Robert Kennedy’s Example

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tags: RFK, Kennedys

Mr. Palermo is the author of In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia University Press, 2001).

Thirty-three years ago, after winning the California presidential primary, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was struck down and violently removed from the center of Democratic politics at the worst possible moment for the party. By June 1968, the Democrats' once sturdy New Deal coalition was buckling under the Vietnam War's exposure of the weighty contradictions in Cold War liberalism. The party was divided, and Kennedy was mid-way through a high-stakes process of pulling the party apart so that it might be put back together again under his leadership. He hoped that through grassroots citizen mobilization the emergent peace wing of the party could shunt aside and replace the committed hawks among the party leadership, who controlled the Democratic National Committee and all of the levers of power of the Presidency.

Well, it didn't work out that way. On June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was dead, and it was the peace wing that ended up being shunted aside at the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. Richard Nixon's 1968 victory over Hubert Humphrey, who had toed the line on Lyndon Johnson's war until it was politically fatal, ushered in -- save for Jimmy Carter's single term -- a quarter century of Republican domination of the White House, and along with it a prolonged identity crisis for Democrats.

Some of Kennedy's insights about American society are as relevant today as they were thirty-three years ago. In March 1968, he pointed out to an audience in Des Moines, Iowa that the economic yardstick of the Gross National Product" counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our streets of carnage. It counts the special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of natural wonder to chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and television programs which glorify violence to sell toys to our children." Two months later, the 42-year-old Senator and presidential candidate said:"In my judgment it is imperative that we lessen the gulf which divides those who have and those who do not. I do not believe our nation can survive unless we are able to accomplish a change which brings with it an acceptable way of life for all. If one segment of our society is impoverished, it impoverishes us all."

In the decades since Kennedy's untimely death, it seems that Democratic leaders have ceded to the Republicans the nation's political agenda on taxes, deficits, crime, welfare, military spending, and class inequality. This is an unfortunate development because for millions of working people who are struggling to get by, and have been losing ground for the last twenty years, the Democratic Party is all they have.

In February 1968, in an often overlooked but watershed speech, Kennedy told the nation that it was"time for the truth" about the Vietnam war, and outlined what he called the five deceptive illusions upon which Johnson's Southeast Asia policy was based. He did so in a time of intense polarization with the nation at war, and a large percentage of the population feeling a martial spirit.

Where are the Democratic leaders today who are not afraid to tell the nation that it is"time for the truth" on a host of current issues such as the unfairness of regressive tax cuts, the injustices of the prison industrial complex, the obscene rate of incarceration of young African-American men, the waste and senselessness of the"Star Wars" missile defense scheme, and the disgrace that one in five children in this country still lives in poverty. Instead of falling over each other to take credit for the least offensive parts of the GOP's agenda, Democrats should get back to basics, and look to Robert F. Kennedy's three years in the Senate for some new ideas about the meaning of leadership.

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NMC - 8/26/2001

A wonderful article, and very true...

How long will we have to suffer with watching the Democratic party slide more and more to the center and beyond, watch them idly sit by and allow Republican agendas to pass? There are a great many people in the U.S. whose only voice is the Democratic Party and in recent memory it has failed to answer those voices, to represent, or to amplify those voices.

Like them or not, the Democratic Party needs to get back the Kennedy spirit. They were not unsullied, they were perfect by no means, but their love of country, their dedication to change for the better, I believe cannot be questioned. They had a vision of America that was beautiful, a vision that cannot be realized when poverty and hate are so rampant, when government caters to the elite and alienates those who need its help the most. There needs to be an infusion of liberal ideas in government and a revival of those ideas and goals set by Robert Kennedy...

Joshua L. Chamberlain once said

"A government has something more to do than to govern and levy taxes to pay the governors. It is something more than a policy to arrest evil and punish wrong. It must also encourage good, point out improvements, open roads of prosperity and infuse life, into all right enterprises. It should combine the insight and foresight of the best minds of the state for all the high ends for which society is established and to which man aspires..."

Gerald W. Brooks - 8/23/2001

You say Kennedy called for the TRUTH, that Robert, John or their living brother would tell the Truth would be great - the truth about M. Monroe would be nice; about Mary Jane would be nice.
The Truth is that the Democrats have spent S.S. funds all through Clintons presidency, that Clinton increased the National Debt as much as Reagan.
The Truth is that Democrats are Socialist - and from FDR to Clinton they have purchased peoples votes by convincing them that the Government knows best how to and 'will' take care of them.
Personal Responsibility is not part of their - every body is a Victim Cult.
Yes, it would be nice for the Democrats to Tell the Truth, it would be interesting to hear them answer a question with a Yes or No instead of with a question or a spin line.
G. W. Brooks