Thursday, February 10, 2011

Clean for Gene: Kennedy, McCarthy and the Fall of Lyndon Johnson

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage I describe an epic political upset in the Democratic Party's presidential primary in New Hampshire in 1968.

The tragedies and failures of Vietnam created opportunities for President Lyndon Johnson’s political enemies. Once seen as a sure bet for a second full term, Johnson now seemed vulnerable. No LBJ enemy stood taller in the public mind than Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of slain President John Kennedy. Johnson and the younger Kennedy had never liked each other, and this mutual antagonism became harsher when Johnson took control of the White House. Robert Kennedy resented Johnson as a crude, uncultured interloper, and Johnson raged at the condescension shown to him by the attorney general and others belonging to the late president’s circle of friends.

Bobby, as he was known to intimate associates, was haunted by JFK’s assassination. “Robert Kennedy seemed devoured by grief,” biographer Evan Thomas wrote. “He literally shrank, until he appeared wasted and gaunt. His clothes no longer fit, especially his brother’s old clothes – an old blue topcoat, a tuxedo, a leather bomber jacket with the presidential seal – which he insisted on wearing and which hung on his narrowing frame . . . he appeared to be in physical pain, like a man with a toothache or on the rack. Even walking seemed difficult to him, though he walked for hours, brooding and alone.”

Bobby had always occupied third place among the four Kennedy brothers, taking a backseat to his older brothers Joe and John, who were considered more handsome and were thought to be promising future political stars by the family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, Sr. After the death of Joe, Jr., in World War II, John took up the family mantle. Bobby, smaller than his older brother, less articulate, less spontaneous, and less confident than Jack, served a subordinate role in his father’s mind. Bobby was raised to sacrifice his own ambitions and dreams in service of John’s rise to greatness.

Now, once the most powerful member of his brother’s cabinet, Kennedy continued as attorney general under a new president who didn’t trust him. Top Democrats tried to convince Johnson to name Kennedy his running mate for the 1964 presidential race, but by that time the two hated each other too much for such an alliance to gel. Johnson called Kennedy “a grandstanding runt” while Kennedy described Johnson as “mean, bitter, vicious – an animal in many ways.” The president, instead, named Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey to the number two spot.

Unable to stand working for Johnson any longer, Kennedy resigned as attorney general. He moved to New York to run for the United States Senate in 1964. Kennedy had to deal with accusations that he was an opportunistic “carpetbagger.” Kennedy, in fact, knew little about local issues in New York. He got lost on his way to events and seemed emotionally distant and distracted to many voters. Much to Kennedy’s chagrin, he depended on Johnson’s considerable coattails to win the race. He won the Senate seat by 700,000 votes, 2 million fewer votes than Johnson carried in New York.

Kennedy did not enjoy his time in the Senate. “RFK lacked the patience and the backslapping volubility to hang around the cloakroom, swapping stories and favors with other lawmakers,” Thomas wrote. “The Senate is built on talk and courtesy. Kennedy was often silent or abrupt or just plain rude. He was not predictable: witty and playful one day, gloomy the next . . . The slow and meandering pace of legislation frustrated Kennedy.” During his three-plus years in that body he was unable to pass a single major piece of legislation he had authored.

Feeling small in the Senate, Kennedy desperately sought opportunities for heroic action. In 1965, he became the first person ever to reach the summit of Mount Kennedy in Canada, which had been named after his brother. He regularly went for swims in dangerous waters, but it was in politics that he gradually became a folk hero in his own right.

As early as April 1965, Kennedy doubted that the Vietnam War could be won in conventional military terms. That month, he urged Johnson to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. The president complied with this wish for a brief time, but soon resumed “Operation Rolling Thunder.” At a press conference in November 1965, Kennedy started to tell reporters that he did not “agree personally” with young people who burned their draft cards, “but if a person feels that strongly . . .” A reporter interrupted. ‘What about giving blood to the North Vietnamese?” the journalist asked. “I think it’s a good idea . . . in the oldest traditions of this country,” Kennedy replied. The press, still strongly pro-war, reacted hysterically. The New York Times suggested that if Kennedy wanted to “help” the North Vietnamese then, “why not go whole hog? Why not light out for the enemy country and join its armed forces?”

In February 1966 Kennedy made his boldest break with Johnson yet, declaring during another press conference that the United States should seek a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam and perhaps even include the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the Vietcong, in a coalition government. However, Lyndon Johnson’s aides began quoting the late President Kennedy on the necessity of resisting communist victory in Southeast Asia. Ever loyal to the memory of his brother, and not wanting to tarnish John Kennedy’s legacy by criticizing the Vietnam War, Bobby again fell silent on the issue. “I’m afraid that by speaking out I just make Lyndon do the opposite out of spite,” the New York Senator told friends. “He hates me so much that if I asked for snow, he would make it rain, just because it was me.”


The Watts Riot in August 1965, however, increased the pressure RFK felt to act sooner rather than later. Having grown up in a family in which he felt like an underdog, Kennedy believed he understood the desperation of impoverished African Americans and Latinos. In a speech in New York after the uprising, Kennedy noted that New York State spent more money on welfare than education.

During the period from 1966 to 1968, Robert Kennedy seemed to instinctively seek out the dispossessed. Invited to speak in South Africa, where the ruling white supremacist regime had imposed apartheid, a rigidly enforced system of racial separation and oppression of the black majority, Kennedy took up the challenge. Kennedy visited the poverty-stricken black townships lying on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities. A crowd of approximately 15,000 attended Kennedy’s speech at the University of Cape Town. Realizing his audience was filled with activists committed to justice but afraid of their authoritarian government, Kennedy urged his listeners not to feel powerless. As he told his audience:

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation . . . It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth tiny ripples of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance . . ."

