Tag Archives: 1968 election

Heart and Head battle over whether RFK would have won

For 50 years my heart has been waging a battle with my head.

I have listened more intently to what my heart has said regarding a mercurial presidential campaign that came to a sudden, shocking and tragic end in June 1968.

Robert Kennedy was running for president of the United States. He campaigned for 85 days. That’s all. He entered the campaign late, energized millions of Americans yearning for peace in Vietnam and equal rights for all our citizens.

He stumbled along the way, losing the Oregon Democratic primary on May 28, 1968. Then he regained his momentum by winning the California primary the next week.

Then it ended. Sen. Kennedy died in a spasm of violence.

The question has nagged at me and many millions of others: What if he had lived? Could he have secured his party nomination and then won the election that fall?

My heart tells me “yes.” It was entirely possible. My head keeps trying to persuade my heart to stop beating so hard. Bobby Kennedy was going to battle Eugene McCarthy head to head in those primaries, my head keeps reminding me, while Vice President Hubert Humphrey was collecting more delegates in places where RFK and Clean Gene weren’t looking.

My heart, though, keeps reminding my head that Kennedy was an extraordinary politician. He was magical. Someone once wrote of Bobby that when he walked into a room, he was the only one in vivid color; the rest of the room turned to black-and-white.

Sen. Kennedy had plenty of experience managing presidential campaigns. He was the mastermind behind his brother’s victory in 1960. Could he have called the shots that produced a similar outcome for himself in 1968? Sure he could.

Of course, awaiting a Bobby Kennedy nomination would be Richard Nixon, the Republicans’ candidate for president. My heart tells me, too, that the Democratic nomination would be the more difficult of the challenges awaiting an RFK campaign had it been allowed to proceed.

Well, the shooter in that Los Angeles hotel broke my heart. It has mended enough, though, to win the argument it has been having with my head over the past 50 years.

The author Mark Kurlansky writes in the Los Angeles Times: Today we ask the question: What if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been shot? Would Bobby, could Bobby have put an end to our worst instincts? With his rare combination of establishment credentials and anti-establishment thinking, he might have accomplished a lot. But on that June night in 1968, I came to understand that in this country where anyone could be shot dead at any moment, our demons were deep within us. There would be no magical leaders to save us from ourselves.

Damn!

What might have been had tragedy not struck

A gunman changed the course of American political history. Dammit, anyhow!

We are left 50 years since that terrible day to wonder what might have occurred had the shooter missed, or had a presidential candidate taken another route from a hotel ballroom to his next stop.

Robert F. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic presidential primary on June 4, 1968. A few minutes after midnight, he spoke to a crowded Los Angeles hotel ballroom. He said, “On to Chicago and let’s win there.”

He didn’t make it to Chicago. Sirhan B. Sirhan shot Sen. Kennedy, inflicting a mortal wound not just on one man, but on the hearts of millions of Americans who had hope that this individual could change the direction of a nation at war with itself over the conduct of a conflict in a place called Vietnam.

RFK spoke uniquely to a nation that had just endured the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and watched as its young warriors were dying daily on battlefields in Vietnam with no clear strategy to bring that war to an end.

I have my own Bobby Kennedy story. I’ve told it before. I want to restate it here, but with a twist.

A week before he died, RFK was campaigning in my home state of Oregon. He would lose the Oregon primary to Sen. Eugene McCarthy. On the last night of that campaign, Sen. Kennedy showed up at a tony Chinese restaurant next door to where I was working.

I saw his profile back-lit by a parking lot light, grabbed a pen and a piece of adding-machine paper and ran across to where he stood with his wife, Ethel. I walked up to Sen. Kennedy, thrust the paper and pen toward him. He signed it “RF Kennedy,” and handed the piece of paper back.

Then he asked, “Are you old enough to vote?” Stupid me. I didn’t have the presence of mind to lie at that moment. I wasn’t old enough to vote; the voting age was 21 in 1968. I should have said “yes.” I should have equivocated somehow, perhaps by telling him I would be old enough to vote in 1972.

I didn’t. I said, “No, I am not. I just want to wish you well, senator.”

Bobby’s response? He turned around and walked into the restaurant. He didn’t say another word to me. It was as if I no longer mattered to him.

Well …

Did that single act make me admire him less? Did I lose hope that he could change the nation’s political course? No on both counts.

One week later, he was gone.

A little more than two months after that, I reported for duty in the U.S. Army. My journey would take me to Vietnam, where I got a brief up-close look at the war that had torn the nation apart and given Robert Francis Kennedy a reason to seek the presidency.

This will be a difficult week for me as TV networks will broadcast remembrances of what might have occurred had fate not intervened.

I am likely to weep without shame.

Time for another bumper sticker?

It’s been 50 years since I plastered a political sticker on the bumper of my car.

I owned a 1961 Plymouth Valiant in 1968. I adorned it with a “Kennedy” sticker to express my support for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s run for the presidency. I wasn’t even old enough to vote. It all ended tragically, as you no doubt know.

I’m giving thought to doing so again in 2018. I support Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.

However, I’m a bit queasy about it, given the intense division that exist in this country. Yeah, yeah. I know that 1968 produced an even deeper schism, given the intense feelings about the Vietnam War.

This, though, seems different. It’s even more intense. It’s as visceral as it was back then.

Not only that, I happen to reside in a deeply Republican state full of folks who are unafraid to challenge those of the “other” party. The same holds true for Democrats in their feelings against Republicans. Not only that, we are headquartered in the most Republican-friendly region of this GOP state.

Dare I plaster my political preference on a car and expose it to angry response? Hmm. I’ll have to give that just a bit of thought before I take the partisan plunge once again.

RFK writes compelling back story about MLK Jr.’s death

The world reeled in grief 50 years ago today when word broke out that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death in Memphis, Tenn.

The grief turned to anger in many cities across the United States. African-Americans reacted violently. They rioted. They burned cities.

But one major American city — Indianapolis, Ind. — remained calm. Why? Another man who was just two months from his own tragic and untimely death spoke to a crowd and broke the terrible news to them.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was running for president in 1968. He heard about the shooting. He asked his aides if the crowd that was waiting to hear a campaign stump speech knew that Dr. King had died. He was told they likely didn’t know. Bobby Kennedy had to tell them.

So he did. He spoke for six minutes after telling them he had “terrible news” to deliver. In just a few minutes, RFK managed to lend a word of comfort and, indeed, empathy. His own brother, President Kennedy, had been felled by a gunman less than five years earlier. “He was killed by a white man,” Sen. Kennedy said in seeking to quell the feelings of hatred that some in the crowd might harbor “toward all white people.”

He spoke of the need for more “love” and “compassion” in the United States.

The result in Indianapolis was that its residents didn’t react in the manner that tore many other cities apart.

Robert Kennedy, with those brief words, delivered perhaps one of the greatest political speeches in U.S. history. Its message, though, reached far beyond the partisan concerns of a politician seeking election to the nation’s highest office.

The politician spoke to a nation in the deepest grief imaginable.

Tragically, he would march on to his own horrifying end, triggering yet another round of grief.