Thirty years ago last Thursday, Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel a half-hour after winning California’s Democratic primary. He died a little more than a day later. He was just 42.
In his short life, Kennedy made a remarkable – and courageous – transformation from McCarthyite cold warrior to the country’s most influential anti-war politician and champion of the underdog. At the time of his death, he appeared on the verge of capturing the Democratic presidential nomination. Had he lived, he might have become president. Had he lived, the United States might be a different, and a better, place today.
Kennedy’s vision, in its simplest form, was of any America of equal opportunity, a country driven by community values. One speech he made to college students in Kansas shortly before his death seems as pertinent today as it did then. Here is an excerpt:
“Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – a lack of purpose and dignity – that inflicts us all. Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, now, is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that GNP – if we should judge America by that – 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 those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonders in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. 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.”
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