There is a major failing in today's political discourse. What is too often missing in our national debates is the moral dimension. Although, as a candidate, Barack Obama showed signs of changing the framework of Presidential politics, the last American political figure who insistently and credibly injected morality into politics was Robert F. Kennedy. In the more than forty years since his voice was stilled, no national leader has truly challenged us to apply the test of moral values to our search for solutions to domestic and global problems.
I had the opportunity to work for Robert Kennedy in his Senate office in New York. My time with him was too brief: from November 1967 to June 1968. As a political science major at Fordham University, I served initially as a constituent case aide and then did double duty on his Presidential campaign, in which I was responsible for coordinating campaign materials that were distributed to field volunteers. (I have since told many that I had a "material" role in his campaign.)
His office attracted pleas for help from the most vulnerable of New Yorkers. I vividly remember hearing from single mothers in Harlem, whose nights were regularly spent protecting their children from being attacked by rats, to elderly residents of Queens, whose doctors were refusing to accept Medicare's payments in full. (Indeed today, increasing numbers of physicians are repeating this reluctance to treat Medicare patients.) I would regularly call landlords, physicians, and others on behalf of Senator Kennedy asking what they were going to do to make life a bit more bearable for those who were suffering. Invariably, I would hear the words: "You mean to tell me that Robert Kennedy cares about this?" I would get notes from him in tiny scrawled writing asking how we had helped each writer or caller. We seldom failed to get action on each individual situation, and then preserved the patterns of evidence for potential systematic solutions in a Kennedy Administration.
To me, working for him proved that appeals to morality, backed by the power of a political legacy and a future Presidency, could make a real difference in people's anguished lives.
In so many areas, Robert Kennedy based his political positions on a simple, fundamental, and passionate appeal to what was the right thing to do. The moral value system that underlied his politics emphasized that each of us had a responsibility to each other. In the age-old tug of war between individual freedom and social justice, he pressed for the latter. He confronted college students about the scandal of those without a higher education having to serve in the military. He scolded medical students about their indifference to the needs of the minority poor. He pressured corporate executives to create jobs in inner city communities like Bedford Stuyvesant. He raised uncomfortable questions, like "suppose God is black?" And he dared to accuse a Democratic Administration of appealing to the darker impulses of the American spirit by playing God in waging a destructive war in a tiny Far East nation.
One of his favorite quotes was Dante's that "the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in a time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality." Today, I believe he would say that we have neutralized morality.
When was the last time an American political leader framed a policy issue in terms of our social conscience? Discussions about health care, the future of retirement, the education of our children, and the distribution of wealth, inequality, and poverty seem devoid of moral idealism. We talk instead about the accommodation of interests, as though each has an equal claim and as though the paramount standard must be economic self-interest. As a result, we are still shamefully far from what RFK defined as the essence of the American ideal: "a social order shaped to the needs of all our people."
President Obama still has the opportunity to resurrect this framework, but his time to do so is slipping away. As just one example, his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform seems ready, under the pretense of debt reduction, to target programs like Social Security and Medicare, which have done more to reduce human suffering than any other U.S. domestic policies. Wouldn't it be nobler to redirect the Commission to assess the pressing needs of various segments of the American population, along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security of the 1930s, and proposed a comprehensive, coherent national approach?
I can imagine Robert Kennedy responding to the incessant financial cries of "too big to fail" by asking us instead to concentrate on those "too frail to fail." Where is that voice today?