In honor of Independence Day, I want to share something that came to me unexpectedly while on a site visit to Los Angeles with the Board of Families USA, of which I am a member. We were focused on the causes of homelessness, and on maternal and child health.
Los Angeles – April 21, 2023
I am sitting in my room on the 10th Floor of Hotel Indigo in Los Angeles. Out my window I can see the Los Angeles Convention Center two blocks to the south. I can’t remember the last time I was here – maybe during my third term in 2013. Right now, however as the early light spreads across the city, I’m thinking back across half a century, to a night in June 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was speaking to a room full of supporters in the Ambassador Hotel, after winning the California Democratic Presidential Primary. Shortly after midnight on June 5, he left the podium and, as he walked through a kitchen hallway, he was shot by a 24-year-old Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy died at 1:44 am the following day at Good Samaritan Hospital.
I realize that I am only 2.5 miles from the Ambassador Hotel, where the events of June 5, 1968 changed my life forever. I never visited the hotel, and, of course, it is gone now. It was closed in 1969 and demolished in 2005 to make way for a school. But being so close to where it all happened has triggered a cascade of thoughts and questions about how I have spent the last 55 years of my life. And why. I was a 21-year-old college student in 1968, just finishing my junior year at Dartmouth. I was blissfully apolitical, a biology major on my way to medical school and a career in bio-medical research. Or so I thought. Instead, from the moment Kennedy died on June 6, I knew I was going to commit my life to public service.
This sudden transformation of my life priorities, actually began on April 4, 1968. I was in the physics lab at Dartmouth working on a research project, listening to the radio. Suddenly, the program was interrupted to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers. I remember carefully putting down a screwdriver I was holding and standing there in stunned silence, deeply moved by emotions I did not understand.
The next day, on April 5, Robert Kennedy gave a short speech to the City Club of Cleveland, the only public appearance he made that day. The speech was about the “mindless menace of violence” in American, but not just physical violence.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men.
I was deeply moved by these words, and I still am. Kennedy was speaking of the failure of our public institutions to address the deep inequality that existed in America in 1968, and of the social disintegration that was flowing from that growing disparity. His words struck a chord inside me. They touched something that had been planted long before. Planted and nourished, I am sure, by the experiences and perspectives of growing up with parents who were members of what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation,” the generation that weathered the Great Depression and won the Second World War. And I found myself drawn inexplicable and powerfully into Kennedy’s campaign—a campaign that was unlike any I have witnessed since.
It was a blunt and honest campaign focused almost entirely on equity and opportunity. It was a campaign about unrepresented farm workers in California, about poverty and hunger and children starving in the Mississippi Delta and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was a campaign that asked profound and often disturbing questions—questions about a gross domestic product that measured wealth but not well-being, questions about why such contradictions and inequities could exist in the wealthiest nation in the world, questions about who we were and how we wanted to treat one another as Americans and as fellow human beings.
And then it ended, only 81 days after it began, with a bullet in the Ambassador Hotel, just two miles from where I sit, watching the sun come up over the “City of Angels.” Although I did not realize it at the time, I was drawn to Bobby Kennedy’s last campaign because it was about equity and opportunity, because it was rooted in the belief, and based on the premise, that we can do better, that we can build a better country and a better world by coming together as a community. I was drawn to the campaign because it spoke directly to the “promise of opportunity” that lies at the heart of the American Dream.
Or at least that is what I believe the idea of America is all about, what America stands for. As I look back across my life since 1968, I can see that it has been this idea that has motivated me. I realize that my entire political career was animated by one foundational belief: the belief in equity in opportunity. The belief that in America, each and every one of us deserves an equitable opportunity to succeed—no guarantee of outcomes, but a fair and just opportunity to try.
