MARCH 16-17, 1968
Two months after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Robert Kennedy traveled to Asia on an itinerary that had originally been planned for JFK. During the trip, he visited a girls' school in the Philippines where the students sang a song they had composed to honor his brother. As he drove away with CBS cameraman Walter Dombrow, he clenched his hands so tightly that they turned white and tears rolled down his cheeks. He shook his head, signaling that Dombrow should remain silent. Finally he said in a choked voice, "They would have loved my brother." Dombrow put his arm around him and said, "Bob, you're going to have to carry on for him." Kennedy stared straight ahead for half a minute before turning to Dombrow and nodding. It was then, Dombrow said, that he knew Bobby would run for president, and realized how much he loved him.
A deep, black grief gripped Robert Kennedy in the months following his brother's assassination. He lost weight, fell into melancholy silences, wore his brother's clothes, smoked the cigars his brother had liked, and imitated his mannerisms. Eventually his grief went underground, but it sometimes erupted in geysers of tears, as had happened in the Philippines. He wept after seeing a photograph of his late brother in the office of a former aide, wept when asked to comment on the Warren Commission report, and wept after eulogizing JFK at the 1964 Democratic convention with a quotation from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "When he shall die, take him and cut him into little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with the night and pay no attention to the garish sun."
During his brother's thousand-day presidency there had been no policy differences between them; whatever John Kennedy wanted for the country was what Bobby wanted. After his brother's assassination, Bobby became determined to continue acting in his spirit. Even when he took up issues such as poverty that had never ranked high on JFK's agenda, he tried to persuade himself that his brother would have approved. After discovering that several days before his death, JFK had written POVERTY in a bold hand on a doodle, Bobby had it framed and displayed it on his office wall. No matter that JFK had been a fanatical doodler, or that there was no other evidence that he had been planning to make poverty a second-term priority, Bobby considered the doodle proof that his brother would have approved of him becoming what Arthur Schlesinger later called the Tribune of the Underclass.
Kennedy was still mourning his brother and endeavoring to live for him when he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in the autumn of 1964, telling a friend that he wanted to ensure that the hopes JFK had kindled around the world did not die, and saying in his victory statement that he had won "an overwhelming mandate to continue the policies" of President Kennedy. During the campaign, he retraced the route his brother had taken across upstate New York in 1960, passed out the PT 109 tie clasps that commemorated his heroism, and autographed copies of JFK's book, Profiles in Courage. He looked down at crowds filling the streets surrounding his hotel in Buffalo and said, "They're here for him; they're not for me." When a friend congratulated him on his victory he replied, "If my brother was alive, I wouldn't be here. I'd rather have it that way."
At first, it appeared that his presidential campaign would be another homage to his brother. He announced his candidacy on March 16 in the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office Building, the same room that his brother had used for the same purpose. He stood in the same spot and began with the same sentence: "I am today announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States." After saying that he was running to "close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old," he concluded with a passage that made him sound like his brother, perhaps because it had been contributed by Ted Sorensen, his brother's former speechwriter: "I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to [the] moral leadership of this planet."
Some advisers had urged him to excise this passage from his speech, arguing that it was the kind of New Frontier hubris that had ensnared America in Vietnam. Washington Post reporter David Broder would call it "the nostalgic rhetoric of the earlier Kennedy era." Only later did it prove to have been a prescient summary of where America stood on March 16, 1968.
Kennedy's "right to moral leadership of this planet" line turned out to be closer to the truth than even he, or Ted Sorensen, realized at the time. At stake was not so much Americans' moral leadership, but their belief that they were worthy of such leadership. The same March 17, 1968, New York Times front page carrying the headline "Kennedy to Make Three Primary Races: Attacks Johnson" also contained a dispatch from South Vietnam reporting that U.S. troops had killed 128 enemy soldiers during an operation in Quang Ngai Province. Only after Kennedy was dead and Nixon had become president was it revealed that sixteen hours before Kennedy had announced his candidacy and pledged to restore America's moral authority, American soldiers commanded by Lieutenant William Calley had massacred over five hundred South Vietnamese civilians in the Quang Nai hamlet of My Lai.
On the day that Kennedy announced his candidacy, it was by no means obvious that 1968 would become such a watershed. Except for the January Tet Offensive by Communist forces in South Vietnam, the year's momentous events would all occur after Kennedy's March 16 announcement, with many of the most shocking unfolding during his campaign. Had you told anyone in the Senate Caucus Room that morning that during the next eighty-two days President Johnson would decline to seek a second term, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would both be assassinated, and America would suffer its worst racial disturbances since the Civil War, they might have believed that some of those things might happen, but not all, nor in such quick succession.
