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AMERICA'S HEART |
RFK and the Renewal of Hope.
By Peter Edelman.
262 pp. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company. $26.
eter Edelman was an idealistic young Minnesotan just a few years out of Harvard Law School when he went to work for Robert F. Kennedy's 1964 Senate campaign. In ''Searching for America's Heart,'' he seems to have been just as idealistic and young -- the unkind would say naive -- when he went to work for President Clinton 29 years later. In fact, he seemed to be looking for another Bobby Kennedy. He wants to make it very clear that Bill Clinton was not it.
Edelman's book is an idiosyncratic blend of policy, score-settling, attempts at political inspiration and memoir. But it is infused, throughout, with two emotions -- mourning for Bobby Kennedy and ''the larger spirit of the 60's,'' and anger at Clinton and what might be called the spirit of the 70's, 80's and 90's. Edelman is utterly contemptuous of the backlash against conventional liberal thinking on poverty -- and of the elected officials who acknowledge, respond to or encourage that backlash.
''Why do some people have so little though we are vastly wealthier as a nation than even a generation ago?'' he asks. The explanation in vogue, he writes, ''says the problem is government programs and especially 'welfare.' It says welfare has produced dependency, unwillingness to work, increased nonmarital births, drug abuse and crime. It especially emphasizes 'illegitimacy,' and says poverty is not an issue of money at all but one of 'culture,' which has to be changed by sanctions to change behavior.''
In reality, he says, the persistence of poverty can be traced to the fact that ''the labor market has been in trouble since about 1973 because of deindustrialization, globalization and technological change.'' Even in a boom, he writes, ''there are large numbers of lousy jobs'' that simply don't pay a living wage for families trying to make their way out of poverty, particularly those carrying added burdens of racial discrimination and lack of education.
Edelman, in short, is an unreconstructed liberal, out of his time. His view of Kennedy is romantic, heroic, undiminished by grays -- the man who loved children,'' as he puts it. For four years, as a campaign and Senate staff member, Edelman was at his side, on a ''journey of discovery'' into poverty and a nation in tumult. He witnessed the ''riveting scene'' when Kennedy first met Cesar Chavez, the farmworkers organizer, in a parking lot in California. He traveled with Kennedy to the Mississippi Delta, investigating the hunger and malnutrition that existed in much of the rural South at the time. On that trip he met his future wife, Marian Wright, who was then with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Mississippi, and who would eventually head the Children's Defense Fund.
''I was extremely impressed,'' he writes, in a passage that captures the blend of the personal and the political in this memoir. ''She was really smart and really good-looking.''
Edelman looks back proudly on the welfare proposals of the 1960's, noting that Kennedy's last position paper, released a few days before the 1968 California Democratic primary and Kennedy's death, called for the creation of 2.4 million jobs, half of them in the public sector ''to build and staff needed community facilities and do other needed tasks.'' It also called for tax incentives and loans to spur development in poor areas, transportation assistance to help people get to distant jobs and an array of other subsidies and grants to help poor people with housing and education. But things soon began to change -- for the worse, in Edelman's view.
After Kennedy, Edelman writes bitterly, ''a racially tinged offensive against the poor acquired momentum as the decades passed. The refrain is familiar by now: It's their fault. It's their behavior. Those people. They have to change. They have to take responsibility for themselves.''
"President Clinton's misuse of Robert Kennedy's words
highlighted a stark difference between the two young leaders.
One pressed for social justice whenever he could. The other,
originally projecting a commitment to renewing national
idealism, ended up governing mainly according to the lowest
common denominator. A proper invocation of RFK would have
brought us full circle to a new commitment. Instead we completed
''His goal was re-election at all costs,'' Edelman writes of Clinton. ''Whatever his rationalizations, he was at bottom interested only in himself. His political approach was not to calculate the risks but to take no risks at all.'' And again: ''He has tended generally to make things worse for the politically powerless.'' And again: ''His penchant for elevating shadow over substance has hurt poor children.''
The personal tone is not surprising: the Edelmans and the Clintons had known each other for years, but the relationship steadily frayed after Clinton took power. Edelman did not get the judicial appointment that many had expected; the White House apparently chose not to battle the conservative opposition that it surely would have generated.
But Edelman focuses on what he sees as a larger, political betrayal -- although it is hard to believe that he really felt, in 1992, that Clinton had only ''flirted with the revisionists of the Democratic Leadership Council'' as ''a tactic to prove that he was a new kind of Democrat.'' Only a liberal in deep denial could miss the fact that Clinton was serious about reinventing the Democratic Party and moving it to the center. After five Democratic defeats in the previous six presidential elections, how could Clinton not be serious about changing his party?
By the end of ''Searching for America's Heart,'' the differences between the two seem both simple and profound: Bill Clinton is a political man. Peter Edelman is not. Bill Clinton made more compromises than he needed to. Peter Edelman clings to a high-minded worldview that does not recognize the need to compromise in a system that, after all, requires one to win elections in order to govern. The Kennedys rarely made that mistake.