Fifty years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy launched his presidential campaign
I spoke on the Senate floor about his life and legacy.
I am here today to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s monumental campaign for President. Kennedy’s brief, tragic run at the Presidency has had an enduring impact on so many generations of Americans. The reason, I think, is because Robert Kennedy had the courage to challenge a divided nation to face up to its failings. To challenge a divided people to acknowledge their own contributions to our nation’s ills. To challenge us to step back from the stale, cheap politics of the moment. To challenge us to do better by each other.
History may not repeat, but it often rhymes. Conditions are different now, but a lot of the anxiety that swept through the country in 1968 echoes the anxiety of today — especially the economic anxiety felt by millions of Americans who are working harder than ever but feel opportunity slipping away from themselves and their children.
Too often, our political and business leaders refuse to see this. Instead, they hide behind macroeconomic statistics, using them as a shield to dismiss the concerns of the American people as faulty, wrongheaded, or even nonexistent.
But Robert Kennedy understood that America’s national economy is not the same as the economic well being of its people. In 1968, in a speech at the University of Kansas, he spoke eloquently about the differences between them. And here is what he said:
[Our] 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.
Consider three stats: corporate profits, the stock market and unemployment.
Today, corporate profits are up — corporate profits that count gun sales from manufacturers whose weapons are used to massacre children in our schools and our streets. Corporate profits that count revenues from drug companies when they quadruple prices for the sick and the desperate. Corporate profits that count revenues of banks like Wells Fargo as they rip off millions of American consumers.
The stock market is up as giant companies pocket trillions in taxpayer money stolen from middle class families. The market is up as CEOs shut down plants and factories here in the United States and move them overseas. The market is up as business leaders flush with cash turn their backs on workers while they plow millions and even billions into stock buybacks to goose investors’ returns and CEOs bonuses
Unemployment is down, but wages have barely budged in a generation. Unemployment is down, but for millions of people the exploding costs for housing, for healthcare, for childcare mean that it now takes two jobs to do what one job covered a generation ago. And unemployment is down, but the numbers fail to count the millions living in rural and urban American communities alike that have given up the search for a job.
Corporate profits, the stock market, unemployment — These statistics tell us everything about the American economy. But they tell us very little about the lived experience of today’s Americans. They do not speak to the citizen who fears police violence or the police officer who fears gang violence, or the immigrant who cannot speak out about sexual assault at the hands of her boss, or the toxic rhetoric flowing through our politics and seeking to turn neighbor against neighbor. They do not account for our devotion to our communities, to our churches, to our children. They tell us virtually nothing about our trials, or our challenges, or our hopes, or our principles.
Robert Kennedy understood this. He knew that we cannot simply run our economy for those at the top and assume that it will solve America’s problems. In the intervening years since his speech, America ran that experiment anyway — and watched it fail miserably.
It’s time to try something different. It’s time to challenge each of us to do better by each other — to see the dignity in one another — to put our values first. I believe we can make that Robert Kennedy’s legacy, and I am proud to fight for it.