Increasingly opposed to the Vietnam War, Robert F. Kennedy struggled over whether he should challenge his party’s incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, in 1968. His younger brother, Teddy, was against it. His wife, Ethel, urged him on. Many feared he would be assassinated, like the older brother he mourned.
by Thurston Clarke | Vanity Fair | June 2008
Bobby Kennedy campaigns in Indianapolis during May of 1968, with various aides and friends, including (behind and left of Kennedy) former prizefighter Tony Zale and (right of Kennedy) N.F.L. stars Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, and Deacon Jones. Photographs by Bill Eppridge.
Text excerpted from The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clarke, to be published this month by Henry Holt and Company, L.L.C.; © 2008 by the author.
Photographs excerpted from A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties; photographs and text by Bill Eppridge; introduction by Pete Hamill; to be published this month by Abrams; © 2008 by Bill Eppridge.
Two months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Robert Kennedy traveled to Asia on an itinerary that had originally been planned for J.F.K. During the trip, he visited a girls’ school in the Philippines where the students sang a song they had composed to honor his brother. As he drove away with CBS cameraman Walter Dombrow, he clenched his hands so tightly that they turned white, and tears rolled down his cheeks. He shook his head, signaling that Dombrow should remain silent. Finally he said in a choked voice, “They would have loved my brother.” Dombrow put his arm around him and said, “Bob, you’re going to have to carry on for him.” Kennedy stared straight ahead for half a minute before turning to Dombrow and nodding. It was then, Dombrow said, that he knew Bobby would run for president and realized how much he loved him.
A deep, black grief gripped Robert Kennedy in the months following his brother’s assassination. He lost weight, fell into melancholy silences, wore his brother’s clothes, smoked the cigars his brother had liked, and imitated his mannerisms. Eventually his grief went underground, but it sometimes erupted in geysers of tears, as had happened in the Philippines. He wept after seeing a photograph of his late brother in the office of a former aide, wept when asked to comment on the Warren Commission Report, and wept after eulogizing J.F.K. at the 1964 Democratic convention with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
Kennedy was still mourning his brother and endeavoring to live for him when he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in the autumn of 1964, telling a friend that he wanted to ensure that the hopes J.F.K. had kindled around the world would not die, and saying in his victory statement that he had won “an overwhelming mandate to continue the policies” of President Kennedy. And at first it appeared that his 1968 presidential campaign—challenging his brother’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, for the Democratic Party’s nomination—would be another homage to J.F.K. Bobby announced his candidacy on March 16 in the caucus room of the Old Senate Office Building, the room that his brother had used for the same purpose. He stood in the same spot and began with the same sentence: “I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States.” After saying that he was running to “close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old,” he concluded with a passage that made him sound like his brother, perhaps because it had been contributed in part by Ted Sorensen, who had been his brother’s speechwriter: “I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.”
Some advisers had urged him to excise this passage from his speech, arguing that it represented the kind of New Frontier hubris that had ensnared America in the Vietnam War, which Kennedy now fervently opposed. Washington Post reporter David Broder would disparage the speech’s reliance on “the nostalgic rhetoric of the earlier Kennedy era.” But Bobby’s “right to the moral leadership of this planet” line turned out to be closer to the truth than even he, or Ted Sorensen, realized at the time. At stake was not so much Americans’ moral leadership as their belief that they were worthy of such leadership.
In 1968, America was a wounded nation. The wounds were moral ones; the Vietnam War and three summers of inner-city riots had inflicted them on the national soul, challenging Americans’ belief that they were a uniquely noble and honorable people. Americans saw news footage from South Vietnam, such as the 1965 film of U.S. Marines setting fire to thatched huts in the village of Cam Ne with cigarette lighters and flamethrowers, and realized that they were capable of committing atrocities once considered the province of their enemies. They saw federal troops patrolling the streets of American cities and asked themselves how this could be happening in their City upon a Hill.
Nevertheless, on the day that Kennedy announced his candidacy, it was by no means obvious that 1968 would become a watershed year. Most of the year’s momentous events would occur after Kennedy’s March 16 announcement, with many of the most shocking ones unfolding during his campaign. Had you told anyone in the Senate caucus room that morning that during the next 82 days President Johnson would decline to seek a second term, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would both be assassinated, and America would suffer its worst racial disturbances since the Civil War, they might have believed that one or two of those things might happen, but not all, nor in such quick succession.
