Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles following his narrow win over Gene McCarthy in the California primary. Coming just weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is one of the indelible stamps of the year that often gets labeled as the worst year in American history since 1861. (Though I’m sure future liberal historians will mark November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump and his Russian bots stole the election from Saint Hillary, as the darkest day ever in American history.)
Kennedy’s death has long been a totem of when “the dream died.” It is supposed that his charisma, idealism, and especially his appeal to “the young” (who in any case were not yet eligible to vote in 1968—1972 was the first presidential election where 18 year olds could vote), would have made Bobby a transformative figure, just like a later magical and transformative figure named “Obama” who many people compared to RFK. How’d that work out for liberals?
A lot of the gauzy image of RFK owes to his horrible killing and a lot of romantic revisionism by liberals, just as they did with JFK and the contrived “Camelot” legend after JFK’s killing in 1963. Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Robert Kennedy’s reputation is if he had not been killed. First of all, it is unlikely he’d have won the Democratic nomination in 1968. On the morning of the California primary 50 years ago today, Hubert Humphrey remarked to an aide: “I want Bobby to win big. Number one, there are too many party leaders opposed to him for him to have any real chance of winning the nomination. Number two, since Oregon [where Kennedy had lost to McCarthy], he can’t use the argument that he went right through the primaries.” Bobby didn’t win big; his margin over McCarthy was only 5 percent—short of the landslide he needed. Incidentally, Kennedy played the racial demagogue with McCarthy in their one TV debate, with the totally false charge that “You say you want to move 10,000 black people to Orange County. . .” So much for the “racial healer.”
Lyndon Johnson, though a lame duck, was still powerful in the Democratic Party. He hated Kennedy. Anybody really think he wouldn’t have done all he could to block Kennedy’s nomination? Only 19 percent of Democratic convention delegates were selected by primaries in 1968; a New York Times canvas in April estimated that 70 percent of county chairmen in the Democratic Party were backing Humphrey. By the time of the California primary, Humphrey had already secured the lopsided majority of the delegates from key states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas.
AFL-CIO leader George Meany wasn’t even on speaking terms with Kennedy. These blocks, together with President Johnson’s undying enmity, would surely have combined to deny Kennedy the nomination. “Nearly everyone is furious with Kennedy for what he is doing to the party,” The New Leader observed right after RFK’s entry; “In Congress . . . the reaction [among Democrats] to Kennedy’s decision can be summed up in a word—panic.”
If Kennedy had won the nomination, I suspect President Johnson would likely have surreptitiously helped Nixon; Texas Governor John Connally (whom Nixon courted behind the scenes) might have openly done so, and swung that key state to Nixon. Humphrey, who I think was actually a pretty good candidate, ended up narrowly carrying Texas, and overall making a razor-close race out of what was a terrible year for Democrats.
Like King’s killing, Kennedy’s killing set off a fresh round of America-bashing among liberals. “The world today,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said the day after, “is asking a terrible question which every citizen of this republic should be putting to himself: What sort of people are we, we Americans? And the answer which much of the world is bound to return is that we are today the most frightening people on the planet.” Never mind that Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, was a foreign-born radical whose diary said, among other things, “I advocate the overthrow of the current president of the fucking United States of America . . . I firmly support the Communist cause and its people.”
The more durable strain of romantic myth is that King and Kennedy’s killings spelled the end of hope, the end of the dream, that America could redeem itself through politics. “With King and Kennedy dead,” New Left historian Todd Gitlin wrote, “a promise of redemption not only passed out of American politics, it passed out of ourselves,” and Carl Oglesby of the SDS said “When these two heroes were killed, the movement was silenced. The whole procedural foundation of our politics was shattered.” This is nonsense, an exercise in selective memory and convenient revisionism: prior to their death the Left had little use for King, and no use for Kennedy. Remember that after King’s killing Stokely Carmichael said, “Bobby Kennedy pulled that trigger, just as well as anybody else.” Kennedy especially was a threat to the New Left precisely because he appealed to the same youth constituency the New Left needed to survive and prosper. Kennedy’s position on Vietnam was to the right of McCarthy (and was not that far different from the “Vietnamization” policy that Nixon later embraced). Tom Hayden always made great show about attending RFK’s funeral, holding his Cuban army cap in hand, tears streaming down his face. Yet only a few days before Kennedy was killed Hayden had referred to Kennedy as “a little fascist.”
Kennedy had been booed at an early campaign appearance at the University of Pennsylvania; at another rough reception at Brooklyn College, a banner read: “Bobby Kennedy—Hawk, Dove or Chicken?” The Left in Berkeley spread the slogan before the California primary: “Don’t waste your vote for Kennedy.” One aspect of Kennedy’s candidacy that is air brushed away today is that it was shaping up as a blunder much like the 1980 run of his younger brother Ted. The popular outpouring of support for Kennedy on the campaign trail, usually carefully orchestrated by his campaign staff (and composed often of young people not then eligible to vote), masked a lack of enthusiasm for Kennedy among other large blocks of voters. A February poll of his (adopted) home state of New York found that only 36 percent would vote for him again for the U.S. Senate. By Spring, reporters Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page (authors of one of the best chronicles of the 1968 campaign) wrote, “resentment of Kennedy’s candidacy was nowhere stronger than in his own home state.” Gene McCarthy actually snagged most of New York’s convention delegates.
Then, finally, there is the issue of the Democratic convention in Chicago. Kennedy would not likely have been able to stop that.