Dec 2, 2005

Eulogy for Penn Kemble

Carl Gershman, President
The National Endowment for Democracy

Washington D.C.

Mal asked for some reflections about Penn, and I confess that Penn's illness and then his passing have caused me to reflect a great deal about him, about our movement, and ultimately about ourselves.

I didn't meet Penn until I joined the movement in the summer of 1968, just after he and other members of the so-called realignment caucus (meaning they wanted to work within the Democratic Party to advance democratic socialist goals) had taken over the Socialist Party. I had been recruited by Paul Feldman who had already introduced me to Sandy, Yetta, Genie and others at the UFT; and even before I met Penn, while I was waiting outside Bayard's office one day on 125th Street hoping that I might be called on to help with the Poor People's Campaign, I had been given a stern working over by a young fellow named Josh Muravchik on the subject of communism, about which I knew very little.

The movement was a whole new world for me – the people, the ideas, the focus, the mission. It offered a way to get engaged on the big issues, to learn about politics and ideology and Stalinism, and to carve out a meaningful political identity against the backdrop of Sixties radicalism, which was rapidly spinning out of control.

Penn was clearly one of the young and very talented leaders of the movement. He stood out in my mind not just because he did not, like so many others, come out of the predominantly Jewish Socialist milieu of New York, but because he was a high-powered, no-nonsense political operator – intellectually astute, politically and strategically calculating, a terrific writer, able to generate ideas and actions that might actually be taken seriously in the big world of mainstream politics. Once, when he and Charlotte had Laurie and me over for dinner, he told us that we had to be OWdacious, pronouncing the word in a way that gave it shock value. And OWdacious he was. He would go into the big arenas – the Democratic Party, international youth politics, the world of Washington – and operate like a real professional, projecting ideas, building coalitions, and broadening our reach into areas that seemed to lie beyond the scope of our small movement, which was just then making the transition from sectarianism to serious political engagement in the major issues of our time.

When Penn went to Washington I thought that he might get absorbed into the mainstream. Little did I know that it was his OWdacious idea to bring the mainstream closer to him – and to us. What I saw in Penn, as he moved from one political job to another and eventually into an important position in the Clinton Administration, was that he never left the movement. Even when he was in the government he tried to advance the same ideas that he worked for in the movement. He pushed for greater emphasis on civic education in the growing US effort to aid democracy, arguing that ideas are important, and that the struggle for democracy had to be waged fundamentally in the arena of culture, values and ideas.

And when he left the Administration, he didn't skip a beat – leaving aside potentially lucrative Washington jobs to devote himself entirely to drawing the SD circle and its periphery back together, pushing new ideas for a labor movement that was in a deep crisis, trying to address the liberal retreat from liberal internationalism, and looking to fashion a new transatlantic network of democratic intellectuals and practitioners, a kind of latter day Congress for Cultural Freedom.

It was the last initiative that I worked on with Penn more closely than anything we had worked on together since our SD days. And then, suddenly, he took ill. It happens, sometimes, that it's only when someone faces a grave illness that you begin to appreciate who they really are, and my appreciation for Penn grew as I watched him deal with his illness. He was not just courageous, positive, and forward-looking. He also returned to fundamentals. And as his illness grew worse, I watched as his tough exterior melted away and revealed more clearly than ever before the essential Penn – his devotion to the movement, his loyalty to old friends, including those like Paul Feldman who had already passed from us, and his core, unyielding and uncompromising commitment to our small movement's large and fundamental democratic values.

And I found myself being drawn back, and remembering Paul and Tom, and Joan and Irwin, and Max and Yetta and Bayard and Donnie, and so many others, including those, like Lane and Al, who were not formally part of the movement but who were with us in every other way. And I realized how special this movement was that I used to take almost for granted, not just the political home and family and mission, but especially the people, our comrades. The movement gave us a way to be committed to and to act upon fundamental values without compromising our awareness of complex realities. It enabled us to become democratic citizens of a very difficult and complex world.

At the Sidney Hook conference, which we organized at Penn's request, everyone seemed to come back to something Sidney said at the opening of his first address to the SD almost three decades ago. He distinguished a Social Democrat from mainstream political democrats by saying that for the Social Democrat, “democracy is not merely a political concept but a moral one. It is democracy as a way of life.” I might just add that a Social Democrat is someone who puts the democratic mission first, before his or her own ego or self-interest, and who is also prepared to recognize, analyze, and confront honestly and with integrity every obstacle that lies in the way of its advancement, so that we might effectively extend solidarity to all those who are struggling for democracy through democratic means.

That was Penn. That's who, I hope, we are or can aspire to be, with the knowledge that we have a better chance to succeed if we can understand and remember the kind of person Penn was. I miss him more than I ever thought I would, and I feel it an obligation to try to live up to the standard that he set.