Forty-six years ago today, I remember running home from Little League to watch the funeral of Bobby Kennedy. I would later attend the 20th and 25th anniversary memorial masses at his grave at RFK, both of which were two of most moving masses I ever attended.
Amazingly, people lined the train tracks as his body traveled from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to his grave at Arlington Cemetery, with two people being killed as they were hit by a train as they stood on adjacent tracks.
As I look back upon that day, my sadness is not just over the great loss we as a nation suffered because of an assassin’s bullet, but over how small in comparison our politics have become.
In December 2006, as Democrats prepared to retake control of Congress and the campaign for the White House had already begun, I wrote a piece “What Would Bobby Do?”. I worked with my law professor and former RFK-staffer Peter Edelman in drafting the column to make sure I got it right. The column which ran in Huffington Post and is pasted below.
WHAT WOULD BOBBY DO
Standing before the 1964 Democratic Convention and waiting as delegates cheered for 22 minutes before he could speak a word, Bobby Kennedy clearly had a hold on the Democratic Party at a time when the party had a hold on the nation — controlling the White House and both houses of Congress and over half the voters identifying themselves as Democrats.
Although much has changed over the past 42 years, as today only one-third of voters identify themselves as Democrats, Kennedy’s passion and idealism continue to inspire his party at the same time as the release of the movie “Bobby” revives his message of hope. As the Democrats prepare to take control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, we can only wonder what Bobby would say to today’s Democrats.
“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” Kennedy opened the nation’s eyes to extreme poverty in America and was a champion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Kennedy would waste little time before expressing his shock that, despite periods of great prosperity, the number of children living in poverty today is 27 percent greater than at the time of his death.
This is where Kennedy would focus the Democrats on the bigger picture and note that it is no coincidence that the decline in Democratic Party identification has followed the eroding economic position and quality of life of the poor and middle class. For example, as late as 1976, the median family income was essentially equal to the combined total of the median home price, average college tuition and annual out of pocket medical costs. However, by 2004, these costs exceeded median income by 440 percent (but were less than one week’s earnings for the average CEO).
Too often during this period, Republican attacks on big government and anti-tax rhetoric made Democrats defensive and timid in their defense of the middle class. Republicans waged a class war and won by exploiting middle class fears, while Democrats failed to ignite their hope. To Kennedy, defending the role of government and addressing issues such as the minimum wage, health care and education are essential to Democrats restoring their status as the party of hope, opportunity and protectors of the middle class.
The “world we want to build … would be a world of independent nations … which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded [that] each government … accept its responsibility to ensure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress — not material welfare as an end in of itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes.”
For Democrats seeking guidance on an array of issues, Kennedy would explain that, while times and issues may change, defending freedom and the pursuit of justice — whether it is racial, economic, social or political — remains a constant. Kennedy, however, embraced Plato’s belief that all things are to be examined and questioned and would urge Democrats to eschew orthodoxy for results.
For example, Kennedy announced a comprehensive program to address the poverty and despair of America’s inner cities only days before his death. While his program could be considered liberal in its call for additional federal spending, it also included concepts such as enterprise zones, testing school performance, welfare reform and personal responsibility that later would be promoted by Republicans and centrist Democrats.
“Democrats have triumphed not … because we avoided problems, but because we faced them. We have won, not because we bent and diluted our principles, but because we stood fast to [our] ideals.” After six years of Republican control of Washington, there are plenty of problems that need to be faced — none bigger than Iraq. Shortly before his death, Kennedy decried the “empty vanity” of a nation that allowed its soldiers to die for a lost cause, stressing “it is our responsibility to let these men live.” The same is true today and Kennedy would commend Speaker Pelosi for seeking a prompt resolution of our involvement in this conflict.
Kennedy, however, would scold the Democrats for their failure to stand fast to their ideals, especially in their capitulation in the authorization of the Iraq War and sometimes tepid opposition to President Bush’s assault on civil liberties. Kennedy would question whether the party’s decline is not because of what the party has stood for, but instead because of what it has failed to stand for.
“People are selfish, but they can also be compassionate and generous, and they care about the country … I think people are willing to make the right choice. But they need leadership. They’re hungry for leadership.” Kennedy would view the Democrats’ monumental victory in November as a cry for both change and for leadership and an opportunity which Democrats must seize. It is time for the Democrats to combine “the audacity of hope” with the bold daring of leadership.
As Kennedy once said, “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?'” Kennedy’s parting words would emphasize that the best way to honor his memory is not by any single piece of legislation or program, but for his party to once again be the party of “why not?”