Jules Witcover covered Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign for the Newhouse News Service. After Martin Luther King's assassination, Witcover argued in his book "85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy," the halting, unsure New York Senator found his voice.
Referring to a Cleveland speech Kennedy made in the immediate aftermath of the King murder, Witcover noted, “This speech was in a very real sense, a turning point in the Presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. The views he expressed he had held for years and had been the motivating force of his domestic positions . . . From this point forward, Kennedy’s campaign took on the theme of racial justice and reconciliation to a degree that made Vietnam almost a subordinate issue. With [President Lyndon] Johnson out [of the race] and the peace talks [concerning Vietnam] soon to start, it is undeniably true that Kennedy, for political reasons, needed a new emphasis . . . [But from] here on, the private Robert Kennedy that his closest friends professed him to be – not strident, not bombastic, but low-keyed and sensitive – increasingly emerged in his public life as a campaigner.”
Indiana, a conservative state that in the early 1920s had been an epicenter of the revived Ku Klux Klan, promised to be a difficult primary for a man perceived as an East Coast liberal. One adviser, Indiana native John Bartlow Martin who formerly served as an aide to two-time Democratic Party presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, worried that Indiana voters would be frightened by the scenes of Kennedy overwhelmed by hysterical mobs.
“I thought that so far Kennedy . . . had had too many mob scenes with youngsters screaming and tearing his clothes off,” Martin told Kennedy biographer Evan Thomas. “I thought that the ordinary Hoosier at home watching TV was sick of scenes of violence in Vietnam, or rioting in the cities after King was killed, and kids pulling Kennedy’s clothes off. McCarthy, on the other hand was running a low-keyed, soft-spoken campaign [which] . . . might be effective by contrast with Kennedy’s. Kennedy was too exciting. The people, I thought, did not want to be excited.”
Following Martin’s advice, Kennedy recalibrated his message to his Indiana audience, reminding crowds that he had once been the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer,” and promising to be tough on crime. However, unlike later so-called “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton who embraced the death penalty and bashed programs like welfare to contrast themselves with traditional liberals, Kennedy did not abandon his emphasis on poverty even to his Indiana audiences.
He did not pander, but often defied his audience, at the risk of angering them, to sacrifice the privileges of a middle-class existence for the sake of their country. During one April 26 campaign stop he addressed doctors and medical students at the University of Indiana. In spite of his well-off, all-white, conservative audience, Kennedy chose that evening to call for government-provided health care for the poor.
“Where are you going to get all the money for these federally subsidized programs you are talking about?” one irritated student asked. “From you,” Kennedy answered bluntly, provoking boos and hisses from the crowd. Unfazed, Kennedy reminded the audience that those who have received much from their country should give much in return. “If you do not do this, who will do this?” Kennedy pushed even harder. “You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam.”
Martin tried unsuccessfully to get Kennedy to center his message on middle-class concerns. “He went yammering around Indiana about the poor whites of Appalachia and the starving Indians who committed suicide on the reservations and the jobless Negroes in the distant great cities, and half the Hoosiers didn’t have any idea what he was talking about; but he plodded ahead stubbornly, making them listen, maybe even making some of them care, by the sheer power of his own caring. Indiana people are not generous or sympathetic; they are hard and hardhearted, not warm and generous; but he must have touched something in them, pushed a button somewhere. He alone did it.”
In the Indiana primary, Kennedy intensity won out over McCarthy cool. Kennedy won 42 percent of the vote. Governor Roger Branigan, running as a stand-in for Vice President Hubert Humphrey (who had entered the presidential race but chose to avoid primaries, relying instead on winning Democratic Convention delegates through the party caucuses run by political professionals) won 31 percent, while the original anti-war candidate, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, finished a disappointing third at 27 percent. Nevertheless, Robert Kennedy had been expected to carry more than 50 percent of the vote. In spite of his clear win, Thomas points out, the victory was not perceived as a “knockout” and so the primary battle with McCarthy continued.
“ON TO CHICAGO”
When Kennedy lost the Oregon primary on May 28, it marked the first time a son of Joseph Kennedy had lost a political race since the first time the late John Kennedy unsuccessfully ran for a position in student government at Harvard. With a middle-class electorate and a state population with few African Americans or Latinos, Kennedy’s themes of economic justice and racial reconciliation did not resonate with Oregon voters. With Vice President Humphrey enjoying the support of Johnson and lining up a multitude of party regulars who would serve as delegates at that summer’s Democratic Party Convention, the next primary, in California, was do-or-die for Kennedy’s campaign.
