Political Powerbroker Peter Edelman Pens Book On RFK

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Host Michel Martin speaks with legal and policy veteran Peter Edelman. Edelman was a legislative assistant to the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and also worked with the Clinton administration. He's the author of Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope. Host Michel Martin speaks to Edelman about his distinguished career, and his work advocating for the well being and treatment of others.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we hope to learn from those who've made an impact with their work.

Today, on the eve of the president's first formal State of the Union address, we understand that the president is planning to put a new focus on the needs of the middle class. He's offering a package of programs to support the so-called sandwich generation, those who are raising children and caring for elderly parents.

But what about the needs of the poor? Who speaks for them? For perspective, we decided to call Peter Edelman. He's a lawyer and professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He's written extensively about issues of justice and the poor.

He's also a former legislative assistant to the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who, before his untimely death in 1968, became a voice for those without one. Professor Edelman also worked in the Clinton administration as a counselor to the secretary of health and human services, a post from which he eventually resigned. He's also the author of "Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope," and he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Professor´┐ŻPETER EDELMAN (Georgetown University): Thank you, I'm so delighted to be here.

MARTIN: How did you meet Robert F. Kennedy, and why did you want to work for him?

Prof. EDELMAN: I met him because when I finished my judicial clerkship on the Supreme Court, Justice Arthur Goldberg, for whom I clerked, said you really need to go to work in this administration, there won't be that many more like it in your lifetime. And I didn't know what he was talking about, but it turned out I think he was right.

So I got a job in the Justice Department, working for the assistant attorney general, John Douglas(ph), in the civil division, and through that it was the time, 1963, President Kennedy was killed while I was there. And then Robert Kennedy decided to run for the Senate.

And I thought, gee, that'd be fun if I could get involved in his campaign, and from that he offered me a job in his Senate office, and I was with him until he passed away.

MARTIN: I've read interviews with you where you talked about how you grew up happily middle class. I think the term you used in one interview was a reasonably happy, unremarkable childhood.

Your father was a lawyer, your mother a homemaker. Robert F. Kennedy, of course, was a son of great privilege. I wanted to ask: How did you and he become so committed to fighting poverty? It wasn't something that you grew up with.

Prof. EDELMAN: More importantly about him, because I think he always had an instinct for people who were on the edges, who were excluded in our society, whether he was the seventh child, whether he was smaller of stature. Whatever it was, there was something in him, and so when he was on his own, after President Kennedy was murdered, then it really came out, when he was a senator from New York. For myself...

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to ask about you.

Prof. EDELMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: I mean, the fact is you clerked for a justice of the United States Supreme Court. You had gone to some very fine schools. You could have gone to what they call a so-called white-shoe firm and made a lot of money. You had other choices, so you too.

Prof. EDELMAN: To be honest, I was probably headed there. My idea of being doing something different from my father was to go practice law in New York instead of Minneapolis, but then I just fell into it. It was a fortunate thing.

I got an education going around the country with him and meeting people who were completely excluded from our society, and of course I met my wife going down to Mississippi on some hearings about the poverty program, and so that certainly had a huge influence on me.

MARTIN: Well, apart from the happy side result of meeting your wife, Marion Wright Edelman(ph), who many people will know for her writing and for her advocacy on behalf of children, particularly disadvantaged children, tell me about that trip to Mississippi. I want to hear about you went down there to I guess do some field work or reporting, I don't know what you would call it, in advance of some hearings that Senator Kennedy wanted to hold. Tell me some of the things that you saw.

Prof. EDELMAN: Well, these were hearings on the extension of the poverty program, the war on poverty, but when we got down there, my wife, who I had not then met, I went a few days early to be the advance person, and I looked her up, and she decided reluctantly to spend some time, and that, of course, is a separate story, how that proceeded. But when it was her turn to testify, she was counsel - in addition to being the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer down there, she was counsel to the Child Development Group of Mississippi - this Head Start program. She was supposed to talk about that to try to give their side of the story to the country, and she said I'm sorry but I need to talk to you about the fact that we have children who are starving, nearly starving here in the state of Mississippi.

The reason was really a concatenation of the fact that the minimum wage had come into play for the farm workers and you could pick the cotton now by machines and you could send out boll weevils by herbicides and they didnt need the farm workers anymore, and again, they wanted to drive as many black people out of the state as they could. So here were these families - two-parent families - who were pushed off the plantation, couldnt get welfare because you had to be a one-parent family to get welfare. Food stamps was just coming in as an experimental program, and so the old going down to the train station warehouse to get the surplus food, that was gone, and to get the food stamps you had to pay money.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. To had to pay money to get food stamps?