After concluding his announcement, Kennedy took questions ranging from skeptical to hostile. But as he left the Capitol, supporters screaming his name grabbed at his clothes and leapt in the air to see him, much as his brother’s supporters had in 1960. Anyone witnessing this and hearing the New Frontier echoes in his announcement would have been justified in assuming that his campaign would indeed be an extended tribute to his brother. Instead, March 16 would be the end rather than the beginning of such a tribute, and during the next three months he would run on issues his brother had seldom raised and in a manner, at times, his brother would have found undignified.
Richard Nixon, who had lost the presidency to J.F.K. in 1960, watched Kennedy’s announcement from a hotel room in Portland, Oregon. John Ehrlichman, one of several aides in the room with Nixon, later wrote, “When it was over and the hotel-room TV was turned off, Nixon sat and looked at the blank screen for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, he shook his head slowly. ‘We’ve just seen some very terrible forces unleashed,’ he said. ‘Something bad is going to come of this.’ He pointed at the screen, ‘God knows where this is going to lead.’ ” Meanwhile, by one account, Kennedy was telling Nicole Salinger, the wife of J.F.K.’s press secretary Pierre Salinger, “I’m sleeping well for the first time in months. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but at least I’m at peace with myself.”
Kennedy signing a campaign poster. He agonized about entering the race, but after he made his decision he told a friend, “I’m sleeping well for the first time in months. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but at least I’m at peace with myself.”
“The Same Thing That Happened to Jack”
The question of whether Kennedy should challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968 had been the subject of frequent and passionate debates among friends and family members for the six months preceding his decision. By the fall of 1967, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had served in J.F.K.’s White House, Ethel Kennedy, and most of Bobby’s young Senate staffers were urging him to run. They argued that Johnson was vulnerable, that the Democratic Party was already split over the war, and that if Kennedy stood on the sidelines students and anti-war activists would support another candidate, and he might never win them back. Soon after the 1966 election, Adam Walinsky, the most outspoken of Kennedy’s Young Turks, had sent him a memorandum titled “Gratuitous Advice.” In it, Walinsky called Lyndon Johnson a lame-duck president, predicted he would lose the 1968 general election, and warned Kennedy that “he who stands with LBJ now goes into eclipse—perhaps irretrievably.” Walinsky concluded that, although Kennedy’s chances for unseating Johnson were not good, he had to try anyway because the chances that he or any Democrat would beat an incumbent Republican in 1972 were even worse, and because, Walinsky wrote, “I believe you should be President. And I believe you should speak out about the war.”
Ted Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, and other former J.F.K. White House aides—men whom Robert Kennedy described to New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis as “most everyone whom I respect”—were strongly opposed to his running. They argued that he could not win, that party and union leaders were certain to back Johnson, and that a Kennedy candidacy risked being viewed as another chapter in the long-running Kennedy-Johnson feud, dating back to the 1960 campaign, rather than as an honest difference over policy. They also pointed out that if Republicans won the White House in 1968 the Democratic leadership would blame Kennedy and oppose giving him the nomination in 1972. Some were afraid that, as Jackie Kennedy had said to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “the same thing that happened to Jack” would happen to Bobby, although most knew Bobby well enough not to voice these fears to him. In 1996, Ted Kennedy admitted to biographer Adam Clymer that he had feared Bobby might be assassinated. “We weren’t that far away from ‘63 [when J.F.K. was killed],” he said, “and that was still very much of a factor.”
Kennedy was concerned that, if he ran, an increasingly unstable Lyndon Johnson might “wag the dog,” provoking an international crisis or even starting a war to upstage the challenger’s candidacy. In late 1967, as Kennedy was completing Thirteen Days, his account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he had told Adam Walinsky, “You know, we had 13 people in that room [the Cabinet Room in the White House], and if any one of 8 of them had been President, we would have had a nuclear war.” During the same conversation, he said, “The problem is that if I run against Johnson, I don’t know what he’s going to do.” Kennedy told Walinsky that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had also served in J.F.K.’s administration and who initially did not encourage Bobby’s running in 1968, stoked his fears, perhaps on purpose, by recounting conversations during which Johnson had spoken about possible, and frightening, countermoves against North Vietnam and China. The fear that Johnson’s obsessive hatred for him might prompt Johnson to act irrationally had also inhibited Kennedy’s criticism of the president’s Vietnam policies. “I’m afraid that by speaking out I just make Lyndon do the opposite,” he once told the Village Voice reporter Jack Newfield. “He hates me so much that if I asked for snow, he would make rain, just because it was me.”
