Fifty years ago Robert F. Kennedy was murdered. A new book by a former member of congress explores the complicated legacy of a man that many think would have gone on to be president.
Fifty years ago today Robert F. Kennedy was shot. It was a few minutes after midnight and Mr. Kennedy had just given a speech thanking his supporters after he had won the California presidential primary. He exited the podium at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and walked through the hotel kitchen where gunman Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian/Jordanian immigrant was waiting. Mr. Kennedy died the next day from his wounds.
Robert F. Kennedy was 42.
Was Robert Kennedy’s death a turning point in the tumultuous year of 1968 and in subsequent history?
We think not in the former and possibly in the latter.
RFK was a younger brother of President John F. Kennedy. He was the third Kennedy brother to die. violently. The oldest Joseph died when his warplane exploded during a World War II mission. JFK was assassinated in 1963. An older sister Kathleen died in a plane crash.
Robert Kennedy was a staffer for Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In 1960 he was his brother’s campaign manager and Attorney General where he was involved in all of the big issues of JFK’s presidency. After the assassination, Robert Kennedy ran successfully for the US Senate from New York in 1964.
In the Senate, Robert Kennedy came to oppose his brother’s successor, Lyndon Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. The two men had never liked each other and the disdain grew into one of the great blood feuds of modern American politics.
As the 1968 campaign season drew closer, many Democrats opposed to the war in Vietnam urged RFK to challenge President Johnson in the Democratic primaries. He demurred and the peace challenge was taken up by Senator Eugene McCarty of Minnesota. McCarthy later said that Kennedy had told him that he would not enter the race. Mr. Kennedy like most professionals considered a primary challenge to LBJ futile.
But Eugene McCarthy tapped into a significant amount of anti-war sentiment and surprised the political world by doing well in the first primary, suddenly prompting Kennedy to enter the race. Johnson subsequently dropped out, opening an opportunity for Vice President Hubert Humphrey to enter. Humphrey was the favorite of the Democratic establishment.
In that era there were few primaries. State conventions selected delegates for the national convention in most instances and this was to Humphrey’s advantage. Kennedy won most of the primaries but crucially lost in Oregon. The California primary loomed large. Kennedy closed his victory speech to his supporters alluding to the coming Democratic National Convention, “On to Chicago.”
A new book by former Member of Congress James Rogan: “Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968” takes that phrase as its title and speculates on how the presidential campaign would have turned out if Robert Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt. This is work of fiction but it is heavily footnoted with cites from actual events, statements of principals, convention rules, delegate counts and more. The footnotes combine to be as long as the book itself.
Mr. Rogan concludes that if Kennedy had lived and continued campaigning in 1968, he still would have lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey and Humphrey would have lost to Richard Nixon. He reasons that Humphrey had a big lead in actual delegates and that Mr. Kennedy’s chances of securing the nomination were further hindered by LBJ’s active opposition and, alternatively, by the disdain that many McCarthy voters felt for him due to what they saw as his rank opportunism – jumping into the race only after McCarthy had taken the initial risk.
Mr. Rogan quotes Lawrence F. O’Brien who was the campaign manager to all three of the major Democratic candidates: first Lyndon Johnson and then Robert Kennedy (after LBJ dropped out), and finally Hubert Humphrey (after RFK’s assassination). In his 1975 memoir Mr. O’Brien wrote:
“Could Bob Kennedy, if he had lived, have won the Democratic nomination that year? Obviously he was in an uphill fight. At the time of Bob’s death, Hubert was very close to having enough committed delegates to be nominated. Indeed, a national poll at that time indicated he had more than a majority.”
Robert Kennedy’s assassination elevated him to near sainthood in American culture. In some ways relevant to those times – his antiwar stance, his civil rights positions and his support of Cesar Chavez – this is understandable.
Mr. Rogan does a lot to balance that perspective. He writes
“The truth: Robert Kennedy, both before and after his brother’s death, was a calculating politician who fought dirty, played for keeps, and (when politically expedient) took various sides of an issue to please specific and often conflicting interest groups. …We forgive the Kennedys, but not the graceless LBJ or the sweat-beaded and shifty-eyed Nixon, because the Kennedys had a cultured, smooth veneer…”
Mr. Rogan recounts a debate between Eugene McCarthy and RFK in the California primary where Mr. Kennedy resorted to racism. Mr. McCarty talked of moving poor blacks out of slums and got this from Robert Kennedy: “You want to take ten thousand black people out of the ghettos and move them into Orange County.”
Mr. Rogan also speculates through the use of quotes from well-known sources that Robert Kennedy had sexual affairs with Jacqueline Kennedy after his brother’s death and with Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who died in 1969 in a submerged car driven off a bridge by RFK’s brother Ted Kennedy.
Mr Rogan concludes that “All the evidence suggests that Bobby did become more soulful, patient, thoughtful, and empathetic for the underclass, but his darker political side never wandered far.”
Did Robert Kennedy’s death change history?
Probably not in 1968, a year that included the capture of the “Pueblo” by the North Koreans, the Tet Offensive, the murders of Martin Luther king and RFK, the George Wallace campaign, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the fist-in-the-air Olympic protests of Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos and the election of Mr. Nixon.
But did it change the farther out future?
Had he lived, Robert Kennedy would have been younger than Jimmy Carter when he was elected, Ronald Reagan in his victories and the first President Bush when he won in 1988. When Bill Clinton won in 1992, Robert Kennedy would have been 67. If he had lived and continued his move to the left – as his brother Ted did and as the Party did – Robert Kennedy could well have affected those elections.
We’ll never know.
Author James Rogan’s book “On To Chicago: “Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968” is available on Amazon.