What would Robert Kennedy say about 2005?
What would Robert Kennedy say about 2005?
PLANET'S MORAL LEADERSHIP IS AT STAKE, AGAIN
By Joseph A. Palermo
On Nov. 20, 1967, when Robert Francis Kennedy celebrated his 42nd
birthday, the country was enflamed in a costly war in Vietnam; the
riots of the previous summer had exposed the depth of poverty in
America's cities; and the Democratic Party, like the country itself,
was bitterly divided.
Today, on the eve of what would have been Robert F. Kennedy's 80th
birthday, we find the nation facing a similar set of problems. The war
in Iraq is growing more violent each day with no foreseeable finish;
Hurricane Katrina laid bare the poverty that afflicts 36 million of
our citizens, (while the federal government's lackadaisical response
exposed latent racism); and the Democratic Party, like the country as
a whole, is polarized over the fundamental issues of the United
States' role in the world, and the government's responsibility to
alleviate the suffering of the poor.
In June 1967, Kennedy had visited several European capitals; he sensed
``a decline'' in U.S. ``leadership around the world because of the war
in Vietnam.'' Later, when he announced his candidacy for president,
Kennedy said that ``the moral leadership of this planet'' was at stake.
The current rise of anti-Americanism internationally -- the result of
the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, the torture of detainees, and the
violations of the Geneva Conventions in the prisons of Guantánamo --
have dishonored the United States, and shows the moral leadership that
was so important to Kennedy has been diminished.
On Feb. 8, 1968, Kennedy said of South Vietnam: ``We have an ally in
name only. We support a government without supporters. Without the
efforts of American arms, that government would not last a day.''
Does anyone today truly believe that the current government in Iraq
could exist without the buttressing of American troops?
Kennedy's infusion of truth into the war debate followed three years
of lies and misinformation from the Johnson administration. Kennedy
had the courage to admit he had been wrong about the prospects for
success in Vietnam.
The Democrats who initially backed the Iraq war should concede their
past mistakes and dedicate themselves, as Kennedy once did, to ending
what is clearly a misguided and debilitating foreign adventure.
In the mid-1960s, the riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere
exposed the poverty and racism of the inner cities. Kennedy recognized
the underlying social conditions that produced the violence, and he
called for vigorous anti-poverty efforts at the federal level.
``I do not believe our nation can survive,'' he said, ``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.''
Last month, in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina exposed many of these
same social conditions that necessitate federal action, not only for
reconstruction, but to address the underlying causes of poverty.
In 1968, Kennedy was the chief foil to Richard Nixon's Southern
strategy of fueling white backlash and dividing African-Americans and
low-income whites. Since 2000, George W. Bush and Karl Rove have
deliberately divided the country for short-term political gain.
Kennedy tried to create a counterweight to the politics of
polarization that now dominate our political discourse.
Perhaps the most useful lesson we can learn from Kennedy is the value
he placed on the role of each individual in shaping a better world.
``Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,'' he told a
mixed-race audience in South Africa, ``but each of us can work to
change a small portion of events. . . . Each time a man stands up for
an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against
injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each
other from a million different centers of energy and daring those
ripples can build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls
of oppression and resistance.''
The progressive forces in our country are only as strong as the
citizen-activists who form their ranks.
``Don't tell me what you cannot do,'' Robert Kennedy used to tell his
staff, ``Tell me what you can do!''
Democrats and Progressives might take up Kennedy's challenge, each of
us, working together, to end the divisions and build a more just
society; or, as Kennedy used to say, quoting the ancient Greeks, ``to
tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.''
JOSEPH A. PALERMO (jpalermo@...) is the author of ``In His Own
Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy'' (Columbia,
2001), and is currently writing a biography of Robert Kennedy for the
Library of American Biography (Longman). He is an assistant professor
of American history at California State University-Sacramento. He
wrote this article for the Mercury News.