Meanwhile, President Johnson had worked behind the scenes against Kennedy, and the covert effort began to pay off. Earlier in the campaign RFK angered Johnson with a speech against the bombings in Vietnam. Johnson vindictively leaked to a friendly newspaper columnist, Drew Pearson, a story revealing the CIA’s various unsuccessful plans to assassinate Castro. Pearson portrayed Robert Kennedy as the mastermind behind these plots, asking if the senator had been “plagued by the terrible thought that he had helped put in motion terrible forces that indirectly may have brought about his brother’s martyrdom.”
The most damaging leak came on May 24 when Pearson became the first journalist to report that while attorney general, Kennedy had authorized wiretaps of Martin Luther King, Jr. “The timing – the weekend before the climactic California primary that would require a massive black turnout to secure victory for RFK – was clearly mischievous,” Thomas said.
Some African Americans said that they understood why Kennedy had ordered the wiretaps. “It was no surprise to us,” said Juanita Abernathy, the wife of Ralph Abernathy. “We knew the pressure that Bobby was under from the FBI.” Other African Americans took the news harder. Civil rights hero John Lewis, who had been assaulted and injured while participating in the Freedom Rides, expressed disappointment: “It’s like someone telling you that your wife is sleeping with someone else,” he said. “You love her so much you don’t want to hear about it.” Eugene McCarthy’s campaign began to run radio advertisements featuring a black man who said, “I used to be for Robert Kennedy but then I learned how he bugged my brother Martin Luther King’s phone.”
Nevertheless, racially diverse California, with its large cities and its poor and working-class constituencies, provided a more congenial atmosphere than Oregon. Campaigning in Latino and African American neighborhoods, Bobby Kennedy would light up and once remarked, “These are my people.” Thomas agrees. “There had not been since Lincoln, nor has there ever been again, a white national politician as embraced by people of color,” he said.
Kennedy had avoided debating McCarthy because he didn’t want to give his opponent the television exposure and he feared he could not measure up to John Kennedy’s performance in the debates with Nixon in 1960. McCarthy, however, had scored points in Oregon by painting Kennedy as a coward. Kennedy concluded he could not avoid a confrontation, even though he knew he would have to face the embarrassing wiretap issue. The two faced off in a debate June 1.
Asked about the wiretaps during the broadcast, Kennedy gave his rehearsed and less than candid answer. He said that he gave a blanket approval for wiretaps when national security risks were involved, but that he never authorized wiretaps for specific individuals. McCarthy, in one of those fits of disinterest that seemed to plague him throughout the campaign, did not take advantage of the moment and didn’t challenge Kennedy’s answer. At one point, McCarthy stumbled and suggested that ghetto populations should be “dispersed” by the government, a suggestion offensive both to poor blacks and Latinos and to white backlash voters unlikely to welcome the integration of their neighborhoods.
Throughout his campaign, Kennedy had had trouble winning over Jewish voters. Bobby’s father ,Joseph Kennedy, was widely known as an anti-Semite who, as American ambassador to Great Britain, had urged President Franklin Roosevelt to avoid war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Furthermore, Robert Kennedy had acted as counsel to Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy’s Committee on Government Operations, which recklessly charged a large number of Americans with communism and which claimed many prominent Jews as victims. To reassure these voters, Kennedy endorsed the sale of more weapons to Israel during the debate.
Just the year before, the State of Israel had defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria in a lightning-quick attack that came to be known as the Six-Day War. As a result of the war, Israel now occupied a large swath of what used to be Jordanian territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River, including the eastern half of Jerusalem. A Jordanian living in California named Sirhan Sirhan had already been angered by a news photo of Bobby Kennedy wearing a Jewish headcovering called a yarmulke. Now, he heard that Kennedy called for further American military support for Israel. Sirhan owned a gun and on the day of the debate bought a box of ammo for his small .22 caliber handgun. Sirhan determined to take action.
The morning of June 4, the day of the California primary, Bobby wanted a brief respite from that world. He woke to an unusually cold and grey day. The senator took a swim in the Pacific with his children. His son David got caught in an undertow and almost drowned, until his father dived in and rescued him. The two emerged, David badly frightened, and both bruised.
