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The Heart of the American Dream--and Nightmare

That, too, was a Wednesday morning not unlike this one, after the cogs of democracy had advanced a few careful notches, after the balloons and the champagne alike had gone flat in the night.

On that Wednesday morning, the words spurted out of a million bedside clock radios--mine was pink plastic, bought with Green Stamps--and they sundered the music of the Beatles and Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald like lightning through shaving cream: “Senator Robert F. Kennedy is in surgery after being shot in the head and critically wounded early this morning, moments after winning the California primary. . . .”

The mind had to work backward to take it in: surgery . . . shot . . . winning. More than a million votes, and millions more hopes uncounted, undone by a couple of .22-caliber bullets.

If there was ever a year to strap a kid like me into a seat for the full roller coaster tour of American politics, it was that year, 1968.

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The loathed LBJ had trembled before the people’s wrath, and chose not to run again; the peace candidate had kicked butt in the New Hampshire primary [Democracy in action! Thomas Jefferson, check this out!].

But then Martin Luther King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel, and Bobby Kennedy was murdered at the Ambassador Hotel, and Americans wearing badges whomped Americans wearing jeans outside a Chicago hotel. And politics and violence staged a parody marriage, with George Wallace running with Gen. Curtis LeMay, let’s nuke Vietnam back to the Stone Age. And finally, come November, Tweedledum beat Tweedledumber to become president, and no wonder John Steinbeck saw fit to die a month later and get the hell out of Dodge.

There was my teenage lesson in our democracy:

Violence works--meaning that it changes things. Unpredictably, capriciously, but it changes things nonetheless. A Southern actor killed Lincoln, and it was open season on Southerners (and, for a time, actors). An anarchist killed McKinley, and it was open season on anarchists. After 1968, we had new martyrs, and new gun laws, and a faith in politics that split apart, becoming more radicalized and more alienated.

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What the indispensable Alexis de Tocqueville found in America in 1831 is still true: “It is extremely difficult to excite the enthusiasm of a democratic people for any theory which has not a palpable, direct and immediate connection with their daily occupations of life.”

And sometimes, violence can connect even when politics do not.

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The day before this election day, as the candidates wore their “agent of change” halos one last time, justice--a sometimes-cousin to politics--moved ahead in the case of a little boy three years in his grave, a dead child who is already an agent of change.

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A Van Nuys judge ruled that David Helms should be tried for killing his son, Lance, by punching him in the stomach. Lance was 2 years old when he died. He was born a heroin addict, to addict parents whose community property criminal record was long and diverse.

Lance Helms would not have grown up to be a Bobby Kennedy, yet his small life effected change too. The child welfare laws that took Lance from his parents in the first place, then gave him back, were altered to give more weight to the child’s safety and less to the hallowed, hollow “family reunification.” At the price of Lance Helms’ life, someone henceforth must ask in other children’s cases: Just what kind of family is it we’re returning this child to, anyway? And so the violence that cost one life could change--even save--others.

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That other Wednesday morning, in 1968, the principle of one man, one vote, multiplied times 1,472,166, added up to zero against one man, one gun. The American triumph, the apotheosis of the individual--a figure bold, solo, fearless and heroic--is also the American vulnerability--

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someone bold, solo, fearless and evil. Even the favored descriptor for hero and villain works both sides of the moral street: Lone Eagle to Lone Ranger to Lone Gunman.

So we can have both Bobby Kennedy, and the man who killed him. We can have David Souter, a man solitary, brilliant, ascetic and destined for a career on the Supreme Court. And we can have Ted Kaczynski, a man solitary, brilliant, ascetic and destined for a career of long-distance murder and prison. And in 1798 or 1998, that is the terror and the wonder of this place.

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Patt Morrison’s column appears on Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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