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Let R.F.K.'s Ideas Spur Us to Action

June 03, 1993|EDWIN O. GUTHMAN and C. RICHARD ALLEN | Edwin O. Guthman, former special assistant to Robert F. Kennedy, is a professor of journalism at USC; Richard Allen, former political strategist for several presidential candidates, is deputy director of the White House Office of National Service. They are the editors of "RFK: Collected Speeches," (Viking Penguin, 1993), from which this is excerpted.

Robert F. Kennedy's approach to national problems did not fit neatly into the ideological categories of his time, or ours. His was a muscular liberalism, committed to an activist federal government but deeply suspicious of concentrated power and certain that fundamental change would best be achieved at the community level, insistent on responsibilities as well as rights, and convinced that the dynamism of capitalism could be the impetus for broadening national growth.

It has become almost an axiom of politics that ideas are most valuable if they are "new"; some readers accordingly may be surprised to discover that Kennedy's speeches frequently are substantively relevant today--and that so many of what are regarded as the "new" ideas of contemporary politicians were posited by Kennedy more than 25 years ago.

In the wake of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, it is extraordinary to read Kennedy's analysis of the conditions that led to the 1965 riots, or to study his comprehensive plan for community control and development reflected by his trailblazing Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Project in Brooklyn.

Most impressive may be a single " white paper," released by his campaign on May 31, 1968, that includes proposals for enterprise zones, portable pensions, school-site management, school testing and evaluation, child care, health-care reform, radically revised welfare that rewarded work and a host of other ideas now being trumpeted as innovations.

But above all else, Kennedy's words still inspire action, as they were most emphatically intended. The void resulting from Robert Kennedy's death, in those who loved him and in the country that needed his guidance, is immeasurable. It cannot be filled by grieving or by the fruitless search for a successor. In the end, the spark from his life and his words must animate each of us, and, as he said: "Crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring . . . build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls."

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