Tag Archives: Eugene McCarthy

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!

Not exactly a repeat of ’68 in this campaign

RFK

Those talking heads are comparing the anger we’re hearing at Donald J. Trump’s campaign rallies to what we heard 48 years ago when that year’s presidential campaign turned really ugly at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

I beg to differ.

Yes, the convention turned into a bloodbath. Anti-Vietnam War protesters stormed the streets outside the convention hall and battled with police. Reporters and delegates were beaten up on the convention floor.

But prior that tragic event, we heard at least one candidate seek to speak to our better angels, to try to quell the anger.

Robert Francis Kennedy was that man. He had entered the Democratic campaign relatively late. He launched a frenetic, mad dash for his party’s nomination. President Johnson bowed out. Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s young legions were rising up against the “establishment.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey was in the race, too.

Then, as columnist Mike Barnicle notes, tragedy struck in Memphis, Tenn. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death.

Sen. Kennedy got word of it. He climbed aboard a truck bed in Indianapolis and told the largely African-American crowd what had just happened. They gasped.

He went on.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

Many cities erupted in violence that night. Indianapolis did not.

I watched that campaign unfold in the spring and early summer of 1968 before I was inducted into the Army, at which time my own life changed forever.

Not one time did I hear a candidate in either party exhort his supporters to punch protesters in the face. Nor did I hear any candidate offer to pay an assailant’s legal fees after being arrested for sucker-punching a demonstrator.

Sure, we were an angry nation back in 1968. We had reason to be worried. A bloody war in Asia was going badly and many Americans wanted an end to that conflict.

It came to a head at the Chicago convention that year.

One reason for the violence was that the man who sought to tell us the truth about our anger and sought to offer solutions to ending it himself was gunned down in that Los Angeles hotel kitchen.

Robert Kennedy’s death came nearly two months to the day after the night he stood on that truck bed and offered words of consolation and healing.

 

Times change, and so do political party dynamics

will rogers

Someone once asked the late, legendary humorist Will Rogers about his political affiliation.

“I don’t belong to an organized political party,” Rogers reportedly answered. “I’m a Democrat.”

Ba-da-boom!

My hunch is that the same answer today could be given as it regards the Republican Party.

The GOP is in a state of chaos. It doesn’t know how to handle the emergence of a reality TV star/real estate mogul as a serious candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Donald J. Trump delivered a serious wedgie to the Republican Party “establishment” Tuesday night with his win in the New Hampshire primary. As the story linked to this blog illustrates, the GOP brass is looking for answers to coping with this guy.

He’s insulted his way to the top of the heap. He has demonstrated — by my way of thinking — zero philosophical grounding. If you’re looking for anything resembling a sophisticated answer to the myriad issues facing the candidates for president, do not expect it to come from Trump. Instead, you can expect a sound bite. A laugh line. A stream-of-consciousness rant about this and/or that.

But hey, whatever works.

It’s working for Trump and the Republican Party is grasping for ways to derail this guy.

Forty-plus years ago, the Democrats were the party in chaos. It’s liberal wing was fighting with the establishment — I suppose much like it is today — but the establishment didn’t have an answer for the insurgencies led by the likes of Sens. Eugene McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern. The issue then was the Vietnam War.

The issue today is much more complex than the cost of young American lives on a foreign battlefield.

There appears to be a lot of anger among voters, which honestly baffles me. Then again, it takes a lot to make me mad.

These things do run in cycles. I don’t know if the Republican Party high command will find the answers it seeks while trying to cope with Trump. Nor do I know if whatever it is that’s driving Trump will win the day and change the party forever.

All I know for certain is that the once-chaotic Democratic Party — which, yes, has its own conflict underway — is looking peaceful in comparison to what’s roiling the Republicans.

 

If Hillary comes close to Sanders, she’ll declare ‘victory’

08CLINTONHISTORY-span-master1050

Politics has this way of giving those who lose tough races a chance to declare victory.

