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Books Not Bombs: Robert Kennedy in Indiana

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"Together we can make ourselves a nation that spends more on books than on bombs, more on hospitals than the terrible tools of war, more on decent houses than military aircraft."

Robert Kennedy said that on March 24, 1968 on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

He was running for president, and my book The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now, includes this quote and many of his campaign speeches, from his announcement on March 16 to his victory speech June 4.

I chose the quote about books and bombs as a epigraph for the first edition in 2004.

When my publisher, Basic Books, came to design a front cover for the revised paperback edition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the campaign, we decided to add the quote to the already existing picture of RFK reaching out to a crowd from the 2004 edition.

The new edition is just out, and I am so happy that those words are on the cover. I want as many people as possible to see them, and think about them, and act on them.

I would like to plaster them all over the country.

"Together we can make ourselves a nation that spends more on books than on bombs, more on hospitals than the terrible tools of war, more on decent houses than military aircraft."

Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy was campaigning in Indiana, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are doing this week.

RFK's base was the poor and working class, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, blacks, and working-class whites. Campaigning in Indiana, he was "wildly cheered by angry blacks, then cheered with equal enthusiasm by blue-collar whites who professed to hate blacks," wrote Evan Thomas wrote in Robert Kennedy: His Life.

As we watch Clinton and Obama campaign in Indiana, I would like us to think of that coalition that Robert Kennedy forged between the poor and the working class, including all the races. Is such a thing possible today?

When people read the words of Robert Kennedy from his campaign, I hope they will think about how we can turn the country away from the violence of a permanent state of war that Robert Kennedy warned against. I hope they will remember what he said, again in Indiana, the night of Martin Luther King's assassination forty years ago: "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

And what he said in California, too: "Together we can make ourselves a nation that spends more on books than on bombs, more on hospitals than the terrible tools of war, more on decent houses than military aircraft."

Perhaps some may think that these ideas are impossible to have today. We have witnessed forty years of perpetual war. The military-industrial complex has us in a stranglehold. Our government is still "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," to quote Martin Luther King.

But these ideas pre-date Kennedy, going back to Gandhi and back further to the ancient Greeks. They are ideas, in other words, without the borders of time. They always come back to haunt us and help us.

With the state of perpetual war, the good things in life are impossible: simple necessities for billions of the world's inhabitants, the right of a good education and free expression.

Since 1968, the gap between rich and poor has become a chasm. Then, the ratio between the average salaries of the heads of companies and the average workers in them was 20 to 1; now it is 400 to 1. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King preached the social gospel.

The assassinations of Kennedy and King kept them from saying more. What they had to say in 1968 before they were silenced becomes thus all the more necessary to examine, contemplate, and act on.

After Kennedy was shot, his last words were, "Is everybody else all right?" He lost consciousness and died 26 hours later. His last words echo thus in our minds.

By the way, Bobby won the Indiana primary on May 7, with 41 percent of the vote, to 27 for Eugene McCarthy and 31 for the Hubert Humphrey stand-in, Governor Roger Branigan.

This is my first blog post. More later.