Bobby Kennedy’s last reflections on how the wealth of a nation is measured

by Alun Evans

6 Jun 2018

It is said that people of a certain age will remember precisely where they were when they heard of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, or of the death of Princess Diana in Paris, 34 years later. But, I suspect, far fewer will recall where they were and what they were doing when Bobby Kennedy, the late President's younger brother died – 50 years ago today while taking a short-cut through a kitchen off the main ballroom in the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles. 

Rally for Robert F. Kennedy. Image credit: Ron Galella / Getty Images.

Rally for Robert F. Kennedy. Image credit: Ron Galella / Getty Images.

Bobby had just won the Californian primary election for the Democratic Party – a victory that would undoubtedly have led to him gaining the democratic nomination for the presidential race of that year.  He would then have been well placed to defeat Richard Nixon and go on to become the country's 37th President.  But all that ended when Sirhan Sirhan, a disgruntled Palestinian student, gunned him down in a side room where Kennedy was holding a private meeting prior to giving his acceptance speech to the party.  Last weekend BBC Radio 4 repeated Alistair Cooke's  Letter from America describing, in chilling terms, his eye-witness account of what happened that day.

Bobby Kennedy’s belief in the power of ideas to change the world

But who was Bobby Kennedy and why was his loss such a tragedy – more so than many other public figures whose lives have been cut short? Because he had such strong principles, which he applied. Because he believed in the power of ideas to change the world.

And because he was young – so young.  In 1957, aged only 32, he began his campaign to take on and expose the racketeering of the Teamsters' union and its legendary leader Jimmy Hoffa. In 1962, when still only 36, as Attorney General, he was the critical adviser and negotiator in the Cuban Missiles Crisis arguing for firm diplomacy and working to avoid nuclear confrontation. Younger then than Donald Trump's much criticised son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is today one of the current President's advisers.

Bobby Kennedy had principles: a passionate opponent of racial discrimination and a belief in human rights, of human dignity and of greater equality. Those principles were the hallmark of his campaign for the presidency in 1968. As was his belief that the USA underplayed the value of the non-quantifiable strengths of a nation.

What Gross National Product doesn’t measure

In a remarkable speech in Kansas, some three months before his death, he challenged his audience and the country to think differently about how to measure the wealth of a nation. Speaking of the shortcomings of Gross National Product as a way of measuring a nation's wealth Bobby said: 

'For too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product is now over 800 billion dollars a year... But that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our door and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destructions of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight riots in our cities. It counts rifles and knives and the television programmes which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Bobby Kennedy’s speech highlighted how topics such as literature, education, sociology and law – all subjects classed as humanities or social sciences – are often overlooked when a nation’s wealth is measured. This is despite the fact that these disciplines help to shape the lives of people and remain crucial in addressing the greatest challenges of our time.

With beliefs such as those – and their enduring relevance to today –  one can only speculate on what Bobby might have achieved if he had won the Presidency; but that all came to nought at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan in the Ambassador Hotel half a century ago.

Also spare a thought for Ethel Kennedy, Bobby's wife, widowed 50 years ago today and no doubt thinking of what might have been, and how the world might have been different, if her late husband had had the chance to serve as the 37th President of the United States of America.

Alun Evans is the Chief Executive of the British Academy. He is also an Associate at the Institute for Government where he has contributed to a range of Institute projects, including on government transitions, policy making and communication.


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