John Edwards Steps into Big Shoes in Crusade Against Poverty

They're closing a hospital in my city, but I'm sure nobody in the rest of the country gives a damn.

If Robert F. Kennedy were alive and running for president, he'd tell America about the demise of Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in South Los Angeles and what it means to America. He'd make Americans give a damn.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, he'd be speaking at the hospital. After hearing his words, people across the country would realize Los Angeles' loss was also their own. Dr. King would make them give a damn.

One of the most important, now forgotten, aspects of the tragic year of 1968 was the way Sen. Kennedy and Dr. King saw the relationship between the Vietnam War and poverty at home. If the war continued, poverty would too.

They carried this message throughout the country. It was not popular. Even some of those who loved him thought Dr. King should stick to his subject: civil rights. And too many opponents of the war thought Kennedy was muddying up the antiwar campaign by diving into the complexities of poor brown and black America.

But the two persisted, and if Kennedy had been elected in 1968, more Americans would have been persuaded to care. Assassination -- King in April and then Kennedy in June -- silenced them.

Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital is located around 120th Street and Wilmington Avenue in the heart of South Los Angeles, where the population, once almost all African American, now is also heavily Latino.

The hospital was built after the 1965 Watts riot. Watts is a relatively small community near the hospital, but its name became attached to a riot that raged widely through South Los Angeles.

In those days, Los Angeles, which liked to consider itself enlightened, had many of the attributes of the Old South: a brutal, heavily white police department, a rotten public transportation system that did not serve poor areas, and segregated housing and public schools. There was no hospital for miles around. That's what sparked and fed the riot.

King was built by the county to remedy the situation. But over the years, it became a victim of the dysfunctional politics of poor areas. The hospital offered jobs and was a boon to the then-dominant black population. After a time, jobs became more important than standards.

First in the 1980s and then in 2004, the Los Angeles Times exposed bad conditions in a hospital that had become known as "Killer King." An incompetent county Board of Supervisors did nothing. Federal authorities investigated. Last week they cut off federal aid, and now the hospital is closing.

This is the kind of issue that John Edwards is talking about in his presidential campaign, just as Robert Kennedy did in 1968.

Edwards speaks out more strongly than any of the other Democratic presidential candidates on the direct link between the Iraq war and the increasingly desperate plight of the poor, as well as the growing financial troubles of the middle class.

In July Edwards replicated a tour Kennedy took in 1968 through an Appalachia that remains impoverished. The national political reporters and commentators greeted him with the cynicism, scorn and irony so popular in a mainstream media trying desperately to sound up to date.

They commented on his tactics: They were so irrelevant, so outmoded, so 1968. Newsweek's Jonathan Darman said, "By the time the tour reached its halfway point, Edwards was barely making the national papers." In the bored and world-weary tone of many American political journalists, he commented, "[T]o a weary nation worried about the war in Iraq, the threat of terror and the health of the planet, his words sound like more empty promises from a politician."

I think reporters such as Darman should be required to spend several days exploring the area around Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital. It is an area where "the threat of terror" is daily and immediate -- gang bullets, uninsured drunken hit-run drivers, and drug dealers in control of streets.

To people in South Los Angeles, "the health of the planet" is a somewhat vague concept compared with immediate health concerns of diabetes, poor nutrition, high rates of cancer, high blood pressure, gunshot wounds and other afflictions associated with poor neighborhoods.

And if the reporters don't want to travel to California, let them visit Grady hospital in Atlanta, where my daughter, a nurse, encountered the same conditions as she worked in the emergency ward. Or they could go to any other public hospital and the surrounding poor neighborhood in urban America.

I am not dumb enough to believe poverty is curable. But it can be ameliorated, and a big step toward helping the poor would be some sort national health insurance -- preferably Medicare for everyone. Edwards was the first to come out with a comprehensive healthcare plan and, while not perfect, it's the best that's been offered.

With patients covered by national health insurance, public hospitals like King could become private or community hospitals run by independent administrators, not captives of a government bureaucracy. They could impose strict standards on doctors, nurses and the other caregivers, free from interference by bureaucrats and their politician bosses.

And national health insurance, with everyone carrying a Medicare card, would permit the poor to get the examinations -- breast, colon, prostate, heart and the rest -- that help prevent long-term and severe illness. The ill could go to any hospital. Those suffering from cancer, for example, could choose the hospital with the most experienced cancer specialists.

We can't do this unless the war ends. There isn't enough money. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. saw the connection. If they had been around today, their words would have been so powerful that the political journalists couldn't ignore them. Kennedy and King would have led, and the country would have followed.

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