The Greatest President We Never Had

06/11/2008 01:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

(From Norman MacAfee's Introduction to The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now (Basic Books), a new revised expanded paperback edition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.)

It has been forty years now since the assassination of Senator Robert Francis Kennedy. In many ways he was the greatest president we never had. During the 81 days of his presidential campaign, from March 16 to June 4, 1968, RFK envisioned a way out of perpetual war and perpetual poverty.

His murder sent a message of hopelessness, that nothing was possible anymore. And the country began its forty-year lurch to the right, to vast income disparity and preemptive wars.

As he campaigned across the country, Kennedy outlined a redemptive vision for America and the world that rings true today. The Gospel According to RFK tells the story of Kennedy's campaign and its ideas through excerpts from his speeches. We see him reasoning that the war in Vietnam is destroying the country it was supposed to save, and that the war has to end without American victory. We see him telling college students that their draft deferments are unfair, forcing other young men, usually poor and working class, who could not afford college, to fight and perhaps to die in Vietnam. We see him outlining plans to help communities get out of poverty and stay out.

We see him championing Native Americans and migrant workers. The subjects of these speeches read like a litany of what we must do now: end the war; decrease the gap between rich and poor; honor the importance of dissent especially in time of war; repair the damage done to our relations with our allies because of the war; create a new politics of greater participation; build successful communities in poor areas; protect our natural resources; increase the number of small farms; and eliminate classism and racism.

Kennedy realized that the greatest domestic problem was income inequality, not skin color: "It's class, not color. What everyone wants is a job and some hope." Because of this insight, this understanding, he was "wildly cheered by angry blacks, then cheered with equal enthusiasm by blue-collar whites who professed to hate blacks," making for a potentially transformative alliance that has gone unrepresented since his death. Since 1968, although blacks and Hispanics have more rights, the gap between rich and poor is far vaster than it was then. In the 1960s, the ratio between the average salaries of the heads of companies and the workers in them was 20 to 1; now it is 400 to 1.

Robert Kennedy's death was a disaster for progressive politics in America and around the world. He had a good chance of getting the Democratic nomination and winning the election. He campaigned on ending the war soon after his inauguration through negotiation, not escalation, and we could expect the war to have ended by late 1969. Then, the opportunities forgone because of the war could have been seized: narrowing the gap between rich and poor, making headway in health care, education, and all the other things that make life good. Instead, Johnson's vice president, former Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, won the nomination, but enough Democratic votes went to the racist third-party candidacy of George Wallace, cutting into the Southern Democratic vote, to narrowly elect Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War continued for another seven years -- through Watergate and the resignation of Nixon under threat of impeachment, and into the presidency of Gerald Ford. In the end, 3.2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed in the war, two-thirds of them dead after 1968. And the United States, which had started the war, lost it.

President Nixon went on to sponsor coups in Chile, destroying democracy there for twenty years, and in Cambodia. Onto that neutral country, widening the war in Vietnam, he unleashed the most intensive bombing in history up to that time. The daily devastation from the sky drove Cambodians -- a traditionally peace-loving, cultured people -- insane, if a people can be said to go insane, and led to the genocide of millions under Pol Pot. None of this would have happened under RFK. Of course, beyond a few years after 1969, it becomes hard to hypothesize what the world would look like. It is up to readers to imagine that world, to fill in the blanks, if they wish.

It is now the fortieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, and this new edition of The Gospel According to RFK marks that occasion. But in late November 2005, there was another celebration, for what would have been Bobby's eightieth birthday, in the Mike Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol, with his widow, Ethel, the honored guest. Speakers included his daughter Kerry Kennedy, his brother, Edward Kennedy, Harry Belafonte, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Dennis Kucinich, John Lewis, Edward Markey, Mel Watts, Hilda Solis, Dolores Huerta, Jeff Greenfield, Father Robert Drinan, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and others. There was even a Republican, the MSNBC political commentator and former Congressman Joe Scarborough, who said, "[Robert Kennedy's] campaign did not end in Los Angeles. It continues to this day, if only those who have the ears to hear will take up the call, regardless of their party affiliation." Because Robert Kennedy read and loved poetry, I wrote a poem for him the night before in New York and read it that evening at the Capitol.

For Robert Kennedy's 80th Birthday Celebration

I write this in Bush's America
of torturing, Bush lying us to
war, Bush laughing at
the gap between the rich
and poor increasing.

No one knows what you
would be like today.
I am not a mathematician
so have no equations
to bring you to 80
and tell us what you
and the world would be
like had you lived.

Thanksgiving 1967:
I came to New York
alone to live my life
with you as my senator
and I hoped my president.

June 1968: I had no TV,
was writing poetry about
Vietnam, went to bed for
a restless night, dreaming of
anguished voices in subway tunnels
beneath Astro Place and woke to
a beautiful morning and
moaning in the streets and shops.
You were dying. The line was a mile
long for your Saint Pat's requiem.

Alone in an East Village room
that fall I wrote the words
"nostalgia for the future,"
not quite realizing
they were for you.

Your words and thoughts that year
kept you alive these years.
You became the president
of the other America
that we have carried around
thirty-seven years. You became
the president of this other America
that we salute today, where
everyone has a job and some hope,
where there is but one class,
where we honor the arts of
"mercy, pity, peace and love."

Peace to you, "warring soul
with your delicate anger."
Peace to our bloody world!

As I came to the last four lines, emotions overwhelmed me, at the thought of all the horrors that have come about since the death of Robert Kennedy. Almost forty years of war and poverty, war against the poor, the hundreds of millions who have died because of lack of opportunity, lack of basic needs, lack of "mercy, pity, peace and love," to use William Blake's words. To say the last line, "Peace to our bloody world!" I had only one option: to spit it out.

Robert Kennedy believed that politics was an honorable profession, and that government could be used for the good of mankind. These speeches from his campaign forty years ago, these his last words before he was silenced, can be read today as an essential document of democratic humanity. I offer them in that spirit. They are words a man died for.