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Editor’s Note: Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards began a three day poverty “tour” Monday in New Orleans, retracing in part a similar trip taken in 1968 by Sen. Robert Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Edwards will make stops in far eastern Kentucky. In 1968, Tom Bethell was a reporter for The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, one of Kennedy’s stops. In the nearly 40 years since Kennedy’s campaign stop in Appalachia, Bethell has worked as research director for the United Mine Workers of America and managing editor of The Washington Monthly. Dee Davis tells of his memories of the RFK visit to Kentucky on National Public Radio.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy shook hands with residents of Haymond during his 1968 campaign swing through Eastern Kentucky. Sen. John Edwards will reprise Kennedy’s visit to Eastern Kentucky Wednesday.
By THOMAS N. BETHELL
Watching John Edwards trying to beef up his poverty-fighting profile by hiking the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Appalachian Trail, it’s easy to be skeptical, even cynical, about what motivates him. Are we really expected to believe that a candidate with a net worth on the high side of $60 million, a brand-new 28,000-square-foot house, and an apparent addiction to $400 haircuts wakes up every day obsessed with the goal of ending poverty in America? Or has his campaign simply crunched the numbers and concluded that he has no hope of beating Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination, let alone winning in November 2008, unless he can build more support in states like Kentucky and West Virginia than he did in 2004, when he and John Kerry couldn’t even carry his home town in North Carolina?
Well, maybe it’s some of both. And maybe the charitable thing to do is wait and see. After all, it was only after Robert Kennedy was martyred, a few months after his Appalachian tour, that we all decided he was genuine in his determination to battle poverty. It wasn’t by any means so clear at the time, especially to some of us who watched him at close range as he toured Eastern Kentucky. There was the question of his timing, for one thing. He didn’t begin maneuvering his way into the race for the presidency in 1968 until Eugene McCarthy showed that Lyndon Johnson could be challenged. So more than a faint odor of opportunism trailed Kennedy as he made his way into the Appalachian heartland. And he was significantly shorter on specifics than on star power. Robert Kennedy had that, of course, and something more. From a distance, he looked to be holding aloft once again the flame of hope that had been all but snuffed out on November 22, 1963. And by 1968 millions of Americans were desperate for any sign of hope.
Kennedy conducted a three and a half hour hearing in the school gym at Fleming-Neon. Sitting with him was Rep. Carl Perkins, a Democrat representing the area.
Up close, Kennedy was harder to read. I watched him talking with Harry Caudill, the author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, who was an unsurpassed font of fact and opinion about poverty in Appalachia, and was struck by how uncurious, even detached, Kennedy seemed when he wasn’t in a public setting. Then, at one point, I found myself riding with him in his car, en route to his next photo-op, and was shocked when a VISTA volunteer in the car tried to engage him in a conversation about what she had learned on the job, and he cut her off, rudely and brusquely. At that moment I thought he was every bit as arrogant as I’d sometimes heard he was, a stereotypically spoiled and entitled little rich kid if ever there was one, and I couldn’t imagine voting for Bobby Kennedy unless the only alternative was Richard Nixon.
Soon, of course, an assassin’s bullet would leave us all in limbo, never knowing what Robert Kennedy might or might not have done to make his Appalachian tour the beginning of something genuinely transformative. My first impression might have been completely wrong. He might have been a wonderful president, the first since Franklin Roosevelt to offer real and lasting hope for hard-pressed people, rural and urban alike. Or not. In the winter-spring of 1968 it was much too soon to tell, and the summer never came. But it’s a measure of how desperate some of us were that we suppressed private doubts and wrote glowing accounts of his tour. Over the ensuing decades that tour has acquired the aura of something more spiritual than political, and it’s not surprising to see John Edwards striding along the pilgrim’s path, hoping that some fragment of the enshrined Kennedy mystique will adhere to his campaign.
Outside the Fleming-Neon hearing students protested plans to construct a dam in Letcher County.
But skepticism and cynicism, although arguably unavoidable, aren’t very useful. There would seem to be intriguing parallels between 1968 and 2007, especially in the apparent fact that the candidates’ great wealth and good fortune failed to blind them to the needs of those less lucky or gifted. And the fact that both were more wedded to well-meaning rhetoric than to far-ranging policy proposals shouldn’t be held against them, not at this point at any rate. No one, least of all Roosevelt, knew what he would do for the downtrodden until he was actually in the White House. No one, early in 1968, knew what Robert Kennedy would do: it was too soon to know, and then it was too late. No one, in mid-2007, knows what John Edwards would do or whether, if elected, he would actually have the leverage to enact the initiatives, far-reaching or otherwise, that he might deem essential to redirect and revitalize the mostly afflicted and largely outsourced economy of Appalachia. So, rather than being a time to render some sort of judgment, it seems to be a time to watch and listen”¦maybe even to hope.
Kennedy spent two days in Eastern Kentucky. Edwards will be in the state for less than a day. Here, Kennedy walks through Hazard, Kentucky. Photo: Paul Gordon
Postscript: Kennedy’s visit to Eastern Kentucky in 1968, just a few months before his assasination, has taken on a kind of iconic status. A web site has collected material from the visit, including the transcript of the three and a half hour hearing Kennedy conducted in Fleming-Neon. In 2004, actors recreated Kennedy’s visit in 48 hours of performance events.