A lot of ink has been and will be spilled today regarding Kennedy's 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, most of it related to the continuing "Kennedy Myth" that has haunted and teased this nation for over fifty years. RFK's run has now assumed almost legendary status - the star-crossed young warrior, going to battle against the entrenched hierarchy and the special interests; a man born to great privilege and yet a "man of the people" and champion of the poor and downtrodden; a shining light of passion and dedication, cut down just as he could all but visualize his goal. While a lot of that has some basis in fact, Bobby's decision to run that year and his prospects for winning his party's nomination, and ultimately the presidency, were a lot more complicated than that.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Robert Kennedy entered the 1968 presidential race late, on March 16th, four days after President Lyndon Johnson narrowly won the New Hampshire primary over upstart Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy (49% to 42%). The relationship between
The bullets fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 suddenly and immediately altered that power dynamic yet again, this time with the new president Johnson on top, and he didn't hesitate to use it to exact some vicious payback against a physically altered and emotionally distraught Bobby, reeling in the aftermath of his brother's death. Even with all of that, Kennedy stayed on as Attorney General in the Johnson administration for several more months, ostensibly to cement JFK's legacy in the legal realm. But his heart clearly wasn't into his job, or with continuing to work with LBJ. Sensing that he could do more good - and establish his own political base for the future - outside of the cabinet, Bobby resigned his office in mid-1964 to run for the Senate in New York, defeating the incumbent Republican Kenneth Keating that November. During his four years in the Senate, Kennedy enhanced his liberal bona fides, championing civil rights and marginalized members of the population (who he referred to as the "disaffected", the impoverished, and "the excluded"), and increasingly calling into question America's involvement in the Vietnam War. By early 1968, Bobby's popularity with certain groups (especially minorities) rivaled and even exceeded that of Johnson.
Kennedy was itching to make a presidential run against the hated Johnson in 1968, who he considered to be over his head as Chief Executive and unable to adequately deal with the serious issues (war, racial divisions, poverty, etc.) he faced during his first full term. However, despite urging from his advisors and from various corners of society, Bobby considered his prospects for a successful run against a sitting president exceedingly unrealistic - the last president denied his party's nomination for a second term was Chester A. Arthur in 1884. So he announced at a January 30th, 1968 press conference (coincidentally, the same day as the beginning of the Tet Offensive) that “under no foreseeable circumstances” would he run for president. And it seemed to most of the world that that was the final word regarding a possible "Kennedy '68" bid.
However, shortly after this declaration, Kennedy, his pollsters and advisors began to sense that something was going on in the American electorate - a hidden but surging groundswell of discontent with the current direction of the country. Bobby and his team could see that in the preliminary February polling for the upcoming "first in the nation" New Hampshire primary,
Either way, Bobby's declaration on March 16th, in the Caucus Room of the old Senate Office Building, was not met with overwhelming nationwide hosannas. He was denounced in some quarters as a political opportunist, taking advantage of the trail that McCarthy's months of hard work had blazed. Despite this, he was immediately regarded as the frontrunner and the president's most formidable electoral foe. Faced with two strong opponents now, Johnson famously bowed out of the race on March 31st, throwing his support and that of much of the Democratic establishment behind the candidacy of his Vice-
While the two liberal candidates were slugging it out in the states, Humphrey concentrated on acquiring nomination delegates from states that didn't hold primaries, places where party bosses still held sway and controlled delegate selection. Unlike nowadays, back then, most states DIDN'T hold primaries, and delegate slates were largely determined by big-city political machines. So, despite his relative success in the primaries, on the night of the California primary, Kennedy still had a grand total of only 393 pledged delegates to Humphrey's 561 (McCarthy had 238), with 1,312 votes needed to lock up the party's nomination. He hoped that with his primary successes, he could convince party leaders that he was the only Democrat who could defeat the nominal Republican candidate Richard Nixon and prevent them from pledging their delegations and allegiances (to Humphrey or anyone else) too early, at least not before the party convention that summer in Chicago. Kennedy wanted to create a "bandwagon" effect of the same manner and type that helped his brother gain the nomination in 1960.
With all of this, it's a tough call to say that RFK could have arrived in Chicago and garnered the remaining votes needed to win the nomination. McCarthy's team was still furious at him for his late entry (two days before the California primary, two Kennedy staffers went to McCarthy state headquarters in Los Angeles to argue that the loser of the California primary withdraw and support the winner; said one McCarthy worker: “I’d vote for Nixon over that SOB [i.e., RFK].”), so those delegates weren't necessarily Kennedy's for the asking. Young antiwar voters, whom he needed to draw into in his coalition, remained steadfast in their loyalty to their champion Senator McCarthy.