Eugene McCarthy did it in 1968 when he lost the New Hampshire primary to President Lyndon Johnson; George McGovern did the same thing in 1972 when he finished third in a primary that was won by Edmund Muskie; ditto for Bill Clinton in 1992 when he lost to Paul Tsongas.

History well might be about to repeat itself Tuesday — if Hillary Clinton moves to within shouting distance of Bernie Sanders in the Granite State’s Democratic primary.

She’s trailing now. She might be closing the gap, according to some polls. If she loses to Sanders by, say, 8 or fewer percentage points, I can hear it now: Hillary Clinton will proclaim herself to be the “second comeback kid.” The first, of course, was husband Bill.

When Ted Cruz won last week’s Iowa caucus, we heard to other “losers” proclaim victory. One of them was Donald J. Trump, who reminded voters that the polls he loves to trumpet said he didn’t have a prayer in Iowa when he entered the race; he finished second behind the Cruz Missile.

Even more fascinating was how third-placer Marco Rubio declared victory in that astonishing speech to his supporters. Hey, Marco . . . you finished third, young man!

Of course, actually finishes don’t mean much in political terms. Candidates have perfected the art of the spin for as long as the process itself. These days the necessity is made more important given the presence of social media and 24/7 cable news networks.

The trick is to get the “victory” declarations out there before anyone has a chance to catch their breath. Get ahead of the story and make damn sure you stay ahead of it.

Bill Clinton declared victory 24 years ago. He didn’t actually win. He just made sure voters thought he did.

I’m almost willing to bet real American money that his strategy has not been lost on his wife’s campaign team.

Biden may be channeling RFK

RFK

While continuing to ponder the idea that Vice President Joe Biden might jump into the 2016 presidential race, my mind keeps turning to another prominent Democrat from a distant era.

About two generations ago, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy straddled the fence on whether he should seek the 1968 Democratic Party presidential nomination, just as the vice president is considering it today.

In 1968, an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, was going to seek re-election to a second full term. He already had a challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

RFK remained on the sidelines.

Today’s front runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, also is facing a serious challenge, from Sen. Bernie Sanders. She also is facing a possible problem of her own making, those e-mails she sent out while serving as secretary of state.

LBJ had his own headache. It was the Vietnam War.

President Johnson then ran in the New Hampshire primary and finished first — but barely. McCarthy nearly beat him.

It was then that Sen. Kennedy joined the race. LBJ dropped out. Kennedy mounted a furious and frantic campaign against McCarthy and then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

He won the California primary on June 5, 1968, declared “on to Chicago and let’s win there.” Then he walked into the hotel kitchen, where the assassin was waiting.

It was over in burst of gunfire.

There’s a curious parallel between then and now.

I keep wondering if Biden is waiting for Clinton to make a politically critical misstep. What if something emerges from this e-mail probe that inflicts a mortal wound on the party’s front runner?

Would he then seek the party nomination to “rescue” it from someone who cannot win the election, just as RFK sought to rescue the party from McCarthy’s insurgency and HHH’s damage caused by his support for the Vietnam War?

The vice president seems be leaning toward running. If Hillary Clinton makes a mistake that dooms her candidacy, it had better occur quickly.

The difference between 1968 and 2016 shows itself in the preparation that’s now required to get one of these campaigns off the ground.

A bullet changed history 47 years ago today

RFK's last speech

Forty-seven years ago today, I had gone to bed. It was late on a Tuesday night.

I had just watched the news about the California Democratic Party presidential primary. Sen. Robert Kennedy had just been declared the winner. I turned in and was happy about the outcome.

Right after midnight, my mother knocked on my door. “You need to come down and see this,” she said. “Something terrible has just happened.”

I dragged myself out of the sack and went downstairs and saw for myself. Someone had shot Bobby Kennedy.

The shock was palpable. No. This isn’t happening. Oh, but it did.

I was about two months away from being inducted into the Army, although I didn’t yet know it that evening. My own life was about to change dramatically.

On that night, the nation’s life changed as well.

RFK died the next day at the age of 42. Would he have been nominated by his party? Would he have been elected president? The debate has raged for 47 years ever since that terrible event in Los Angeles, but I believe the answer is “yes” to both questions.

