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Politics

Be like Bobby

For real change, we all have to go beyond talking points

Whether Robert Kennedy would have made a good president is unknowable. All that is certain is that during his campaign he convinced millions of Americans that he was a good man, perhaps a great man.

“They mourned him because they ached for a leader who could heal their wounded nation and restore its tarnished honor, and because they ached to feel noble again.” –Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America

Thurston Clarke’s Bobby Kennedy wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He willingly challenged the conventional beliefs of many rooms he entered.

Kennedy told Cleveland business leaders that crime reached well beyond the streets and into our boardrooms, where financial decisions can create the atmosphere that fosters poverty, which contributes to street crime.

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Thurston Clarke

He lectured conservative blue-collar Americans in rural Indiana about the poverty of despair on Native American reservations, places most had never visited or considered.

Kennedy spoke to inner-city crowds about white children with distended bellies in rural America.

It’s a somewhat familiar story for anyone who grew up with the images of grainy documentaries and the writings of Kennedy acolytes Jeff Greenfield, Jack Newfield and Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.

But it’s unusual in today’s world, where talking points rule, and it’s rare to find a politician who has stepped outside of his or her secure, invitation-only echo chamber, where handlers and supporters reinforce a candidate’s message and eliminate potential threats.

Clarke labels Bobby Kennedy an “anti-demagogue,” someone who fired up his audiences by telling them things they didn’t want to hear. It’s the sort of message that makes today’s political handlers cringe and can end a candidacy in the age of YouTube.

Kennedy was booed at campaign stops. He had fruit thrown at him by angry crowds. Today’s cable news outlets and the Internet would have a field day with such images, recycling them minute by minute.

It’s not surprising that politicians who spend a great deal of money on costly handlers are frightened to speak their minds. Yet, in an era of unending wars, record home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, disappearing jobs, shrinking oil supplies and greatly diminished expectations, we need political candidates who aren’t afraid to offer a few simple questions—who? What? Why? How?

Congress has passed multibillion-dollar legislation that’s designed to ease the plight of the millions of Americans who have lost their homes or are about to do so. But housing experts say the measure will do little to help most people trying to renegotiate their mortgages.

Democrats and Republicans have framed the oil crisis as the latest in a series of us-versus-them propositions that finds one side pushing for increased offshore drilling and the other arguing for an expansion of wind, solar, geothermal and bio-fuels. There’s no search for a middle ground, little space for nuance.

Our schools, colleges and universities lack the money to hire teachers and professors. Meantime, state and local governments spend about 75 percent of their budgets on wages and benefits. Is there a better way?

We talk of building toll roads that would allow people with money to travel faster. It’s been done before in the East and Midwest, but is that the most equitable way to build a public transportation system?

It’s a given that hundreds of thousands of Nevadans and nearly 50 million Americans live without health insurance, leaving them just one major illness from bankruptcy. Where’s the true outrage, not the sort that comes and goes with electoral cycles?

It’s time for candidates to develop the moral and intellectual strength that’s needed to raise these questions. It’s time for voters to demand it from those seeking office.

Too many of today’s state and local candidates lack a familiarity with the numbers. They cite talking points offered by political operatives, but the inability or unwillingness to go deeper doesn’t bode well for a valley, a state or a nation facing a multitude of vital challenges.

“Candidates from either party could run today on the same issues and champion the same causes that Kennedy had in 1968 since little has been done since to address them,” writes Kennedy biographer Clarke.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that someone can’t write that same sentence in 2048.

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