Prof. EDELMAN: Yup. That was changed in the '70s. And if you had zero income -it started at zero income - you had to pay $2 a person in your family for food stamps. And there were people who had no income.

MARTIN: That sounds ridiculous.

Prof. EDELMAN: Well, that was just the tip of the iceberg of the extreme hunger, but that certainly dramatizes it because people could not afford to purchase the food stamps. And once you put them on the end, you got a little larger amount to go take to the store of the food stamps, but where were you going to get the money to put the money in?

MARTIN: But it's my understanding that when then Marian Wright testified, there were people who didnt believe her. They just did not believe that there really were people starving in this country.

Prof. EDELMAN: So she took us up to the Mississippi Delta the next day and Dan Schorr - beloved Dan Schorr of NPR Radio, my dear friend - was with CBS at the time and his camera was there, and so these children with swollen bellies the sores on their arms and legs that wouldnt heal were on national television that night. And Robert Kennedy went home that night and he said to his children - he was, it was expected their household that people, that the children would grow up and do public service, but at that time he said to them very strongly, you have to help do something about this.

He was so deeply, deeply affected by what he had seen. And we went the next day to see the secretary of agriculture, Orville Freeman, the former governor of Minnesota and he said to him, Orville, you just have to get food down there. I mean that's an exact quote. And then he explained about how they actually charged for the food stamps in $2 a person for the people with no income. And Freeman said to him, Bob, there isn't anybody in America who has no income. And Kennedy said to him, Orville, I've met them. I'll send Peter back down there and you send whoever you want and if your people believe that there are people with no income, will you change that policy? It wasnt a statute. It was a regulation. And Freeman said yes. So that was our first little win when those fellows met the people with no income and they changed the table.

MARTIN: But would it - how did you feel meeting these kids with swollen bellies and sores that wouldnt heal and...

Prof. EDELMAN: Ah! You can hear my voice right now. It was terrible.

MARTIN: Hmm. All these years later you can still see them?

Prof. EDELMAN: Yeah. And...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Prof. EDELMAN: ...you know, the story that's been told very often was that Robert Kennedy went into this house by himself and Marian and I walked in there behind him and he didnt know that we were there, and there's a little child on the floor there that couldnt stand up, probably two years old, couldnt stand up, and he just spent five minutes, maybe 10 minutes trying to get a reaction from that child. And Marian always says that that's how she knew that he was for real.

MARTIN: I hate to talk about 1968, but we have to talk about it; such a significant year. First, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in April, and then Bobby Kennedy was killed in June. What affect did that have on you?

Prof. EDELMAN: You know, it was terrible, of course, and it was certainly a deep personal loss as well as a national loss. I had dreams that he was still alive for decades, the way you do when youve lost your parent. I had those same dreams about my mother. But the other part of it is it all happened so fast, I think I was more numb than I was feeling it right then. But we had a, it was a terrible loss for us as a country. All of those losses that we had of the important leaders that we had who were murdered.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's our Wisdom Watch and I'm speaking with Peter Edelman about his extensive legal career and his advocacy for the poor.

What about the sense of mission around these issues? I mean I think there are still hungry people in this country. I think we can agree that there are people who are hungry at least for some part of the month at some point in this country.

Prof. EDELMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: But its hard to believe that there are the conditions, at least widespread, of the kind that you saw when you first started traveling the country on behalf of Senator Kennedy. And it's my understanding that he, you, a lot of the people who worked in his campaign believed that poverty could be eliminated. There was a sense that we can do this. And I wonder if you think there is still a sense that we can do this, we can eliminate this - do you think we still have that?

Prof. EDELMAN: I think we can do that.

MARTIN: But do you think we believe that we can do that?

Prof. EDELMAN: As a country, I think we have some convincing to do of enough people to make the investments that are necessary to do that. We actually know more, I think, than we knew in the 1960s about what to do. But what I feel like is really hard, its really hard right now because of the recession and I would hope, except I dont think we're seeing it yet, that so many people being new to poverty would be ready to support things that would be helpful to those who've been in poverty for some time as we come out of the recession.