Maybe it’s my heart overriding my head in believing RFK would have become president. Still, I can make an analytical argument that even though then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey was ahead in convention delegates at the time of the assassination, that RFK could have peeled enough of them away by selling his own candidacy as the only one capable of defeating the Republican nominee, Richard M. Nixon.

I had a fair amount of political interest back then, even though I was just a year out of high school. It was heightened beyond its already high level the week before the shooting.

The previous week the Oregon primary took place. My home state had delivered the Kennedy its first-ever political defeat when Democrats chose Sen. Eugene McCarthy over RFK.

I was working at my job at McDonald’s the night of the Oregon primary. A motorcade pulled into the lot next door in front of a fashionable Chinese restaurant. I shot a look at the figure climbing out of an open convertible. The profile that was back-lit by a lamp belonged to Robert Kennedy. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and ran across the lot and walked right up to the senator and  his wife, Ethel; this was before Secret Service agents surrounded presidential candidates and, indeed, it was Kennedy’s death that prompted President Johnson to issue an executive order assigning such protection to future candidates.

I told Sen. Kennedy how much I wanted him to win the presidency and that I wanted to wish him well as his campaign proceeded.

RFK signed his name to the piece of paper and then he asked me one question: “Are you old enough to vote?” I said no. With that, he turned and walked away. He didn’t say another word.

I’ll be candid. I thought at the time it was a serious insult to a young man. Perhaps if I’d anticipated the question, I would have said “yes,” even though the voting age was still 21 and I was a couple of years younger than that. Hey, what would have done, asked for ID?

I didn’t have enough snap at that moment.

Now that I’m a whole lot older, I understand better that a politician in the middle of a fight — who needs every vote he can get at the last minute — doesn’t have time to waste on someone who couldn’t help him.

Well, it all ended the next week.

Mom was right. Something “terrible” did happen that night.

And I still miss Bobby Kennedy.

 

GOP readies for internal fight

One of the many forms of conventional wisdom in the wake of the 2014 mid-term election goes something like this: Republicans, flush with victory at taking over the Senate and expanding their hold in the House, now face a fight between the tea party extremists and the mainstream wing of their party.

Let’s go with that one for a moment, maybe two.

I relish the thought, to be brutally candid.

The likely Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, may be looking over his shoulder at one of the tea party upstarts within his Republican caucus, a fellow named Ted Cruz of Texas.

Cruz wants to lead the party to the extreme right. McConnell is more of a dealmaker, someone who’s been known to actually seek advice and counsel from his old friend and former colleague, Vice President Joe Biden. Cruz, who’s still green to the ways of Washington, wants to shake the place up, seeking to govern in a scorched-Earth kind of way. He wouldn’t mind shutting down the government again if the right issue arises. McConnell won’t have any of that.

So, will the battle commence soon after the next Congress takes over in 2015.

Lessons unlearned doom those who ignore them.

Republicans have been through this kind of intraparty strife before. In 1964, conservatives took control of the GOP after fighting with the establishment. The party nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate and then Goldwater got thumped like a drum by President Lyndon Johnson.

They did it again in 1976, with conservative former California Gov. Ronald Reagan challenging President Ford for his party’s nomination. Ford beat back the challenge, but then lost his bid for election to Jimmy Carter.

To be fair, Democrats have fallen victim to the same kind of political cannibalism.

In 1968 and again in 1972, Democrats fought with each over how, or whether, to end the Vietnam War. Sens. Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy challenged LBJ for the nomination in 1968. Johnson dropped out of the race, RFK was assassinated, McCarthy soldiered on to the convention, which erupted in violence and Democrats then nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who then went on to lose to GOP nominee Richard Nixon.

Four years later, the Democratic insurgents nominated Sen. George McGovern after fighting with the party “hawks.” McGovern then lost to President Nixon in a landslide.

So, what’s the lesson?

History has shown — and it goes back a lot farther than just 1964 — that intraparty squabbles quite often don’t make for a stronger party, but a weaker one.

Bring it on, Republicans!

