Robert Kennedy’s abbreviated run for the presidency in 1968 has assumed almost mythical proportions in American memory. His campaign has been romanticized because of its tragic end, but also because of the foreign and domestic crises that surrounded it. Yet while most media coverage initially focused on Kennedy’s opposition to the Vietnam War as the catalyst of his candidacy, another issue commanded just as much of his attention. That issue was poverty. Stumping across the country, he repeated the same anti-poverty themes before college students in Kansas and Indiana, loggers and women factory workers in Oregon, farmers in Nebraska, and business groups in New York. Although his calls to action sometimes met with apathy, he refused to modify his message. “If they don’t care,” he told one aide, “the hell with them.”
As Edward R. Schmitt demonstrates, Kennedy’s concern with the problem of poverty was not new. Although critics at the time accused him of opportunistically veering left in order to outflank an unpopular president, a closer look at the historical record reveals a steady evolution rather than a dramatic shift in his politics. From the critical West Virginia primary in his brother’s 1960 presidential campaign through the public debate triggered by the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America to his embrace of LBJ’s war on poverty, Kennedy became increasingly engaged with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised in America.
According to Schmitt, Kennedy’s approach to the problem, although fueled by moral outrage, was primarily political. First as attorney general and later as senator from New York, he reached out not only to those on the margins of American society, but also to business leaders and political elites who recognized the threat poverty posed to the nation’s long-term stability. Guided by a communitarian vision of government, he believed that a coalition of the powerful and the powerless could strengthen local communities and link them in to a new form of American federalism. Even though that vision was never realized, President of the Other America provides a revealing glimpse of the kind of president Robert Kennedy might have been.
“Schmitt offers an inside view of the problem of poverty, a look at how Robert Kennedy organized various political, social, and business elites around programs and special initiatives that he endorsed or, with help, originated. His carefully drawn and resourceful reconstruction of RFK’s intellectual and emotional journey makes an important contribution, as does his notion that Kennedy’s strategic vision placed him firmly in the camp of communitarian thinkers.”James W. Hilty, author of Robert Kennedy: Brother Protecto