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

By Barnhill, John H. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Barnhill, John H., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy & the Politics of Poverty. By Edward R. Schmitt. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. 324 pages. $26.95 (paperback), $39.95 (cloth).

The Kennedy mystique fell unevenly on the boys, with Robert falling short of the others, especially John. Robert was the scrawny little brother, the scrappy and totally loyal brother to the dynamic and charismatic John. Without John, Robert floundered. According to Schmitt, Robert finally began to come into his own when he found an issue, a cause, almost a crusade-and it was not opposition to the war in Vietnam. The college kids protesting the war had other heroes, and Robert Kennedy was a second choice, but for those in Michael Harrington's Other America, Robert Kennedy was the one shining hope whose loss was sorely felt.

Poverty, before Lyndon Johnson declared war on it, existed at levels almost unimaginable today. Society still has the safety net of the sixties, however frayed. Lyndon Johnson rightly receives credit for committing the nation to his Great Society, but Robert Kennedy also earned credit for making poverty a prominent issue, even in a time dominated by an unpopular war and a generational crisis. The book highlights Robert Kennedy's role in making the elimination of poverty a national issue.

To lay the groundwork for the Kennedy anti-poverty effort, the author has to put Kennedy into context. A fairly significant share of the volume is taken up by family history and the early political career of Bobby Kennedy. The information is standard: Robert as lesser brother in an aggressive family with a couple of war hero brothers whose shadows are large. Too young for the war, Robert established his early career in the political background, including unsavory ties to McCarthy and the witch hunt. He developed a stronger profile against crime, proved mediocre on civil rights at a time when most major politicians were mediocre on civil rights. Then came the assassination, the stepping away, the carpetbag Senate seat in New York. Finally, Robert Kennedys became aroused by poverty as an issue.

Robert Kennedy was busy opposing Lyndon Johnson, drifting into a race for the presidency, and not particularly involved in heavy lifting as the Senator from poverty. Throughout his Senatorial career, Kennedy seemed less interested in the process of lining up votes, creating and collecting chits, than being an effective national legislator. …

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