Is Obama the next RFK?

RFK had laid out a plan. Now Obama is doing it.

By: Jules Witcover

Some Democrats believe Robert Kennedy would have won the nomination—and then the election—had he not been shot on the night of his California victory. Photograph by Henry Diltz/Corbis.

Forty years after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, as he campaigned for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, two questions still haunt history: Would he have been elected? And what kind of president would he have been?

Moments before his final speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy had discussed his prospects with speechwriter Richard Goodwin, putting his chances of winning the nomination at no better than even.

In 1968, Democratic delegate collection was still conducted the old-fashioned way, by massaging party leaders in the states. The handful of primaries contested—Kennedy entered only six—served to demonstrate popular support and campaigning talent.

Kennedy’s opposition to the Vietnam War had been a major factor in his decision to run against President Johnson, who later decided not to run for reelection. In Vice President Hubert Humphrey, he was facing a man wracked with indecision about Vietnam but unable to break cleanly from the Johnson policy. By hammering at the issue, Kennedy hoped to lure away delegates previously committed to or leaning toward Humphrey.

The first order of business was to have been a two-week blitz of New York before that state’s primary. Kennedy then was to demonstrate his greater voter appeal by campaigning in big cities over the summer along with making courtesy calls to power brokers such as Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Finally, Kennedy would take a trip to Italy, Poland, and West Germany, with a likely visit to West Berlin and John F. Kennedy Platz, site of his brother’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

Democratic reformers hadn’t yet created a category of superdelegates made up of party leaders to weigh in along with the primary process. So Kennedy campaign operatives planned to pressure such leaders to stall Humphrey’s march to the nomination. While all of this activity was regarded as a long shot on the June night Kennedy won the California primary, the race for the nomination was still in flux—the point Hillary Clinton says she was trying to make in her controversial remarks about him in May.

In the wake of RFK’s assassination, a pall descended on the Democratic Party. The protests against the Vietnam War and the civil-rights and cultural revolutions of the 1960s culminated in one of the most combustible party conventions in the nation’s history.

Some in the Kennedy camp persuaded Senator George McGovern of South Dakota to serve as a stand-in candidate against the war, but the request was driven by sentiment, not reality. A desperate effort was made to induce Robert Kennedy’s grieving brother, Ted, to make himself available for the presidential nomination. It got nowhere.

The emotional high point of the convention was neither the roll call that finally gave the nomination to Humphrey nor his intrepid but forlorn acceptance speech.

The screening of a Robert Kennedy memorial film held the audience spellbound. Delegates watched in silence and then broke into wild applause and singing that went on and on until convention chair Carl Albert finally gaveled it down.

Many Democrats began to wonder whether, if Robert Kennedy had lived, he could have won the nomination after all by persuading Democrats to abandon the weakened Humphrey.

Kennedy’s campaign manager, brother-in-law Steve Smith, said: “You have to presume that Robert would have made it.”

Forty years later, John Lewis, a hero of the march on Selma and now a Georgia congressman, agrees: “I think he would have gone into that Democratic convention in Chicago and the convention would have turned to him.”

When in the fall Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins, the what-ifs were heard anew. Kennedy as the nominee, Lewis says, would have drawn many voters dissatisfied with Humphrey’s 11th-hour break from LBJ’s war policy.

Beyond that, Kennedy probably would have benefited from the inferiority complex that burdened Nixon. Like other Republicans, Nixon liked to talk dismissively of “Bobby.” But he was intimidated by the family whose leader in 1960 had shattered his presidential dreams. The spectacle of Robert Kennedy pounding at him through the autumn of 1968 very likely would have taken a toll.

What kind of president would RFK have been? “If Robert Kennedy had lived,” Lewis says, “I’m convinced that he would have ended the war and he would have built on the efforts of Lyndon Johnson—would have taken the Great Society much farther down the road.”

Kennedy, others said at the time, almost certainly would have ended the American involvement in Vietnam either through a negotiated settlement between the warring Vietnamese or by withdrawing long before President Nixon pulled out the last US troops.

Domestically, a Robert Kennedy presidency would have, at a minimum, saved the country much political grief. It would have meant no Spiro Agnew vice presidency and resignation, no Watergate scandal, no constitutional crisis that ended with Nixon’s own resignation.

Some conjectured much later that Kennedy would have kept alive important aspects of the fight against urban unrest and poverty begun by JFK and LBJ but hindered by the costs of the Vietnam War. Said Richard Goodwin: “He might well have been able to sustain that liberal impulse for quite a while.”

With Robert Kennedy’s voice silenced and without his burning impatience, the Democratic Party slipped into the dismal years of Jimmy Carter and then was eclipsed by the conservatism of the Reagan Revolution. Robert’s brother Ted, though he failed in reaching the presidency, has persevered in the Senate as torchbearer of the legacy of his fallen brothers.

Earlier this year, Ted Kennedy invoked the memory of Robert Kennedy by throwing his support behind the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, another charismatic and impatient Democrat.

Lewis, an early Hillary Clinton supporter who switched to Obama, says: “I don’t think we’ve had anything close to the dedication of Robert Kennedy until Obama. I see a similarity in their ability to build a coalition of the poorest of the poor, the middle class, and even those doing well.”

It’s too soon to speculate on whether Obama will fill the void in the Democratic Party left 40 years ago by the passing of Robert Kennedy. But like RFK, Obama has rallied an army of young Americans with the same insistent oratory that in 1968 inflamed arguably the most dramatic presidential campaign in American history.

What do you think? Is Obama the next RFK? Send your thoughts to editorial@washingtonian.com, and your comment could appear in our next issue. 

This article appears in the July 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.

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