To see him at the podium claiming victory in the crucial California primary, jokingly thanking his dog Freckles, passionately hopeful that the divided country could come together, flashing a peace sign as he exhorts: ‘So it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there!” Knowing what is to come a moment later, it is hard not to assume that it was only Sirhan Sirhan’s bullets that kept Robert Kennedy out of the White House.
The cold political realities of June 1968 were very different. Despite his victory in the winner-take-all California primary—a victory that was well under the 50 percent mark the Kennedy campaign had hoped for—the primary season was ending, as virtually every TV analyst noted, with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had entered no primary battle, as the real winner. Big states without primaries, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, were lined up solidly in his corner, as were the Southern states, as was the leader of the AFL-CIO. And once the New York primary ended two weeks after California, there was no place else to go to win delegates at the ballot box.
“We were losing altitude,” de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton reflected later. looking back at the political terrain Kennedy was facing. In fact, the day of the primary, Dutton was skeptical enough of our chances to suggest that RFK would take the vice-presidential slot if offered.
“Bobby’s a Roman,” Dutton said. “He’ll go where the power is.” And a delegate analysis showed that Humphrey would end the primary season with close to1,000 of the 1,312 delegates need for nomination; Bobby and Eugene McCarthy together had fewer than 700.
So the question that has lingered for half a century—Could RFK have won the White House?—needs an unsentimental look at the prospects, even from someone who worked as a Senate and campaign speechwriter. Some years ago, I devoted 150 pages of an alternate history book to suggest how that might have happened. That scenario included some imagined twists and turns that a strictly “reality-based” view requires reshaping. Here is an unvarnished outline of how he might have won.
His Survival Changes the Political Dynamic
If Sirhan had carried out the assassination attempt but failed, Bobby would have been an instant icon among Democrats; and there would have been an outpouring of goodwill among the broader electorate. We saw this when President Reagan narrowly escaped death at the hands of John Hinckley in 1981; the relief that a major political figure had not been killed would have been enormous, especially coming only eight weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and years of escalating national violence. Among Kennedy’s most passionate supporters—blacks and Latinos—the support would, if possible, have grown more intense; and that in turn would have put pressure on big-state party leaders—“bosses”— who had committed to Humphrey.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy Leaves the Race
In his TV interviews just before heading to the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy had one central message—only a united “peace” campaign could hope to defeat Humphrey.
“I can only win,” he said, “if I have the help and assistance of Senator McCarthy and/or those who support him. Otherwise, the policies about the war and the cities will not change.” RFK had said flatly that if he lost California, he’d exit the race; Senator McCarthy, who had entered the campaign the previous fall after Kennedy declined, had made no such commitment. And the bitterness of McCarthy’s people at Kennedy’s sudden entry into the race was still strong. A few nights before the primary, journalist Jack Newfield and I had gone to the hotel where McCarthy staffers were staying, making the pitch for the California loser to leave the race. One McCarthy aide said, “If we have to have a red-baiting opportunist in the White House, I’d rather have Nixon.”
More significantly, though, some of McCarthy’s top lieutenants, including Sam Brown, who had organized the “Clean for Gene” youth invasion of New Hampshire, signaled clearly that they would switch to RFK if he won the California primary. If the anti-war liberals in New York followed suit, it would have meant not only a last big collection of delegates, but a clear field for Kennedy.
He Wins the Backing of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
“Daley’s the ballgame,” Bobby had said when he entered the race. It wasn’t just that Daley controlled the huge Illinois delegation; it was that he would signal to old-line Democrats around the country that he, as shrewd a political judge as any, had concluded that Bobby, not Hubert, was the only way to defeat Nixon in November. According to Thurston Clarke’s book The Last Campaign, Daley had told an RFK ally that “if he wins California, he’ll be okay.” A Daley endorsement would have meant the dramatic resetting of the political terrain.
He Runs an ‘Inside-Outside’ Campaign
“I’m going to chase Hubert’s ass all across the country,” Bobby told Richard Goodwin just before heading down to claim victory. The campaign’s only hope, riding on the heels of a Daley endorsement, was to demonstrate his rank-and-file support with massive rallies in big cities, and with an intense dive into rural America, where his whistle-stop train trips helped him win surprising backing in the small towns and farm communities of Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota (it was also a way of demonstrating that Bobby Kennedy was not simply the candidate of black and brown America). Without primaries to run in, the campaign had to make it clear to the party leaders that Robert Kennedy was their best chance to defeat the man Democrats had cordially despised for two decades.
