If Bobby Lived...
As we contemplate the improbable rise of Obama, and our hope for his victory in the fall, and as we commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy this week, I offer what I hope is a decent summary of why I continue to believe Robert F. Kennedy, aka Bobby Kennedy, would have also won had he not been assassinated. Perhaps Obama's victory may reinvigorate RFK's spirit and the reformation of a new New Deal coalition to rebuild and improve our nation.
In the first minutes after midnight on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was shot while walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Moments before, he had completed a victory speech following his primary election victories in California and South Dakota. By June 5, 1968, Kennedy had won four of the five primary elections he had entered since announcing his candidacy for president in March 1968--at a time when delegates were largely chosen in caucuses and meetings, not primary elections. The only primary election left after June 5 was the New York State primary set for June 18, 1968. Kennedy was expected to convincingly win the New York primary, the State Kennedy had been serving as Senator since 1965.
The question haunting many Americans 40 years later is: If Kennedy lived, would he have won the Democratic Party's nomination for president? Some historians, starting with Ronald Steel, believe that, because Vice President Hubert Humphrey was more than 400 delegates ahead of Kennedy, and only needed 300 more delegates to win the nomination, Humphrey would have won the nomination even if Kennedy survived. (NOTE: Links are to book sources for factual back-up). But there is good reason to believe Kennedy had already gained strong momentum by June 5 of that tumultuous year of 1968, and that, by then, Kennedy had become the only candidate who could unite the New Deal coalition that was coming apart at the seams over the Vietnam War, the militancy rising within the civil rights movement, the gap in outlook between the generations, and the nascent women's movement.
As noted above, there were relatively few primary elections in 1968, and the vast majority of delegates were akin to superdelegates who could change their minds up through the convention. Political insiders such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley wielded far more power to make or break a candidate than today. After the California primary, Daley was just getting ready to endorse Kennedy, as he had waited throughout the spring to see if Kennedy could build nationwide support. While Daley was viewed as a "conservative" Democrat, Daley was far more complicated than that label. For example, Daley was strongly in favor of ending the Vietnam War, which put Daley to the "left" of most establishment Humphrey supporters. Daley also supported most of the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson. Daley had no use for Humphrey and strongly disliked Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), Kennedy's two main challengers.
Separate from Daley, Kennedy had growing support from many in the 1960s student movement, including Tom Hayden, who, like Daley and Kennedy, was of Irish heritage and a strong believer in the Kennedy mystique. Whether Daley personally hated the student radical Hayden is less important than that both wanted to see Kennedy elected. Successful political campaigns often depend upon such strange bedfellows of insiders and younger voters willing to walk precincts, lick envelopes, and fill out rallies. Both Daley and Hayden ended up sitting in different sections of St. Patrick's Cathedral when Bobby Kennedy was being laid to rest. They would have been glad to sit in different sections of the inauguration podium had Kennedy lived.
Humphrey, after Kennedy was killed, stalled in his candidacy throughout June and July 1968. In the days leading up to the late August 1968 Democratic convention, Mayor Daley was desperately trying to convince Ted Kennedy to accept a draft nomination. Daley, speaking for other insiders, was not impressed with Humphrey's drive to win a national campaign. Humphrey had only hesitantly entered the race for the nomination at the end of April 1968--almost a full month after President Lyndon Johnson's shocking announcement on March 31, 1968 that he would not seek re-election. When Humphrey was told, a few hours before Johnson's dramatic public announcement, that he needed to run for president to replace Johnson, Humphrey responded, "There's no way I can beat the Kennedys." By the time Humphrey announced, it was too late for Humphrey to enter and run in any primary elections. In fact, Humphrey's lack of desire to run against Kennedy continued later into the campaign, when, a few days before the California primary, Humphrey told one of his top aides, Ted Van Dyk, that he hoped Bobby would win "decisively" against McCarthy. Humphrey also told Van Dyk that he and Kennedy held the same views about most public policy issues, and said he genuinely liked Kennedy. Publicly, Humphrey voiced doubts about his own candidacy in late May 1968, telling a local broadcast journalist that if Johnson had reconsidered his decision, Humphrey would gladly step aside. Humphrey would also have likely stepped aside rather than have a fight against Kennedy at the convention. For unlike Humphrey, Kennedy had already said to his aides on the night of June 4 that he was prepared to chase his opponent's "ass" around the country to secure delegates.
