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’.)