“As long as everyone is talking about what did or did not happen 35 years ago in Vietnam,” writes Matt Miller, columnist and fellow at the Center for American Progress, “they’re not talking about the candidates’ rival visions for the future, or domestic policy differences between the parties that are huge.”
Of course, the Bush campaign’s scurrilous lies about Kerry’s record as a war hero must be challenged forcefully. But what ever happened to the important debate about the costs of war in Iraq–we’ve just passed the grim milestone of 1000 US deaths– particularly at a time in which poverty is rapidly growing?
In February 1968, when poverty and another war weighed heavily on people’s minds, Robert F. Kennedy, as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on employment, manpower and poverty, held two field hearings in Eastern Kentucky to explore the causes of Appalachian poverty and gauge the success of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs.
This week, John Malpede, a performance artist from Los Angeles, is staging RFK in EKY, a re-enactment of Kennedy’s visit to Eastern Kentucky. “Reality has been accommodating to us,” Malpede observed in a recent interview in the New York Times, where he discussed his hope that history could refocus our political debate on poverty and the costs of war at home.
Under President Bush, the rich have gotten richer, the middle-class has shrunk, and the ranks of the poor have expanded. In 2003, according to the Census Bureau’s latest statistics, America’s poverty rate jumped from 12.1 percent to 12.5 percent. Currently, some 36 million Americans live in poverty, while the country endures the worst child-poverty rate of any industrialized nation. Some 45 million Americans went without health insurance in 2003.
In sharp contrast, under the Bush Administration, to cite one figure, the top 50 outsourcing companies paid their CEOs, on average, $10.4 million in 2003–a nearly 50 percent increase over a year earlier. The gap between the relative prospects of rich and poor in the age of Bush is driven home by Executive Excess, a new report released by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, which documents that, “If the minimum wage had increased as quickly as CEO pay since 1990, it would today be $15.76 per hour, rather than the current $5.15 per hour.” (Click here to view the report.)
Remembering RFK’s visit to Kentucky is a useful way to reframe the 2004 political debate and articulate a vision of what is possible in this country. As Malpede says of his play: “The idea is to revisit a moment in history that was significant to the community and see how it resonates now.”