At the same time, Kennedy would make it clear that he was not about to frontally challenge the party machinery or leaders. His schedule had called for him to stop in Missouri on his way back East from California. And the summer would have sent him not just into rallies and public gatherings, but into meetings of convention delegates and party officials. Hyannis, the setting for the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod, would have seen a procession of party leaders and delegates, for dinners and social events with the family.
He ‘Neutralizes’ LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover
The decades-long antipathy between RFK and LBJ—"Mutual Contempt,” as one book title aptly put it—meant that Kennedy was battling not just Hubert Humphrey, but a sitting Democratic President who blamed Bobby for his decision to abandon reelection. And in FBI Director Hoover, Bobby had an enemy more than happy to undermine the campaign, and who was possessed of a trove of information, and not just about the reckless sexual compulsions of President John Kennedy. It was no accident that damaging stories about RFK’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King had surfaced just before the Oregon primary—the only one Kennedy lost.
In my book, I suggested that Hoover’s power might have been neutralized by threats from the Kennedy people to reveal unsavory details about Hoover’s private life, especially his unusually close association with his deputy, Clyde Tolson. (They traveled together, lunched together every day, even had plans to be buried next to each other.) But that is speculation. It’s also possible that Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, head learned the details of LBJ’s financial history; somehow after a lifetime on the government payroll, he’d accumulated a net worth of some $14 million. It’s at least plausible to suggest that a quid pro quo might have convinced both LBJ and RFK to holster their weapons of political destruction, but even after 50 years, the potential of Hoover and LBJ to undermine RFK remains the most intriguing of “what if?” questions.
He Challenges the Rules at the Convention and Wins
The projections of Kennedy’s delegate hunters assumed he would get no support from the Southern delegations, both because of their antipathy to his civil-rights programs, and because they were solidly in the pocket of Lyndon Johnson. But some of those delegations—Mississippi’s for example—flatly violated an agreement at the 1964 convention that such delegations be racially representative (Mississippi had one black delegate). Kennedy’s strategy would have been to force even Humphrey supporters from places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, to unseat such delegations and replace them with more balanced slates—which would have meant a lot more black delegates, which would almost certainly would have meant more votes for RFK. Further, many of those Southern delegates used the “unit rule,” where all of the state’s votes went to the candidate who had won a majority. Had that rule been successfully challenged, it would have unlocked several dozen more votes for Kennedy. In turn, he would have had to release his California delegates, who’d been chosen in a winner-take-all primary, to vote as they pleased; they would surely have voted for the man on whose slate they had run.
He Picks a Credible Veep
Kennedy had long been haunted by the knowledge that his brother had chosen LBJ as his running mate in 1960. It was politically sound—JFK might not have won Texas and other Southern states without him—but Bobby’s conviction that LBJ was a dangerous, unstable President meant that the choice of a vice-president mattered, even beyond the blunt political calculations.
I don’t remember a single conversation among his aides and advisors about the second slot—the campaign was too intense, too frenzied, for that. But it seems reasonable that Bobby would have looked to a “unity” choice by picking a Southerner who had supported Humphrey. The logical candidate would have been Terry Sanford, former Governor of North Carolina. Unlike other possible choices—Tennessee Senator Al Gore Sr.—Sanford had not opposed the landmark civil rights laws of the mid-60’s. A bolder possibility would have been Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a liberal populist who had waged civil war with the more conservative Democrats in that state. That choice would have been a political thumb in the eye of the President.
A still bolder strategy—one seriously considered by John McCain in 2008—would be to put a liberal Republican on the ticket like California Senator Tom Kuchel, who had just lost a primary to a far-right opponent. But that would likely not have appealed much to a convention looking for party unity.
The Nixon Challenge—and the Wallace Factor
Richard Nixon’s long climb back from political failure to a second GOP nomination was premised on the idea that he would provide “new leadership” that would restore a sense of order and calm to a divided nation.
“Feel Safer With Nixon,” his billboards had proclaimed in the primary season and one of his memos to his staff underline the argument that: “We are the OUTS and they are the INs.”
With Robert Kennedy as his opponent, that argument was undermined, since RFK himself was the embodiment of “new leadership.” Instead, Nixon would be running as the champion of middle America, the “forgotten American,” a theme he had been using since his first Congressional campaign back in 1946. Bobby, his argument would go, was feeding the forces of disruption and disorder. He was standing with the flag-burners; he was stirring up massive crowds (of blacks and browns, it did not need to be said), triggering frenzy that even Kennedy’s own campaign thought did not play well on America’s TV screens.
