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What would Robert Kennedy say about 2005?

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/opinion/13200174.htm What would Robert Kennedy say about 2005? PLANET S MORAL LEADERSHIP IS AT STAKE, AGAIN By
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 19, 2005
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      http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/opinion/13200174.htm
      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.
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