After concluding his announcement, Kennedy took questions ranging from skeptical to hostile. His response to the charge that his decision to enter the race on the heels of Senator Eugene McCarthy's success in the New Hampshire primary was "opportunistic" was so unconvincing that it elicited muffled laughter. When asked how he would disentangle America from Vietnam, he said that he favored "deescalating" the war by negotiating with all parties to the conflict and insisting that the South Vietnamese assume more of the burden of combat, leaving "less of the effort ... in the hands of the United States government and American soldiers."
As he left the Capitol, supporters screaming his name grabbed at his clothes and leaped in the air to see him, much like his brother's supporters had in 1960. Anyone witnessing this and hearing the New Frontier echoes in his announcement would have been justified in assuming that his campaign would be an extended tribute to his brother. Instead, March 16 would be the end rather than the beginning of such a tribute, and during the next three months he would run on issues his brother had seldom raised and sometimes in a manner his brother would have found undignified.
Richard Nixon, who had lost the presidency to JFK in 1960, watched Kennedy's announcement from a hotel room in Portland, Oregon. John Ehrlichman, one of several aides in the room with Nixon, later wrote, "When it was over and the hotel-room TV was turned off, Nixon sat and looked at the blank screen for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, he shook his head slowly. 'We've just seen some very terrible forces unleashed,' he said. 'Something bad is going to come out of this.' He pointed at the screen, 'God knows where this is going to end.' Meanwhile, Kennedy was telling Nicole Salinger, the wife of press secretary Pierre Salinger, "I'm sleeping well for the first time in months. I don't know what's going to happen, but at least I'm at peace with myself."
Following his announcement, Kennedy flew to New York and marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade. Supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy shouted, "Coward!" and "Opportunist!" Conservative Irish-Americans who supported President Johnson and the war yelled, "Go back to Boston!" and "Get a haircut, ya bum!" A middle-aged man broke through police lines and screamed insults in Kennedy's face. A student from a local Catholic college told a reporter, "I swear to God, if he didn't have twenty cops around I'd punch him in the mouth."
The hostility shocked Jim Stevenson of The New Yorker, who noted that "ruthless and opportunistic," the words commonly pinned on Kennedy by his enemies, were the slogans of the day. Kennedy held his right hand close to his chest, offering a tentative wave. But when he looked up and saw Jackie and John Kennedy Jr. waving from their apartment window, he smiled and threw his arms into the air.
He invited Stevenson to join him in his apartment at UN Plaza after the parade. Stevenson felt uneasy about monopolizing him on such an important day. But once they were seated in a bedroom overlooking the East River, Kennedy, in his shirtsleeves and cradling a drink, began speaking, and Stevenson realized that he simply wanted to celebrate. Stevenson noted that although Kennedy was "riding on the exuberance of at last making an important decision," he was also "wary."
Stevenson traveled with Kennedy during the early weeks of the campaign. Some of his observations appeared in The New Yorker; others are in an unpublished manuscript. Instead of the mop-haired and buck-toothed Bobby of the political cartoonists, Stevenson painted a more nuanced portrait, describing a face in which there was "almost too much going on in too many directions in too little space," and where "the nose hooks outward; the teeth protrude; the hair hangs down; the ears go up and out; the chin juts forward; the eyelids push down." His expression was tough, Stevenson noted, but the toughness was directed inward and represented "a contempt for self-indulgence, for weakness." Stevenson also detected a fundamental sadness, not a sentimental one denoting self-pity, but "a resident, melancholy bleakness."
When Kennedy returned to Washington that evening, no one met him at National Airport, and he joked to reporters that "even my driver has deserted me." But he was obviously distressed and said, "Our hero returns, and a huge throng turned out to greet him. It took the police to hold them back."
The next morning he appeared on Meet the Press and was asked if he would support President Johnson if Johnson became the nominee. Instead of dodging the question or finessing it by saying that of course he planned on winning the nomination, he gave an answer certain to anger Democratic Party bosses who controlled the nomination process and considered loyalty a virtue trumping all others. If Johnson continued pursuing the same policies, Kennedy said, then he would have "grave reservations" about supporting him. "I'm loyal to the Democratic Party," he added, "but I feel stronger about the United States and mankind generally."
Throughout the weekend, Kennedy and aides placed calls to Democratic senators, governors, and party leaders. They had hoped for endorsements, or at least promises to remain uncommitted until Kennedy could win some primaries. Instead, many of the recipients of these calls urged him to withdraw.