To combat Nixon’s strategy required the same kind of “two-step” that Kennedy had deployed in the primaries. He had to engage his base— make sure they registered to vote in numbers they had never done before. It had worked in California; now it had to work in a dozen states or more. (Hs brother had lost California and Ohio in 1960 and barely won New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois). But he also had to find support in rural America, as he’d done in the primaries. This was a hard-nosed political necessity: white America had to see Bobby talking and listening to farmers, small-town merchants, homemakers, in settings right out of Norman Rockwell. But it was also critical to his policy intentions. The Presidency would be worth very little if his ideas about jobs, housing, and poverty were seen simply as race-based.
That approach meshed with a second, crucial element in Robert Kennedy’s Presidential effort: He had to win over a substantial share of those tempted to back Alabama Gov. George Wallace, running a third-party campaign.
This sounds ludicrous—unless you had gone into the crowds that came to hear RFK in the primaries and heard them tell reporters like NBC ’s Charles Quinn that while they had no truck with civil rights or ant-Vietnam protesters, they somehow saw Kennedy as tough enough, experienced enough to get a handle on what was pulling the country apart. (In real life, a post-campaign analysis showed that a substantial share of Indiana Kennedy voters wound up voting for Wallace in November). And in 1968, Wallace’s totals in New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and California were far higher than he margins by which Nixon won those states.
What About Debates?
Unlike this brother, RFK was not a skilled debater; the need to commit short, simplified summaries of his ideas to memory was simply not in his wheelhouse. He’d done well enough in his one primary debate with Eugene McCarthy, but that was a more informal setting than a general election face-off. But the presence of George Wallace as a significant candidate would have altered RFK’s strategy. He would have welcomed the chance to square off with Wallace; to remind working-class whites that Wallace’s Alabama was ground zero for anti-union, low-wage jobs (that fact that would have brought AFL-CIO president George Meany into a reluctant but significant endorsement of RFK). Nixon by contrast, would have wanted a two-person debate, to hammer Bobby as the candidate of disorder. That, in turn, would have given Kennedy the chance to demand fairness for Wallace, to insist that all three candidates appear in a debate. The likelihood would have been no debates at all, which is what in fact happened in 1968.
In the End…
Any attempt to game out the events of an alternate reality requires a leap into the unknown: Would President Johnson have undermined Kennedy’s peace theme by re-escalating the War in Vietnam? Would Kennedy’s covert allies inside the government have leaked the Nixon campaign’s attempts to sabotage peace negotiations?
If we put those speculations aside, we face the probability of a very close election, just as it was in 1960. It’s hard to see RFK wining any Southern state; it’s worth remembering that New England and the Middle Atlantic states were far more competitive back then than they have since become. But if Kennedy was able to rally his natural supporters, and make inroads in rural America, he could have captured many of the states—Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, California—that ultimately fell to Nixon.
There’s another, all too possible reset of a Nixon-Wallace-RFK race: if Bobby had won some but not all of those big battlegrounds, the campaign would have ended with no candidate winning 270 electoral votes. That would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives, where each state would cast one vote. A candidate would have need 26 votes to take the White House, and the Southern delegations, dominated by segregationist Democrats, would have held the balance of power.
And that would have meant that the central themes of both Nixon and RFK—the desperate need for an end of division and disorder—would have wound up in a genuine Constitutional crisis.
And even had Robert Kennedy won the White House, that would have been no guarantee that the hopes of him and his supporters would have been realized. His efforts to put power in the hands of local communities would have unsettled many big-city mayors; his call for radical restructuring of schools would have put him crosswise with the teachers’ unions that formed a significant bloc of Democratic Party foot soldiers. If his programs, which would have taken years to begin working, did not quell violence in the inner city, the blame would have been put at the doorstep of RFK’s White House. And if a Vietnam coalition had ended in a Communist victory, his opponents would have assailed him for his naiveté. (One future I am almost certain of is that his 1972 foe would have been California Governor Ronald Reagan).
None of these speculations and uncertainties about what might have been, however, can erase the memory of what did happen that late June 4th night, when his staff and friends, gathered in the living room of his fifth-floor suite at the Ambassador, watched him joyfully accept victory with the sense that there was at least a possibility, a real possibility, that he might really have a chance.
Moments later, the pictures on the screen changed to disjointed images of chaos, and a figure prone on a kitchen floor. I think everyone of us knew, in those first moments, that there would be no chance to make those possibilities real.