The fact that Bobby’s wife, Ethel, and Ted Kennedy were on opposite sides of the debate contributed to Bobby’s indecision. Ted was a more cautious and canny politician than Bobby, and more inclined to adhere to Senate and party rules and customs. He was so certain that entering the race in 1968 would be a mistake that he enlisted others in his campaign, even approaching Senator George McGovern in the Senate gymnasium and raising his concerns. Ethel Kennedy was equally determined that Bobby should run, and enlisted the family Christmas card in her campaign. On the inside was a photograph of the children piled on top of an antique car, one holding a sign saying, santa in ‘67. The back carried a small photograph of Bobby. He had a sly grin on his face, and a cartoon balloon over his head read, “Would you believe Santa Claus in ‘68, too?”
One might have thought that Ethel Kennedy—who knew that during her husband’s term as attorney general the telephones at Hickory Hill, the Kennedys’ home in McLean, Virginia, had rung with threats such as “We know where your kids go to school and we know how they get there” and “Do you know what hydrochloric acid can do to your eyes?”—would be the last person to want Bobby to run. But she was almost as complicated as he was: recklessly frank yet guarded, canny and guileless, brash and sensitive, an observant Catholic who threw wild parties and hobnobbed with celebrities. Perhaps she wanted him to run because she imagined it would be great fun, a kind of nonstop Hickory Hill party, or because she was competitive with Jackie and considered it her turn to be First Lady, or because she believed her husband’s fate was in God’s hands. More likely, it was because she understood him better than anyone, believed in him more, was convinced he would be a great president, and knew he would never forgive himself if he sat out the race.
“This Is a Moral Obligation”
The debate within the Kennedy camp had continued through the fall and winter. But two events occurring at the end of November made his candidacy virtually inevitable. The first was his November 26 appearance on Face the Nation, during which he characterized the argument that Americans were fighting in Vietnam to prevent Communism from threatening the mainland as “immoral,” saying, “Do we have the right here in the United States to say that we’re going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have, refugees, kill women and children, as we have? … I very seriously question whether we have that right.” Then, continuing to frame the issue in moral terms, he said, “When we use napalm, when a village is destroyed and civilians are killed … this is a moral obligation and a moral responsibility for us here in the United States.” A panelist asked why, if he felt this way, he believed that Johnson should run for a second term. Because there was no honest answer to this question, Kennedy hedged. During a meeting with Kennedy the following January, the influential columnist Walter Lippmann pointed to the same conundrum, telling him, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had arranged the meeting, “Well, if you believe that Johnson’s reelection would be a catastrophe for the country—and I entirely agree with you on this … the question you must live with is whether you did everything you could to avert this catastrophe.”
Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, enjoy some downtime on the campaign’s chartered plane.
In fact, Kennedy needed only to reread his own words to be reminded that framing his opposition to the Vietnam War in moral terms while refusing to challenge Johnson for the nomination was a prima facie case of moral cowardice. In a new introduction to Profiles in Courage, written just weeks after his brother’s death, he had declared that “President Kennedy was fond of quoting Dante that ‘the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.’ ” In the postscript to his 1967 book, To Seek a Newer World, Kennedy had called it “thoughtless folly” to attempt “to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values,” adding that “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” How could someone who had written these words not run against Johnson?
The second event virtually guaranteeing Kennedy’s candidacy came on November 30, when Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota declared that he would challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination on an anti-war platform. McCarthy’s announcement was curiously halfhearted, as if even he recognized that his candidacy was quixotic. At a press conference afterward he appeared to be encouraging Kennedy to enter the race, saying, “There would surely be nothing illegal or contrary to American politics if he or someone else were to take advantage of what I’m doing.”
Kennedy considered McCarthy lazy and pompous and had probably not forgiven him for delivering a passionate speech at the 1960 convention nominating Adlai Stevenson, the last-ditch candidate of everyone hoping to deny the nomination to John Kennedy. After learning that McCarthy had entered the race, Kennedy told George McGovern, “He’s going to get a lot of support. I can tell you right now, he’ll run very strong in New Hampshire. I’m worried about you and other people making early commitments to him because it may be hard for all of us later on.” As he spoke, McGovern imagined him thinking, My God, I should have done this. Why didn’t I move earlier? Later, Kennedy would tell McGovern, “Gene McCarthy is not competent to be president of the United States.”