Liberal Democrats feared that he and McCarthy would split the antiwar movement. Conservative and moderate Democrats feared he would divide the party and put Nixon in the White House. Even Averell Harriman, Douglas Dillon, and General Maxwell Taylor, who had served in the JFK administration and were godfathers to Bobby's children, refused to support him. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota said he was glad he was running, but would remain neutral. The chairman of the Democratic Party in Alabama predicted that his campaign would draw no more attention than "an intra-party dispute in Czechoslovakia," and the Washington attorney heading Citizens for Johnson and Humphrey doubted that Kennedy could persuade Senator McCarthy's supporters "that he's neither ruthless nor an opportunist." Mayor James Tate of Philadelphia, an influential machine politician, accused him of having a "wise guy attitude," and said, "If John F. Kennedy had not been President, Robert Kennedy would still be counsel for some Senatorial committee."
Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was the boss of bosses in 1968. Not only did he control the votes of the Illinois delegation, but the convention was being held in his city that year, making him the most influential Democratic leader in the nation. When asked if Kennedy could win the nomination, he bellowed, "No!" and compared him to Judas Iscariot, saying, "Even the Lord had skeptical members of His party. One betrayed him, one denied him, and one doubted him." Several days later, reporter Jimmy Breslin asked Kennedy how important Daley was to his chances of winning the nomination. "He's the whole ball game," Kennedy replied.
Daley's reaction was mild compared to that of hard-core Kennedy haters such as William Loeb, editor of the Manchester Union Leader, who had previously called him "the most vicious and dangerous leader in the United States today." Senator Hugh Scott [R] of Pennsylvania declared that "the election of Bobby Kennedy as President would, indeed, endanger the fundamentals of the democratic system," while the Greek military junta, believing he endangered their totalitarian system, ordered newspapers to limit their coverage of Kennedy's campaign and stop publishing his photograph.
With the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, no twentieth-century American politician had attracted such a large, diverse, and bitter company of enemies as Robert Kennedy. He was hated because of what he had done, what his brother had done as president, and what it was feared he would do if he won that office. Union leaders hated him because he had exposed corruption in their ranks and sent Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa to prison. The business community had not forgiven him for sending FBI agents barging into corporate offices looking for evidence of price fixing during the 1962 "Steel Crisis." White southerners loathed him because his Justice Department had enforced school desegregation, and liberals distrusted him because he had worked for Joe McCarthy. The right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler, who had also been a ferocious critic of FDR and the New Deal, welcomed the possibility that, as he put it, "Some white patriot of the southern tier will splatter his [Kennedy's] spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow falls," and at a meeting of senior FBI agents, J. Edgar Hoover's deputy Clyde Tolan remarked offhandedly, "I hope somebody shoots and kills the son of a bitch."
PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES WERE less important in 1968 than they have since become. There were fewer of them, and fewer that counted. Instead, party leaders wielded considerable influence over the selection of delegates and their convention votes, effectively controlling the nomination. Nevertheless, a strong showing in several crucial primaries could create a bandwagon effect within the party leadership. This had happened in 1960, when John Kennedy had defeated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia Democratic primary, proving that a Catholic candidate could beat a Protestant in a heavily Protestant state, and that his religion would be less of an obstacle than previously assumed.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy had to defeat Senator Eugene McCarthy [D-Minn.], who was also running as an anti-Johnson, antiwar candidate, and President Lyndon Johnson in every primary that he still had time to enter, and hope that a strong showing would convince the party apparatchiks that he had a better chance of defeating Richard Nixon, the likely GOP nominee, in November. The first primary he could enter was in Indiana on May 7, then came Nebraska and the District of Columbia on May 14, Oregon on May 28, California and South Dakota on June 4, and New York on June 18. Kennedy and his advisers were concerned that some party leaders might pledge their delegations to Johnson during the seven weeks between Kennedy's announcement and the Indiana primary. Kennedy believed that to persuade them to remain uncommitted he had to demonstrate his popularity by appearing before large and enthusiastic crowds at rallies, airport welcoming ceremonies, and motorcades in both primary and nonprimary states. It was a tricky strategy because if his crowds were too frenzied, they might frighten moderate Democrats and party leaders, but if they were small and unresponsive, party leaders would probably stick with Johnson. Further complicating this strategy were Kennedy's own shortcomings as a campaigner. Although he had been involved in politics since 1951, and had been a skilled manager of his older brother's campaigns, he had only run for public office once, in the 1964 New York Senate race. In that campaign, he had proven himself to be a clumsy and uninspiring speaker, stammering and speaking in a monotone, prone to long silences, and uncomfortable before enthusiastic crowds, seemingly unable to shake his post-Dallas melancholy.
Excerpted from THE LAST CAMPAIGNby THURSTON CLARKE Copyright © 2008 by Thurston Clarke. Excerpted by permission.
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