Words of RFK pro­vide a timely re­minder to­day

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - WASH­ING­TON POST WRIT­ERS GROUP

For some years, the main po­lit­i­cal project of the right has been to take con­trol of the gov­ern­ment while den­i­grat­ing the gov­ern­ment. Don­ald Trump drew this strat­egy to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, as­sert­ing as a kind of re­frain: “Our politi­cians are stupid.”

Which came to mind fol­low­ing the reve­la­tion that chief of staff John Kelly had kept Rob Porter in a sen­si­tive po­si­tion (White House staff sec­re­tary) af­ter be­ing in­formed by the FBI that there was a pro­tec­tive or­der against him. As it came to mind when Michael Flynn was el­e­vated to na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser fol­low­ing re­peated FBI warn­ings that he might be com­pro­mised by the Rus­sians. As it came to mind af­ter the el­e­va­tion of An­thony Scara­mucci to, well, any po­si­tion of pub­lic trust.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has acted with a cer­tain con­sis­tency in th­ese mat­ters. Trump and his team ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of be­ing cor­rupt — and have proved it be­yond rea­son­able doubt. They al­leged that the gov­ern­ment was brim­ming with stu­pid­ity — and took it as a kind of re­cruit­ing chal­lenge. Across the ex­ec­u­tive branch, it is a golden age for the un­qual­i­fied and un­fit. This is the nat­u­ral out­come of con­tempt for pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence, con­tempt for gov­ern­ing skill, con­tempt for gov­ern­ment it­self.

Democrats seek­ing to take con­trol of the House and deny re-elec­tion to the pres­i­dent — along with the con­ser­va­tives re­sist­ing Trump — will be sorely tempted to run with the theme: Trump and his po­lit­i­cal al­lies are stupid. It might lead to a shift in par­ti­san con­trol. It would do lit­tle to re­cover our na­tional spirit. Some­one, from left or right, must re­store re­spect for the en­ter­prise of gov­ern­ing as a source of na­tional unity and moral aspiration.

Is this even re­motely pos­si­ble in our frac­tured repub­lic? As a home­work as­sign­ment, prospec­tive lead­ers might read the speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. The late 1960s were a time not only of di­vi­sion but of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. Kennedy ac­cu­rately de­scribed Amer­i­cans as in­hab­it­ing dif­fer­ent, un­con­nected is­lands.

His re­sponse? Dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Kennedy urged Amer­i­cans to look be­yond mere eco­nomic mea­sures of na­tional suc­cess and to fo­cus on cul­tural and spir­i­tual ex­cel­lence — on “the in­tel­li­gence of our pub­lic de­bate,” on the “in­tegrity of our pub­lic of­fi­cials,” on our “courage,” “com­pas­sion” and “de­vo­tion to our coun­try.” He chal­lenged tra­di­tional ide­o­log­i­cal di­vi­sions, call­ing for a “bet­ter lib­er­al­ism” that “knows the an­swer to all prob­lems is not spend­ing money” and a “bet­ter con­ser­vatism” that “rec­og­nizes the ur­gent need to bring op­por­tu­nity to all cit­i­zens.”

Kennedy talked of pol­i­tics as the realm of ur­gency and ne­ces­sity. At any given mo­ment in a democ­racy, great is­sues of jus­tice and moral­ity are at stake. The claim that pol­i­tics is dirty and ir­rel­e­vant is an ar­gu­ment only com­fort­able peo­ple can make. If you were to live in a neigh­bor­hood plagued by poverty, dom­i­nated by gangs and served by fail­ing schools, the ef­fec­tive­ness of gov­ern­ment would mat­ter greatly to you. Re­treat­ing from the cause of jus­tice is only con­ceiv­able for those who have few needs for jus­tice them­selves.

Kennedy also talked of pol­i­tics as the realm of no­bil­ity. At its best, gov­ern­ment is about the right or­der­ing of our lives to­gether. It can’t be unim­por­tant be­cause jus­tice is never unim­por­tant. Po­lit­i­cal rhetoric and ideals can raise the moral sights of a na­tion and point men and women to re­spon­si­bil­i­ties be­yond the nar­row bounds of self and fam­ily.

And Kennedy un­der­stood that crit­i­ciz­ing the cor­rup­tion and stu­pid­ity of those in power is not a pol­i­tics suf­fi­cient to a great coun­try. “We can per­haps re­mem­ber,” he said, “if only for a time, that those who live with us are our broth­ers, that they share with us the same short mo­ment of life. ... Surely this bond of com­mon fate, surely this bond of com­mon goals, can be­gin to teach us some­thing. Surely we can learn, at the least, to look around at those of us, of our fel­low men, and surely we can be­gin to work a lit­tle harder to bind up the wounds among us and to be­come in our hearts broth­ers and coun­try­men once again.”

Michael Ger­son michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com

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