Kennedy continued agonizing over his candidacy during the Christmas holidays. Just after the New Year, he announced to close friends and advisers that he had decided to wait until at least 1972, telling them, according to his aide Richard Goodwin, “The support just isn’t there. People will think it’s a personal vendetta between me and Johnson.” In a January 4 speech in San Francisco he declared that he expected to support Johnson despite their disagreements over Vietnam. He reaffirmed this during an off-the-record conversation at a press breakfast on January 30, saying that he would not oppose Johnson “under any conceivable circumstances.”
The next day, Communist forces launched coordinated attacks on South Vietnamese cities and military installations. The Tet offensive—as it was called because it commenced on Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year—proved to be a military defeat but a psychological victory for the Communists, and persuaded many Americans that the Johnson administration’s optimistic pronouncements about the war had been ill-founded or intentionally disingenuous. When Kennedy said in Chicago eight days later that Tet had “shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves” and that “total military victory is not within sight or around the corner,” he was voicing a conclusion reached by a majority of Americans.
The consensus of Kennedy’s friends and advisers is that he had decided to enter the race in mid- to late February or early March. Edwin Guthman, who had served as his press officer in the Justice Department, learned that he had decided to run when Kennedy called to ask whether Guthman thought he should accept an invitation to fly to Delano, California, on March 10 and join Cesar Chavez, the head of the farmworkers’ union, in ending Chavez’s 25-day fast affirming his commitment to nonviolence. After discussing whether Kennedy should go, Guthman asked if he was planning to run. “I think I have to,” he replied. “If I don’t, I’ll have to support Gene McCarthy, and I can’t do it in good conscience. A lot of people are still against it. The Democratic Senators who are up for election will be upset, but Tet has changed everything, and if I don’t go now and make an effort in the primaries, I think I’ll be nothing.”
Guthman pointed out that supporting Chavez might cost him the support of some voters in the California primary. “I know,” Kennedy replied, “but I like Cesar.”
During the flight to California, Kennedy told his aide Peter Edelman, “I’m going to run; now I have to figure how to get McCarthy out of it.” When he met Guthman while changing planes in Los Angeles he told him he had decided to wait until after the March 12 New Hampshire primary. A few hours later, he broke the news to Chavez, saying, “Yeah, I think I’ll run. Maybe I’ll run. Yeah, I think I’m going to run.”
McGovern urged Kennedy to wait until after New Hampshire before declaring his candidacy. McGovern warned that he might divide the anti-war vote by siphoning off a large number of write-in votes that would otherwise go to McCarthy. Kennedy agreed and postponed his announcement. On March 12, McCarthy won 42 percent of the popular vote. Johnson scored 49 percent, but the results were a humiliating repudiation of a sitting president and a stunning victory for McCarthy.
Less than 24 hours later, a reporter asked Kennedy for his reaction. Instead of dissembling, Kennedy said, “I am actively reassessing the possibility of whether I will run against President Johnson.” Most in the Kennedy camp believed that he had blurted out what was on his mind and immediately regretted having answered so honestly. Reporter Jack Newfield called it “a classic political blooper that he would never live down, or adequately explain away,” elaborating, “In a few careless seconds [Kennedy] resurrected the sleeping stereotype of himself as a ruthless opportunist.” McCarthy’s supporters were scathing in their criticism. So were some members of the press. Columnist Murray Kempton of the New York Post spoke of Kennedy’s “rage at Eugene McCarthy for having survived on the lonely road he dared not walk himself,” and said he had “managed to confirm the worst things his enemies have ever said about him.” The Washington Star’s Mary McGrory wrote that at a moment when McCarthy seemed to have captured the allegiance of the nation’s youth Kennedy had “moved with the ruthlessness of a Victorian father whose daughter has fallen in love with a dustman.”
While driving to an event on Long Island with Life magazine correspondent Sylvia Wright on March 15, Kennedy asked if she thought he was crazy to run. “My brother thinks I’m crazy,” he said. “He doesn’t like this. He doesn’t go along. But then, we’re two different people. We don’t hear the same music. Everyone’s got to march to his own music.” On the same day he told Jack Newfield, “I have to do what feels natural to me. I can’t be a hypocrite anymore.”
