a chance against the Clinton machine, and then he won New Hampshire by double digits and the nation went, “Oh.” The old man with a riot of white wool on his head and a bull-throated Brooklyn roar wasn’t here to get some face time on the networks. The man came to play, and started throwing chairs and flipping tables in state after state because he meant what he said, because his bones burned with rage at the injustice endured by so many people in this country. Bernie Sanders wanted to lay his body upon the gears and force the machine to stop, and he wanted us to join him, and a great many did.
Bernie Sanders is one of my heroes, a truth-teller, a genuine iconoclast in his own right. We have not seen his like in electoral politics for a long time. I would give just about anything to see him sworn into office come January, but that’s not going to happen. The math simply isn’t there, so here I sit: terrified of the GOP nominee, terrified of the Democratic nominee, and hit on all sides by those who say Sanders should bow to the inevitable and step aside.
Hell with that. Take it to the convention and hats over the windmill. At a minimum, his presence will keep Hillary Clinton from careening to the right upon first glance of opportunistic daylight. Sanders can march into the convention hall a hero, triumphant even in defeat, full in the knowledge that he became the change he wished to see in the world and left this joint a little better than he found it.
Most of my heroes were gone before I arrived, but that’s OK. Earth is more than 4 billion years old, and I have the great good fortune of knowing that I occupied this planet at the same time as Sen. Bernie Sanders.