But there needs to be, this is - no question, there needs to be organizing on the one hand. There needs to be people who are putting it together and creating a movement to push, like the civil rights movement, to push for the change, and we need the leadership.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about your philosophy about what should happen now. But before I leave your sort of - your career - your resume - I mentioned that during the Clinton administration you worked at the Department of Health and Human Services. You worked for Donna Shalala, you were a counselor to her, and you famously resigned in 1996, and I wanted to ask if you would remind those of us who dont remember why you resigned and if you still think it was the right thing to do.

Prof. EDELMAN: I do think it was the right thing to do. I resigned because the Congress enacted, and President Clinton signed into law, a so-called reform of our welfare system, which did desperately need to be reformed to promote work for those who could work and help them get jobs and keep jobs, which it did not do, but which instead essentially used a bumper sticker of, Go Out and Get a Job, and said to the states, get as many people off the rolls as you could. And so we shrank the rolls from 14 million down to four million people.

But if you look at it, we left literally millions of people out there as a consequence who had no job, and were not getting any cash assistance. And so now we have well over 15 million people in this country who have incomes that are below half the poverty line, which means below $8,500 for a family of three. That's unbelievable. You asked me before whether there are people out there who had the situation of the children we saw in Mississippi in 1968, and the answer is sort of no, but it's not a resounding no, because we have so many people - Jason DeParle reported recently in the New York Times that we have six million people in this country - two million families that their only income is food stamps, and food stamps only pays you a quarter of the poverty line.

So these are huge and serious issues that remain, and a significant part of this is because the way in which we so-called reformed welfare was essentially to invite and encourage the states to kick - not let people on rolls in the first place. You go around this country right now, why is it that in the middle of this terrible recession, when food stamps have gone up to 36 million people, there are still not five million people on the welfare rolls in the country? Because there's a legal right to get food stamps. When you go down there, they have to help you.

MARTIN: So what do you think has happened to all these people who otherwise would be on welfare but are not? I mean advocates of the reform would say they're doing what they should've been doing all along, which is figuring out how to take care of themselves.

Prof. EDELMAN: Right, and get a job in the middle of the recession. When they go down to the welfare office right now - it's not every state. I want to be clear about that, but it's most places.

MARTIN: Is that bad?

Prof. EDELMAN: Yes, that's bad because they're more people in need than that. We need a basic policy that helps people get to work. And, of course, when there is no work that helps them because there is no work. We dont have that.

MARTIN: How do you think President Obama is doing, by the way? I mean he's a man who talks more about hope than perhaps many people have and - well, I dont know, President Clinton talked about hope a lot. He was from the man from Hope. And we're about a year in and on the matters that you care most about, how do you think he's doing?

Prof. EDELMAN: On the things that I care most about, he started out terrifically well. The Recovery Act has in it a tremendous amount of assistance for people who are in the greatest need, so that's good. Weve gotten ourselves embroiled correctly, I think, but maybe not carried out as well as it should've been, the effort to get health care for every American, and that's taken front and center over a lot of other things. And hate to say it, but the Republican Party has decided to be the party of no - to everything, so he's got some many things stacked against him.

Have they made some mistakes? I think so. I think it's a key time right now to get back to major, major emphasis, not at the expense of health care - we got to keep working on that - but to really say to the American people, we're there for you. We're there for all of you, out on Main Street, we care about you and we're going to do A, B, and C in terms of public policy or try to get it done, that responds to your needs. That's got to be the major theme from here on out.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask if you have any wisdom to share. Particularly if youre thinking about, I'm thinking about a young Peter Edelman, you know, somebody coming out of great schools, good education, the world is sort of open, thinking about a path to take in life. Do you have any wisdom to share?

Prof. EDELMAN: If I have any wisdom, it is that I'd love to see more young people who want to do something about making this a better world. And that's not just about poverty. It's about cleaning up the environment and all the other things that we face. And it's not just about within the United States. It's about feeding people and giving them a chance all over the world, and the status and situation of women all over the world, and minorities - people of color - wherever they are.

I sort of, I'm glad to say in retrospect, fell into it. My father was somebody who served the community a lot in Minneapolis where I grew up, so there was maybe something there. My students give me so much hope. My poverty seminar is full every year of Georgetown law students who want to do something about poverty in this country and are going to - have decided - not falling into it, but have decided that they're going to build their lives around doing something to make this a better and more just country and world. And so if I could just wave my wand and get more young people to make that commitment, that would be a great thing for all of us.

MARTIN: Peter Edelman is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of "Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope," among other books, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much.

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