A supporter, Richard Goodwin, caught him later that day lounging on two face-to-face beach chairs near a swimming pool. The image he saw terrified Goodwin, who for a moment thought Robert Kennedy had died. Goodwin later remembered, “His head [hung] limply over the chair frame; his unshaven face was deeply lined . . . There was no movement. I felt a sudden spasm of fear. But it swiftly receded. He was sleeping, only sleeping. God, I thought . . . I supposed none of us will ever get over John Kennedy.”
That night, the networks projected Kennedy would win more than 50 percent of the vote. (The final vote total gave Kennedy 46 percent of the vote to McCarthy’s 42.) Kennedy remained cautious. He knew Vice President Humphrey had the support of much of the Democratic Party establishment, which would dominate that summer’s convention in Chicago. He also knew that McCarthy had collected an impressive number of delegates. But Kennedy had made a strong argument for his nomination, winning five of the six primaries he had entered. Those who knew him best sensed his relief and even his sense of pride. He had won in the way he had wanted to, and campaigning on his issues. He finally had stepped outside the shadow of his brother.
Late that night, Kennedy reached the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to be interviewed by reporters and to thank supporters. Shortly before midnight, Kennedy went down to the ballroom, the crowd erupting in joy when he emerged. Kennedy spoke under the stifling hot lights of the TV cameras.
“What is quite clear [is] that we can work together in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States over a period of the last three years – the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam – that is we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country . . . My thanks to all of you, and on to Chicago.”
As he departed, as he had so often during the 85-day quest for the president, he “reached down and shook hands with some [of the crowd] . . . and touched some outstretched fingers.” Kennedy’s handlers guided the candidate out of the ballroom and through the kitchen corridor. At about 12:13 a.m. June 5, Sirhan was standing on a low tray-stacker when Kennedy passed. The young man stepped off the tray stacker, raised his pistol-bearing right hand over a cluster of Kennedy staffers, and aimed at Kennedy’s head. He fired one shot, then after a brief pause, several more quick shots. Kennedy “threw his hands up to his face, then staggered back, falling to the grey concrete floor on his back – his eyes open, his arms over his head, his feet apart,” Witcover said. “ . . . He was alive, but grievously wounded; blood flowed from behind his right ear. In back of him, others were hit and fell.”
Ethel Kennedy’s bodyguard Bill Barry, and Roosevelt Grier, a former defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams who had campaigned for Kennedy and also provided protection, grabbed Sirhan. Somehow, in the chaos, Sirhan broke loose and again held the gun. “Get the gun! Kill him!” the crowd yelled. Rafer Johnson, a former Olympic decathlete, pried the gun from Sirhan’s hand as a voice cried, “Break his thumb if you have to.”
Kennedy still lived as Ethyl stroked her dying husband’s face and chest. Still conscious, he asked, “Is everybody else all right?” An ambulance crew lifted him onto a stretcher as Ethyl cried out, ‘Gently, gently.” Kennedy closed his eyes, never to awake, as Ethyl wept, “Oh, no, no, don’t . . .” Meanwhile, the audience in the ballroom heard the news and let out a terrible scream. Doctors pronounced Kennedy dead at 1:44 a.m. June 6, 1968. His body lay in state at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and would be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to President Kennedy.
News coverage of the service switched to breaking news that King’s assassin, Ray, had been arrested in London. Somehow, the almost penniless unemployed drifter, after killing King, successfully crossed the border and reached Toronto, Canada and with a forged passport flew to London and then reached Lisbon, Portugal, where he purchased a second fake Canadian passport. Flying back to London’s Heathrow Airport, Ray carried a loaded pistol as he tried to board a plane to Brussels, Belgium. The Canadian Mounted Police matched his photo to those provided by the FBI of King’s wanted assassin, and arrested him.
Knowing that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover despised Kennedy as much as he hated Martin Luther King, “Kennedy’s friends wondered whether J. Edgar Hoover had timed the announcement to upstage his enemy one last time in the middle of his funeral,” author Charles Kaiser wrote.
The rituals that Americans observed to say goodbye to prominent political figures – those enacted for John Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., now marked the passing of Robert Kennedy. As with services for Abraham Lincoln 103 years earlier, a train bore Kennedy from New York to the nation’s capital. “As they had for Lincoln, many thousands -- perhaps, for RFK, a million people, lined the tracks,” Thomas wrote. “ . . [A]long the route of the train, Boy Scouts and firemen braced at attention; nuns, some wearing dark glasses, stood witness; housewives wept. Thousands and thousands of black people waited quietly in the heat . . . ”
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.