I am fully aware that, in so many ways, America has not lived up to that promise, starting with the founding documents of our nation. Not only were the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and of the US Constitution exclusively men, but by white men of means, men who owned property, men whose lofty statement that “all men are created equal” did not extend women or people of color, or in many cases, to white men who did not own property. I don’t dispute any of this and, to a large extent, the history of America since 1776 has been marked by an ongoing struggle to expand this narrow interpretation and to remove the barriers to true equity of opportunity. We have a long way to go but, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1968, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Notwithstanding our many shortcomings as a nation, the idea of equity in opportunity is, at least to me, what animates the Promise of America. It is why people came here in the first place, and why they stay. It is why people are still trying to get here, why people continue to travel thousands of miles from South, and Central America—fleeing violence, corruption and poverty—risking their lives in the hope of having the opportunity to build something better for themselves and their families.
I’m in Los Angeles in my capacity as a member of the board of directors of Families USA, an influential national, non-partisan organization that advocates for health care consumers. We are here for our annual board meeting and site visit. On the drive in from the airport I passed through neighborhoods where, block after block, all the homes and businesses had bars on the doors and windows. Yesterday we visited the Downtown Women’s Center in the “Skid Row” neighborhood in East Central LA, that contains the largest population of homeless people in the United States and suffers from one of the highest crime rates in California. The Women’s Center, and its committed, hardworking passionate staff, provides 119 units of permanent housing for single unaccompanied women in a city where almost 42,000 are unhoused.
Sitting here at just before 6 am, it strikes me that not much has changed in the last 55 years, in the sense that many of the injustices that Kennedy sought to address have actually grown worse. That is not to say that we have not made progress in civil rights and in exposing the deeply rooted discrimination and racial bias that remains pervasive in our nation. At the same time, my sense is that the overall well-being of our people is worse, not only in terms of income and wealth inequality—but particularly, in terms of the widening disparity in opportunity. A growing number of Americans are trapped in low wage jobs with no way up and no way out — trapped in a generational cycle of poverty and despair which puts the “promise of opportunity” ever farther from their grasp.
It is easy to get discouraged when I think about how little progress we have made toward actually realizing the Promise of Opportunity for which Kennedy gave his life. It is easy to get discouraged when I watch so many of the things I spent 35 year putting in place in Oregon being gradually being dismantled, when I watch the polarization and bitterness that is eroding our sense of community and common purpose, when I see Oregonians being pitted against one another by party, by geography, by socio-economic status, by race, gender and sexual orientation. It would be so easy to just walk away, to succumb to the creeping sense of futility, to let go of the dream, and to accept that it was never more than that: just a dream, a dream that can never be realized.
The sun is well above the horizon now. I can see the haze of pollution hanging out over the Pacific. A few blocks away in Skid Row, thousands of homeless people are waking up to another day of struggle and despair in a crime ridden, drug filled “neighborhood” with no hope. Each and every one of them were infants once, newly minted human beings filled with promise and potential. Yet, somewhere along the way, that potential was stifled, snuffed out by the very “conditions of injustice” that Kennedy sought to address, conditions of injustice that remain unaddressed over half a century later.
When I committed my life to public service in June 1968, I was young and naïve and idealistic. I used to say that my mission was to “save the world.” Clearly, that hasn’t happened, nor will it happen in my lifetime. That was not clear to me when I was 21. At 76 it is abundantly clear. And yet, perhaps, to paraphrase the Roman Statesman Cicero, “the glory is in the struggle,” in the striving for a goal that continues to recede as we move toward it. Perhaps the measure of our contribution lies not in reaching the destination of a Newer World, but in the striving toward it, keeping the dream in sight so that it does not disappear entirely beyond a distant horizon.
I realize that just because this goal will not be reached while I am alive, in no way makes the quest less worthy. As Tennyson wrote in Ulysses: “Death closes all, but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” In spite of the disappointment, humiliation and frustration of the past eight years, I find that I cannot let go of the dream. I am no longer young, and after almost four decades in and around the political process, I am certainly not naïve. But I am still idealistic. I still believe that all of us want to rise above our own worst day and give something back to our families and to our community. And I still believe in the power of individuals – acting from courage and conviction – to change the world in which they live for the better.
The words of Thich Nhat Hanh also come to mind: “When I lose my direction, I look for the North Star, and I go North. That doesn’t mean I expect reach the North Star, that just the direction I want to go.”
I choose to go in the direction of equity and opportunity.