Mid-winter half a century ago was a dispiriting time in the office of Senator Robert Kennedy; at least if you were hoping Kennedy would challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. There was no secret about how RFK felt bout LBJ (and vice-versa)—they hated each other. One day, the poet Allen Ginsberg stopped by the senator’s office, and with a bemused RFK and some of his staff looking on, chanted the Hare Krishna.
“What is that?” Kennedy asked.
Story Continued Below
“It’s a mantra for the preservation of the universe,” Ginsberg said,
“You might want to take that to the fellow at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Kennedy replied.
This was more than the “mutual contempt” of Jeff Shesol’s great book on the RFK-LBJ feud. The Vietnam War was taking hundreds of American and countless Vietnamese lives a week, to no clear purpose. Back home, the country’s racial divisions were turning violent every summer. In Kennedy’s view, Johnson was simply unable to deal with the sense that things were spinning out of control. At times, he questioned whether four more years of Johnson would wreak permanent damage on the fabric of the country. He knew that both the polls and voices he respected—like longtime activist Al Lowenstein and journalists Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill—were beseeching him to run, warning that not to would cost him a part of his soul.
But then there was the harsh political reality: A sitting president had not been denied the nomination of his party since Chester Arthur back in 1884. His Senate colleagues, including some who had turned hard against the war, like Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson and South Dakota’s George McGovern, were urging him not to run, fearing that a divided Democratic Party would only hand the reins of power to Richard Nixon. His advisers from JFK’s days, and his own brother Ted, were offering the same guidance—noting that in most of the big, delegate-rich states there were no primaries; the delegates were controlled by White House loyalists, making an insurgent run highly improbable. Their voices carried more weight than those of his Senate staffers—Adam Walinsky, Peter Edelman, Fran Mankiewicz—who were saying, in effect, “you have to run” (as a 24-year-old staff assistant eight months out of law school I was not exactly a key voice in these deliberations).
So it was not a shock when Kennedy told a breakfast of Washington journalists on January 30, 1968, that “under no foreseeable circumstances” would he run for president. (That breakfast happened on the very day of the Tet Offensive, which ended in military defeat for the North Vietnamese and a massive psychological defeat for the U.S. military). But the declaration seemed to put an end to the matter; Walinsky, the most ardent advocate of a run, told Kennedy he was leaving the Senate staff.
But Kennedy soon changed his mind—why? In the accepted narrative, the deciding factor was Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire primary showing, and there is a good amount of truth in that view. RFK and McCarthy held each other, as the British might put it, in “minimum high regard.” McCarthy saw the Kennedys as exemplars of wealth and privilege, while Kennedy saw McCarthy as an indolent elitist, marginally concerned at best with the plight of the poor. At the start of McCarthy’s campaign, Kennedy said, “He’s running to increase his lecture fees.”
But as primary day grew closer, it was clear McCarthy had tapped into a powerful sense of discontent with the war. It was not one-sided; surveys later showed that a plurality of his voters thought the war should be escalated. But it was enough to suggest that LBJ was about to receive a political shock. Dick Goodwin, RFK’s friend and colleague who was spearheading the McCarthy campaign, was telling Kennedy just that. That possibility, added to Kennedy’s own instincts, turned him around before the New Hampshire primary votes were cast.
To a junior staffer like me, the signs were hard to interpret. Something was going on in California, where a winner-take-all primary made it by far the most consequential of primaries, and where California Assembly Speaker and Democratic boss Jess Unruh was encouraging Kennedy into the race. Someone (apparently RFK aide Joe Dolan) was sniffing out possibilities for putting together a Kennedy delegate slate there should Kennedy decide to jump into the face, while others were actively looking at ballot access rules for other states. Whatever the process, Kennedy had come to an apparent decision before the New Hampshire votes were cast. As his Legislative Assistant Peter Edelman tells it in an oral history for the University of Virginia Miller Center:
“On March 10th, two days before the New Hampshire primary, he goes to California[to be with farmworker union head Caesar Chavez]. He says, ‘March 9th I’m at a fundraiser in Des Moines anyway, so we’ll just keep on from there, we’ll go on out to California.’ So we do that. In Los Angeles, we’re getting on a private plane to go from Los Angeles up to Delano, to Cesar Chavez’s headquarters, and there [are longtime Kennedy colleagues] Ed Guthman and John Seigenthaler. What are they doing there?
“We get on the plane and on the way up, he tells us he’s going to run for President. This is important in a number of respects. One, it’s two days before the New Hampshire primary, so you can say, ‘yes, he knew what the polls were’, but still it’s two days before the New Hampshire primary.”
This timeline does not save Kennedy from the “opportunist” charge, particularly since he told the press the day after the primary that he was “actively reassessing” the possibility of running. (Political junkies know that President Johnson actually won the primary on a write-in. But McCarthy’s 42 percent was the headline story—perhaps the first example of a candidate winning the “expectations game” while losing the actual count.) Kennedy’s “reassessment” triggered a strong, understandable bitterness among McCarthy’s supporters that never dissipated. (Two days before the California primary, Jack Newfield and I went to the McCarthy hotel in California to argue that the loser of the California primary withdraw and support the winner. Said one McCarthy worker: “I’d vote for Richard Nixon over that SOB.”)
In the days that followed the New Hampshire primary, there was a strikingly ad hoc, highly organized series of moves that might have kept him from finally entering the race. RFK met with LBJ to talk about a commission, jointly appointed by the two men, to look for an alternative Vietnam policy What about a Kennedy-McCarthy alliance, with each supporting the other in different states?
But at every critical juncture, Kennedy drew the line; he had decided to run. The arguments for his candidacy were sufficiently disparate that, on the night before the announcement, three generations of speechwriters gathered at RFK’s historic home in suburban Virginia, Hickory Hill, to thrash out the statement. (For Adam Walinsky and me, one line that made it into the final draft was a sore point; Kennedy declared that what was at stake was “our right to moral leadership of the planet”—a line that to us echoed the expansive Cold War mindset that had lured us into Vietnam).
What was it that ultimately persuaded Kennedy to enter the race? His admirers will say that he felt he had no choice; detractors will say it was an overweening sense of entitlement. I would add one more factor. At the 1960 convention, RFK had struggled very hard to persuade his brother not to put LBJ on the ticket; it helped turn the mutual dislike that stretched back to Senate days into something much more intense. In failing to keep Johnson off the ticket, Kennedy held himself personally responsible for what he saw as Johnson’s feckless, even cowardly leadership. Running against him was, in this sense, an act of expiation for his own earlier failure.
One last point: We are in a time when candidates for president declare their intentions long before the first votes are cast; Democrats by the carload are already appearing in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key primary states. But 50 years ago, Kennedy could declare his candidacy seven weeks before the Indiana primary, and fewer than six months before the Democratic convention. In this sense, the last half century has not only brought us into a new millennium; it has brought us into a new political universe. And it is a universe that might have looked very different had Kennedy’s late leap into the presidential campaign not ended in tragedy in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen 85 days later.