 

 

Why Warren … and not Clinton?

Conservatives seem to have hitched themselves to a possible candidacy by a leading U.S. Senate liberal.

Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been wowing crowds at political events lately. She’s been firing up the political base of her Democratic Party. Warren also has gotten the attention of conservative commentators and pundits, such as Byron York, who contends that Warren offers a plan while Hillary Rodham Clinton is running essentially on her resume.

http://washingtonexaminer.com/will-elizabeth-warrens-fight-for-causes-put-hillary-clinton-in-the-shade/article/2551098

I’ll hereby offer my own explanation of why York, a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a Fox News Channel contributor, is so taken by Warren: He wants the Democratic Party to marginalize itself the way Republicans might be willing to do when they nominate their candidate for the 2016 presidential campaign.

You see, Hillary Clinton is a centrist Democrat in the mold of her husband, the 42nd president of the United States. Bill Clinton was the master of “triangulation,” and he parlayed his skill at working the extremes against each other so well that he won two smashing election victories in 1992 and 1996.

Republicans don’t want any more of that.

So some of them have glommed onto Warren’s candidacy, talking her up.

Don’t get me wrong. Elizabeth Warren is a powerhouse. She’s smart and courageous. She’s taking on big-money interests and is talking a darn good populist message about income equality, marriage equality, and financial and tax reform.

York and other conservatives likely don’t give a damn about the content of Warren’s message. They’re just thrilled to have someone out there willing to possibly challenge Hillary Clinton’s perceived inevitability as the Democratic presidential nominee in two years.

She reminds me vaguely of the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who in 1968 took on President Lyndon Johnson when it was perceived widely that LBJ would run for re-election. McCarthy stunned the president by nearly beating him in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. On March 31, 1968, LBJ declared he wouldn’t seek “another term as your president.”

The news thrilled Republicans in ’68. I suspect similar news from Hillary Clinton this time around would have the same effect on the GOP if Warren jumps in and then mounts a serious challenge to Clinton’s perceived invincibility.

‘Civil war’ not a new thing in U.S. politics

Intraparty warfare has engulfed the Republican Party.

It’s the tea party vs. the establishment wing. Not sure yet who’s winning. To be honest, I don’t really care who wins this one. Rest assured, the GOP will emerge from it eventually. I’m not sure it will be any stronger as a result. Then again, I don’t really care about that, either.

It fascinates me, though, to see the GOP entangled in this imbroglio, this struggle for what’s left of its soul. Why? Because I thought I’d seen the worst of the worst political party civil wars. It happened to the Democrats back in the 1960s and early 1970s.

http://www.texasmonthly.com/burka-blog/republican-civil-war

Some of us remember those times. The Vietnam War was raging. It was hawks vs. doves back then.

The hawks were led by some stalwart Democrats. I can think of the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and the late Vice President (and later Sen.) Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota — who, by the way, served in the Senate before being elected VP in 1964. The doves were led by equally stalwart Democrats, such as the late Sens. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, George McGovern of South Dakota and (my first real political hero) Robert F. Kennedy of New York.

They fought equally hard for the soul of the Democratic Party. They all were patriots. They loved their country in equal measure, just as Republicans love their country today. They fought with each other back then over the terms of how we should prosecute and eventually end the Vietnam War.

One interesting similarity emerges between then and now. The Democratic hawks accused the doves of being not quite patriotic enough. Today, we hear the “tea party patriots” accusing establishment Republicans and even those dreaded Democrats of, um, being somewhat impure and tainted, that they aren’t the true believers.

The Democrats’ civil war ended eventually. It took a constitutional crisis, Watergate, to coalesce Democrats behind a winning candidate, Jimmy Carter in 1976. They hit a major bump four years later when the economy tanked and Iranian militants took Americans hostage on President Carter’s watch. Republican Ronald Reagan took the White House back in 1980. Bill Clinton recaptured it for the Democrats in 1992.

How will the current GOP battle end is anyone’s guess. The tea party is calling the cadence within the party, which still comprises some smart folks who know how to make government work.

I’m going to sit back and watch this one play out.