RFK Plus 40

It was 40 years ago this morning that many of us learned Robert F. Kennedy had been shot after winning the Democratic presidential primary in California. Even those not old enough to remember it have probably seen the film. The smiling Kennedy thanks his supporters and says, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there”—then it’s a jump cut to chaos, screaming, Kennedy lying on the floor. The cursed year 1968 had claimed another victim and it wasn’t even half-over yet. The images still burn, and the memories haunt us.

So do the what-ifs. Kennedy vowed to end the war in Vietnam. No Democrat was better able to unite blacks and whites. Those two facts, combined with the belief that Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination and defeated Richard Nixon in the fall, create the most poignant what-ifs in American history. Would there have been no slow-motion defeat in Vietnam? No Watergate scandal? A greater degree of racial harmony? The lost possibilities almost make RFK’s death seem more tragic than his brother’s five years earlier.

But would RFK have gotten the Democratic nomination in 1968? He had entered the campaign late, and even after his California win, he trailed Vice-President Hubert Humphrey in the delegate count. Furthermore, Lyndon Johnson, who had abdicated the presidency in March by deciding not to run for another term, still controlled the Democratic Party. He hated Kennedy, and some historians believe that if it had gotten close, Johnson would have used all his influence to deny Kennedy the nomination. Now, it’s at least plausible that had Johnson tried to ram Humphrey’s nomination through a closely divided Democratic convention, there would have been an open revolt on the floor. If it had come to that—without the open wound of Kennedy’s death fueling pain, despair, and rage—the drama at the Chicago convention might have been confined to the International Amphitheater instead of exploding in the streets. And the likelihood is that Kennedy would have ended his campaign not with a speech accepting the nomination, but by pledging to support the nominee Humphrey in November.

But even if Kennedy had somehow won the nomination, would he have beaten Nixon? Although the Camelot mystique remained powerful in 1968, the changing demographics of the American electorate were probably more so. The country was moving right that year—the historic realignment that saw the solidly Democratic South of the post-Civil War century become the solidly Republican South of today was underway. In addition, former Alabama governor George Wallace was running as an independent—to Nixon’s right. Wallace ended up carrying five states in the Deep South—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia—with over nine million votes. It’s a stretch to think these states would have gone for Kennedy instead of Nixon, given Nixon’s strength on some of the same issues that made Wallace popular—for example, “law and order,” which was code for cracking down on war protesters and noisy urban minorities. Although Nixon nosed out Humphrey by only a half-million votes out of nearly 80 million cast, 56 percent went to either Nixon or Wallace.

In the end, the dream that RFK might have stopped the war, healed the racial divide, spared the country from Watergate, and guided America to an alternate, unrecognizable future is mostly a romantic political fantasy. Yet RFK’s gift was that he inspired those big dreams—in the memorable phrase Ted Kennedy used to eulogize him, “He dreamed things that never were and asked, ‘Why not’?” Americans still thirst for that kind of leadership today. Some claimed to have found it in Ronald Reagan; a few, in George W. Bush. Today, some see it in Barack Obama.

RFK himself might challenge us to stop looking for it in other people and to look for it in ourselves. As he told an audience in South Africa in 1966, “Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. . . . Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

(More along this line, with video and music, is at The Hits Just Keep on Comin’.)




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  • http://www.kenshane.com kshane

    I believe that this country began a long downhill slide from which we have yet to recover on November 22, 1963. In 1968 it seemed like we had been handed one last chance in the person of Bobby Kennedy. When we lost that last chance I, and many other people, gave up on the idea that a politician could restore hope and greatness to us.

    It was not until Barack Obama appeared on the scene, almost forty years later, that I allowed myself to feel hopeful again. I was there in 1968. I worked on Bobby's campaign. I've been working on Barack's campaign. The feelings are very much the same for me. I pray that the outcome is different this time.

    Bobby is never far from my thoughts, and that's even more true today.

  • Old_Davy

    I was only 2 when JFK was assassinated, but I vividly remember Bobby's murder. Even at the age of 7, I understood what bigotry was and that dangerous people were in charge of our nation. Like kshane, I feel optimistic for the first time in 40 years that we finally have a politician running for president that has the charisma to appeal to all people of the nation, along with the intelligence and integrity to change it for the better.

  • JonCummings

    Whether Bobby could have overcome Humphrey is forever an open question–the system was much more malleable in those days, and open to momentum swings at the convention (since the primaries still determined only a minority of the delegates). Besides Johnson, people forget what a powerful figure (and good man) Humphrey was.

    However, I would guess that Chicago would have been Chicago, with all the attendant chaos on the streets, no matter what was going on inside the hall. That crowd–and those cops–were a tinderbox, just waiting to ignite at anything. Sure, Bobby's murder added significantly to the discontent, but the protests likely would have been just as vehement were he alive and fighting for the nomination.

    One thing's for sure, however; had he lived, perhaps to become either the presidential or VP nominee, he would have been much more successful in blunting the impact of that convention than Humphrey was. That alone might have hindered Nixon in at least a couple of battleground states (New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois).

    Still, Nixon's electoral-college victory over Humphrey was much larger than his popular-vote win, and it likely would have been larger if not for Wallace's performance in the South. RFK would have had a tough time fighting the pro-GOP trend that year.

    I was only 2 then, but one of my first memories is my mom's tears over Bobby's death and her intense dislike for Nixon. She could only imagine and wish that things were different; fortunately for us, we can hope–and we can work.

  • http://www.davewillieradio.blogspot.com davewillie

    The Democratic party is splintered. A considerable amount of people who would have voted for Hillary WILL NOT vote for Obama. They would rather vote for McCain because they know where he stands on the issues. Obama's position is either cloudy or runs against the grain and does not have the support of the majority.

    Now is the time for an independent to step in and take control. Ironcially, the last time an independent had a major impact was 1968. George Wallace was the last independent candidate to ganer electoral votes. John Anderson and Ross Perot were minor blips on the radar.

    It's too bad an independent like Ron Paul, not necessarily Paul himself, does not have more widespread appeal. It would be great to demolish the two-party system in this country.

    As for me, I will be voting for the same candidate for President that I have for the last two elections–myself.

  • http://www.davewillieradio.blogspot.com davewillie

    The Democratic party is splintered. A considerable amount of people who would have voted for Hillary WILL NOT vote for Obama. They would rather vote for McCain because they know where he stands on the issues. Obama's position is either cloudy or runs against the grain and does not have the support of the majority.

    Now is the time for an independent to step in and take control. Ironcially, the last time an independent had a major impact was 1968. George Wallace was the last independent candidate to ganer electoral votes. John Anderson and Ross Perot were minor blips on the radar.

    It's too bad an independent like Ron Paul, not necessarily Paul himself, does not have more widespread appeal. It would be great to demolish the two-party system in this country.

    As for me, I will be voting for the same candidate for President that I have for the last two elections–myself.

  • http://www.davewillieradio.blogspot.com davewillie

    The Democratic party is splintered. A considerable amount of people who would have voted for Hillary WILL NOT vote for Obama. They would rather vote for McCain because they know where he stands on the issues. Obama's position is either cloudy or runs against the grain and does not have the support of the majority.

    Now is the time for an independent to step in and take control. Ironcially, the last time an independent had a major impact was 1968. George Wallace was the last independent candidate to ganer electoral votes. John Anderson and Ross Perot were minor blips on the radar.

    It's too bad an independent like Ron Paul, not necessarily Paul himself, does not have more widespread appeal. It would be great to demolish the two-party system in this country.

    As for me, I will be voting for the same candidate for President that I have for the last two elections–myself.