The crowd roared. After such a triumphant moment on the world stage, RFK chafed at returning to the limiting, parochial concerns of New York state politics. Kennedy found a useful hero in the person of Cesar Chavez, who was attempting to unionize underpaid migrant farm workers in California. Kennedy started raising money for Chavez’s United Farm Workers union, proposed to his Senate colleagues legislation aimed at improving working conditions for migrant labor, and pressured the IRS to stop using the threat of deportation against these workers as a tactic to disrupt union organizing.

Hunger and deprivation became personal issues for the wealthy and privileged politician. In 1967, serving on the Senate Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Poverty, Kennedy attended hearings in rural Mississippi. “Appalled by the testimony, he went out into the fields,” biographer Evan Thomas wrote. “Kennedy was hardly new to scenes of want and deprivation, but he was still shocked by the living conditions of poor blacks in the Delta. The stench and vermin in the windowless shacks overwhelmed his senses. He sat down on a dirty floor and held a child who was covered with open sores. He rubbed the child’s stomach, which was distended by starvation. He caressed and murmured and tickled. No response. The child was in a daze.”

Kennedy, who mocked himself as someone who had made a D in his college Economics class, struggled for an answer to poverty. He launched an experiment in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Poor and with a population that was 82 percent African American and 12 percent Puerto Rican, “Bed-Stuy,” as it was known, became the scene of a riot in 1964 after a police shooting of a black teenager. After a February 1966 tour of the neighborhood, Kennedy met with business leaders and the wealthy heads of charitable foundations to see if a program combining government incentives such as tax breaks and grants with private investment capital could be marshaled to create quality jobs in the neighborhood.

Along with his fellow New York Senator Jacob Javits, Kennedy secured passage of an amendment in November 1966 to the Economic Opportunity Act originally passed in 1964. The new provision created the Special Impact Program. This law allowed the creation of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development and Service Corporation. The agency included one board made up of members of the local community that would determine which projects were most needed while another board sought corporate investment dollars and provided management expertise. In the last four decades, the program has provided job placement services, opened an arts academy and the Billie Holliday Theatre (named after the legendary jazz singer), constructed 2,200 housing units, and provided $60 million in mortgage financing to about 1,500 Bed-Stuy residents.


The Kennedy family had always placed a high premium on action and courage, but as the 1968 presidential campaign opened, and anti-war activists tired of waiting for Robert to announce his candidacy, war critics began to accuse him of political cowardice. Familiar with the New York Senator’s obsession with machismo, they mocked Kennedy during his public appearances with signs that said, “Bobby Kennedy – Hawk, Dove, or Chicken?”

Anti-war activists looked for someone else to pick up the mantle. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy had become one of the early skeptics of the Vietnam War. McCarthy became one of only five senators to vote for a motion to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had given Johnson the authority to pursue the Vietnam War. A quiet, deeply religious Catholic and a published poet, he could not have had a more different personality than Lyndon Johnson, the backslapping, larger-than-life president. He often spoke with the cool, detached air of an intellectual and often irritated his campaign staff with what seemed his lack of passion. However, his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his resentment over the increase of executive power that came in the Johnson years, pushed him into the unlikely arena of presidential politics.

With no other Democrat willing to mount a credible challenge to Johnson’s misadventure in Vietnam, McCarthy announced his entry into the primaries on November 30, 1967. His campaign demeanor was intelligent but often emotionally remote and obtuse. He often acted like someone who didn’t seem to think he could actually win the nomination.

McCarthy, nevertheless, benefited from lucky political timing. During the month leading up to the campaign season’s opening New Hampshire primary, the news was filled with reports on the Tet Offensive. As the only man standing up to Johnson within the Democratic Party, McCarthy received the enthusiastic support of anti-war college and high school students from all across the country. “ . . . [W]hen television screens in every college dormitory were filled with the carnage of Tet, the stream of students arriving in New Hampshire turned into a river, then a flood,” author Charles Kaiser recalls.

These volunteers mounted a “children’s crusade” to topple President Johnson and end the war. “McCarthy’s cause attracted some of the youngest, smartest, most independent, best-educated and worst-paid staff members in the history of American politics,” Kaiser notes. McCarthy’s effort relied on a determined and effective ground game. The campaign lacked money, which meant it could not buy much radio or television advertising. Volunteers worked day and night to invite virtually every New Hampshire voter to receptions where the candidate would appear. Voters who showed up, according to Kaiser, received “a personalized thank-you, with McCarthy’s signature forged by a student from Rutgers.”

Unpaid campaigners knocked on nearly every door in the state and spoke to virtually every person who intended to vote in the Democratic presidential primary. The Johnson campaign, in contrast, suffered from arrogance and obliviousness to the changed political environment created by Tet. Johnson also suffered from high expectations. An incumbent president would be expected to win by a landslide in his party’s primaries, so all McCarthy needed was a respectable showing in order to be seen as the victor.

McCarthy’s election night showing on March 12 exceeded any television and newspaper pundit’s highest expectations. The Minnesota senator won 42.4 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote, with President Johnson receiving only 49.5 percent. “In the ledgers kept in the state capital, the president had ‘won,’” Kaiser wrote. “Everywhere else, McCarthy was magnificently victorious.”

The New Hampshire results gave Bobby Kennedy the opening he had been looking for. Kennedy announced he was entering the presidential sweepstakes four days later, on March 16. Kennedy received flack from Democratic voters who accused him of splitting the peace vote, but Kennedy was certain that McCarthy had no realistic chance of capturing the Democratic nomination, much less of defeating the likely Republican nominee, former Vice President Richard Nixon.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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