More significant to his overall prospects, Kennedy faced opposition from three groups central to the nominating process and influential with state and big-city political bosses:
- Southern Democrats, many of whom bitterly resented his civil rights advocacy;
- Much of organized labor leadership, who remembered his crackdowns on crooked Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and other corrupt union officials; and—despite his upbringing and pedigree;
- Titans of industry, who viewed with deep worry his steady drift to the left during his four years in the Senate.
So, looking at it in a cold, hard, objective manner, I seriously doubt that Bobby would have been able to get to 1,312. Of course, the events in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in the wee hours of June 5th, 1968, and RFK's subsequent death little more than a day later makes all of that a moot point.
I was still in preschool in 1968, so I have little to no memory of the earthshaking events of that year - war, assassinations, riots, flights to the moon. Therefore, Kennedy's death had no impact on me at the time. It was only later that full force of the event hit home. In my opinion, the RFK assassination was the single most significant event of the late 1960s affecting American history - more than the Watts riots, more than the Martin Luther King assassination, more than the moon landing. It seems to me that with his passing and the missed opportunity of a Robert Kennedy presidency, America lost its last, best chance to reclaim the shining beacon of hope, justice, truth and right in the world that had begun slipping from our grasp in the '60s.
It's impossible to say with any certainty, but it is likely that under Kennedy, America's involvement in Vietnam would have ended much earlier - not with any sort of victory (as the Pentagon Papers later revealed, prior administrations had concluded years earlier that a military conflict there was essentially unwinnable), but possibly with better terms and a saving of thousands of American lives. With a government led by a leader liked and trusted by marginalized groups, implementation of civil rights laws probably would have been expedited. And among other things, Watergate and its aftermath, the public's mistrust of and disillusionment with government and political service, never would have happened. With the prospect of a Kennedy administration, there was an anticipation and expectation of a more caring and compassionate government, responsive to the issues and needs of the many, especially those needing assistance - and spearheaded by a tough-minded, experienced professional.
As Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote in a recent op-ed in the Miami Herald:
It turned out the tough guy had an instinct for the underdog and a deep, moral indignation over the unfair treatment that trapped them in their hoods and hollers, barely subsisting in the shadows of plenty. He saw their humanity. This, I think, even more than his opposition to the war in Vietnam, was what drew people....The key word in that section above is "hope" - to many people, that's what Bobby Kennedy represented, and that's what was lost.
There was in that last ragged campaign of his, this sense of the possible, of the new, of fundamental, systemic change. There was this sense of a more compassionate America waiting just below the horizon. There was, in a word, hope. Or as Rep. John Lewis, then a campaign aide, consoled himself in the grim weeks after Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis: “At least we still have Bobby.”
Looking back fifty years now at the events of that time, the thing that is most devastating and distressing about Robert Kennedy's death to me is that there wasn't any interim period needed for citizens to assess his legacy - people IMMEDIATELY knew what a profound loss they and the nation had suffered.
RFK's funeral was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on the morning of June 8th, 1968, then his body was transported by special train down to Washington, DC, where he was to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Without provocation or urging, hundreds of thousands of people lined the entire length of the railroad tracks and packed the stations along the route, paying their respects to their lost champion as the train moved past. A sampling of the photos of the assembled crowds is haunting and devastating in depicting the grief and despair of a vast swath of the nation:
The Number One song in the U.S. the week of Kennedy's death was "Mrs. Robinson" by the pop duo Simon & Garfunkel. The song was originally included in the soundtrack to the hit Mike Nichols-directed film The Graduate, released in late 1967, and released again as part of the folk-rock duo's 1968 album Bookends. The song, one of several Simon & Garfunkel tunes included in the movie, was originally titled "Mrs. Roosevelt", but was revamped and retitled for the film to refer to one of the main characters, the adulterous Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. While popular in its own right, the film version of "Mrs. Robinson" was markedly different from the album version, released a couple of months later. It was this latter version that climbed the charts in the spring of 1968, peaking on June 1st and remaining at the top of the charts for most of that month.
The most famous and celebrated portion of the song refers to the former Yankee great Joe DiMaggio:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggioIn an interview years later, Simon discussed this lyric and explained that the line was meant as a sincere tribute to DiMaggio's unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes. He further reflected:
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you
Wu wu wu
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson
Jolting Joe has left and gone away
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey
"In those days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his slience. ...I didn't mean the lines literally... I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply."In the wake of the assassination, it was easy at the time to figuratively transfer the meaning and context of the words in that song to the nation's feelings regarding the loss of RFK. Being that Bookends was consciously constructed to contain many of Paul Simon's major lyrical themes (including "youth, alienation, life, love, disillusionment, relationships, old age and [especially] mortality"), the album became almost the perfect accompaniment to and encapsulation of the nation's collective feelings during that terrible month. I can't listen to the album nowadays without thinking of Bobby.
In memory of Bobby Kennedy, all that he was and all that he could have been, here's Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends, released by Columbia Records on April 3rd, 1968. Enjoy, reflect, and as always, let me know what you think.
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