President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty

October 30, 2020
President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty

Robert Kennedy’s abbreviated run for the presidency in 1968 hasassumed almost mythical proportions in American memory. Hiscampaign has been romanticized because of its tragic end, but alsobecause of the foreign and domestic crises that surrounded it. Yetwhile most media coverage initially focused on Kennedy’s oppositionto the Vietnam War as the catalyst of his candidacy, another issuecommanded just as much of his attention. That issue was poverty.Stumping across the country, he repeated the same antipovertythemes before college students in Kansas and Indiana, loggers andwomen factory workers in Oregon, farmers in Nebraska, and businessgroups in New York. Although his calls to action sometimes met withapathy, he refused to modify his message. “If they don’t care,” hetold one aide, “the hell with them.” As Edward R. Schmittdemonstrates, Kennedy’s concern with the problem of poverty was notnew. Although critics at the time accused him of opportunisticallyveering left in order to outflank an unpopular president, a closerlook at the historical record reveals a steady evolution ratherthan a dramatic shift in his politics.