Bobby Kennedy may have been even more of an idealist than his brother John. (And when I use the word “idealist” I mean it as a high compliment.) In a campaign speech in Lawrence, Kansas, (a few months before he was assassinated) he called on Americans to live by the ideals which define us.
I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one – neither industry, nor labor, nor government – has cared enough to help.
I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of America, I think we can do better here also.
I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms – without heat – warding off the cold and warding off the rats.
If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.
And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. — JFK Library: Robert Kennedy Speeches
President Obama is grappling with this dichotomy today. Political power is concentrated in the hands of those who are obsessed with the GNP and materialism, and their influence seems to have caused the president to lose sight of the ideals we hoped would drive his presidency. The hope and change he promised seemed rooted in the idealism that Robert Kennedy expressed in Lawrence over 40 years ago. I remain hopeful that Obama can recapture the vision and inspiration that seemed so present in his campaign.