The problem’s name was Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor and troubled area in metropolitan New York.
Kennedy, who was then the Democratic U.S. senator from New York, had been challenged by residents of Bed-Stuy, as it was and is called, to do something other than give speeches about poverty and its effects on people. They also told him they didn’t need any more studies or study commissions. They’d been studied to death, they said.
They needed action.
They needed help.
What RFK came up with was unique, a blending of liberal and conservative approaches that demonstrated why, in his lifetime, much of the New Deal left distrusted him and the Old Guard right despised him.
He got the federal government to invest tax money to improve education, housing and other parts of Bed-Stuy’s infrastructure, which pleased liberals and angered conservatives. But he also pushed for tax incentives to encourage businesses to relocate in the area and emphasized that, over the long haul, having the private sector create jobs in the area would be an even more effective way of combatting poverty than improving schools or housing.
That pleased conservatives and angered liberals.
And he shared the credit for his approach with the other U.S. senator from New York, Jacob Javits, a Republican.
Democrats just loved that.
Kennedy’s solution to the problem, in short, had something in it to tick off just about everyone, supposed allies and presumed opponents alike.
But pleasing them wasn’t his focus. Solving the problem was.
And he didn’t particularly care if the best solution was liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic.
He just wanted to solve the problem.
It would be nice to say that Kennedy’s approach ended poverty in Bed-Stuy, but it didn’t.
His murder in 1968 stalled much of the project’s momentum. And the deepening divisions in the United States over Vietnam and Watergate made such cooperation between conservatives and liberals and Democrats and Republicans much more difficult, if not impossible.
Still, in Kennedy’s lifetime, his efforts in Bed-Stuy resulted in improvement in the area – and those improvements continued after his death, albeit at a much slower pace.
More important, his approach changed the way we look at contending with persistent poverty in urban areas.
RFK’s approach became the new orthodoxy, the inspiration for anti-poverty initiatives ever since.
It is easy to draw a straight line from what Kennedy did with Bedford-Stuyvesant to the enterprise zone initiatives of the Reagan era to the Promise Zones touted by President Barack Obama to the “holistic” approach to community policing advocated by Indianapolis Police Chief Troy Riggs and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.
The moral of this story isn’t difficult to discern.
Robert Kennedy didn’t solve a problem and find a way to help people because he was a liberal or a conservative. He didn’t look in just a Democratic kit or only a Republican box for the tools he needed.
He looked in both until he found the tools best suited for the job before him.
His solution was one that both drew from and challenged the orthodoxies of both parties.
That’s because he kept his focus on the problem – and was willing to entertain the notion that neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on either wisdom or virtue.
Doubtless, there are leaders in America now who are similarly devoted to solving problems and similarly unconstrained by a rigid adherence to orthodoxies, whether partisan or ideological.
But there aren’t many of them in public office these days.
This era of unlimited single-issue, special-interest group spending, gerrymandered legislative districts and punishment for refusing to toe the party line with primary challenges means political leaders who are willing to consider or embrace new approaches soon find themselves out of office.
That’s why, on so many issues – poverty, immigration, abortion, guns, education – we find ourselves trapped in disputes without end. On whatever side we’re on, we Americans seem to care more about winning the argument than solving the problem.
Therein lies the lesson.
Arguments can go on and on and on.
And, while those arguments continue, the problems almost always remain unsolved.
Nearly 50 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy had a problem to solve.