Senator McCarthy, too erudite and detached, and prone to statements we'd call gaffes today, also failed to secure the support of many Kennedy supporters after Kennedy's death. McCarthy then completely imploded at the beginning of the Democratic Party's convention when he declared it was not a big deal that Russian tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia to overturn the pro-democracy movement in that nation. Worse, from a domestic political perspective, McCarthy released a list of people for his prospective Cabinet that included mostly non-Democrats and establishment "conservatives." McCarthy had ceased being a realistic challenger to Kennedy by the time the polls closed in California on June 4, 1968. Kennedy knew that, and that's why he focused with his aides on Mayor Daley and Humphrey--not McCarthy. McCarthy was a like a badly leaking ship, and nobody really had a chance to immediately notice once Kennedy was killed.
In 1968, television and radio pundits and reporters had become a factor in establishing a narrative that people followed. These pundits and reporters were, at the time, treating the primaries as far more meaningful than caucus meetings of potential delegates. This narrative helped Kennedy create the perception that he was the "leading" candidate for the nomination. Kennedy's campaign speeches were also broadcast-media-friendly in focusing on the theme of uniting the nation, and telling Americans he was strong enough to help heal America's self-inflicted wounds of race riots and a failing foreign war. Kennedy had made significant inroads as a uniter among media pundits, who carried much weight back then--despite a 1967 poll which showed Kennedy to be more of a divisive than uniting political figure. Kennedy's April 4, 1968 speech in Indianapolis, where he informed a largely African-American audience that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and his last speech in Los Angeles (which Jeremy Larner, Gene McCarthy's leading speechwriter, said was Kennedy's best speech of the campaign) were both about unity, building confidence in ourselves as a society, and moving forward with strength to overcome the economic and cultural challenges facing the nation. Therefore, if Robert Kennedy lived, there is clearly good reason to conclude he would have won the Democratic Party's nomination in 1968.
The other question people ask is who would Bobby have chosen for Vice President? In the 1950s and 1960s, Vice Presidential candidates were mostly those who had served, at one time or another, as Senators. The Democratic Party Senators not running for re-election in 1968, who most fit the regional balancing goal both political parties had sought in 1968, were U.S. Senators Ralph Yarborough (Texas), Vance Hartke (Indiana) and George Smathers (Florida). Yarborough had somewhat quietly, though firmly endorsed Kennedy, and Smathers and Hartke were long-time Kennedy friends. The best bet would have been Yarborough because Texas' electoral college votes were equal to several Southern states. Plus, Yarborough's fearless embrace of economic populism would most effectively offset the strength of the third party candidacy of former Alabama governor, George Wallace, who cornered the market that year for appeals to white racism and cultural populism. Peter Edelman, a close Kennedy advisor, once told me "I hope we were really that smart" to pick Yarborough, simply because nobody in the campaign had any idea who Bobby was thinking about for Vice President.
So Kennedy defeats Nixon and Wallace, right? Well, maybe. Kennedy was likely to win most states in the Northeast, and there were still lots of union members in the Midwest who would follow their leaders' exhortations to vote for the Kennedy-Yarborough ticket. Also, in the far West, we know Humphrey almost defeated Nixon in Nixon's home state of California, won in Washington State, and lost to Nixon by only five and a half points in Oregon. A strong Kennedy campaign would likely have resulted in Kennedy prevailing in California and Washington, though perhaps not Oregon. People also forget that Humphrey won Texas, even with his Vice President nominee being Senator Ed Muskie from Maine. With Yarborough barnstorming through Texas and a few other States in the South, Kennedy-Yarborough may well have won in Texas, despite white Texans' antipathy toward Bobby Kennedy.
If Kennedy won the presidency, we'd probably have a very different America, and a different world, assuming Kennedy and Yarborough were able to hold together most of the New Deal coalition. Under their leadership and programs, we'd likely be living in an America with a better distribution of its wealth, a more robust community without the constant budget cuts in education and other human services, and a far deeper commitment to public service. If Kennedy's Bedford-Stuyvesant program of urban re-development went nationwide, America would be a far more hospitable place for less fortunate African-Americans and Latinos--and one questions whether the violent despair of rap "music" would have reached so deeply into American culture, to take a far reaching example. When we look at campaign photographs taken in poor communities where Kennedy visited, we see a profound faith that has never been fully replicated, even with Senator Obama's amazing rise to national prominence.
Kennedy's legacy of courage, hope and passion for his nation remains compelling and can be grasped once again by America--if it exercises its political will through leaders bold enough to embrace Kennedy's best values, starting with ending an unpopular foreign war and helping those most economically vulnerable in our society. If our leaders embrace those values, then Bobby Kennedy will have finally and truly won the election he began in 1968.