From left: mountaineer and “Honorary Kennedy” Jim Whittaker; his wife, Blanche; Bobby and Ethel’s cocker spaniel, Freckles; Bobby; Ethel; and columnist Mary McGrory, of The Washington Star, probably during the Oregon primary.
As he was reviewing the text of his announcement the next morning, he complained to Ted Sorensen that one passage made no sense, adding, “Not that anything we are doing today makes sense anyway.” Sorensen was reminded of what J.F.K. had said after Bobby once jumped off a sailboat into Nantucket Sound. “It showed either a lot of guts or no sense at all, depending on how you looked at it.”
The only kind of sense that Kennedy’s decision made was moral sense. By charging that the tactics being employed by the Johnson administration in Vietnam were immoral, and that the war had inflicted grave wounds on the national soul, he had made it impossible for himself to support Johnson while maintaining his honor. Forced to choose, Kennedy chose honor.
The morning after he announced his candidacy Kennedy appeared on Meet the Press and was asked if he would support President Johnson if Johnson became the nominee. Instead of dodging the question or finessing it by saying that of course he planned on winning the nomination, he gave an answer certain to anger Democratic Party bosses, who controlled the nomination process and considered loyalty a virtue trumping all others. If Johnson continued pursuing the same policies, Kennedy said, then he would have “grave reservations” about supporting him. “I’m loyal to the Democratic Party,” he added, “but I feel stronger about the United States and mankind generally.”
Throughout the weekend, Kennedy and aides placed calls to Democratic senators, governors, and party leaders. They had hoped for endorsements, or at least promises to remain uncommitted until Kennedy could win some primaries. Instead, many of the recipients of these calls urged him to withdraw.
Liberal Democrats feared that he and McCarthy would split the anti-war movement. Conservative and moderate Democrats feared he would divide the party and put Nixon in the White House. Even Averell Harriman, Douglas Dillon, and General Maxwell Taylor, who had served in the J.F.K. administration (and were namesakes of Bobby’s children), refused to support him. George McGovern said he was glad Kennedy was running but would remain neutral.
Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was the boss of bosses in 1968. Not only did he control the votes of the Illinois delegation, but the convention was being held in his city that year, making him the most influential Democratic leader in the nation. When asked if Kennedy could win the nomination, he bellowed “No!” and compared him to Judas Iscariot, saying, “Even the Lord had skeptical members of his party. One betrayed him, one denied him and one doubted him.”
Daley’s reaction was mild compared with that of hard-core Kennedy-haters such as William Loeb, owner and publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, who had previously called him “the most vicious and most dangerous leader in the United States today.” The Greek military junta, believing he endangered its totalitarian system, ordered newspapers to limit their coverage of Kennedy’s campaign and stop publishing his photograph. The right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler, who had also been a ferocious critic of F.D.R. and the New Deal, welcomed the possibility that, as he put it, “some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his [Kennedy’s] spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies,” and J. Edgar Hoover’s deputy Clyde Tolson remarked offhandedly, “I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch.”
Presidential primaries were less important in 1968 than they are now. There were fewer, and fewer that counted. Instead, party leaders wielded considerable influence over the selection of delegates and their convention votes, effectively controlling the nomination. Nevertheless, a strong showing in several crucial primaries could create a bandwagon effect within the party leadership. This had happened in 1960, when John Kennedy defeated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia Democratic primary, proving that a Catholic candidate could beat a Protestant in a heavily Protestant state, and that his religion would be less of an obstacle than previously assumed.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy had to defeat McCarthy and Johnson in every primary that he still had time to enter, and hope that a strong showing would convince the party apparatchiks that he had a better chance of defeating Richard Nixon, the likely G.O.P. nominee, in November. The first primaries he could enter were in Indiana and the District of Columbia on May 7; then came Nebraska on May 14, Oregon on May 28, California and South Dakota on June 4, and New York on June 18. Kennedy and his advisers were concerned that some party leaders might pledge their delegations to Johnson during the seven weeks between Kennedy’s announcement and the Indiana primary. Kennedy believed that to persuade them to remain uncommitted he had to demonstrate his popularity right away by appearing before large and enthusiastic crowds at rallies, airport welcoming ceremonies, and motorcades in both primary and non–primary states. It was a tricky strategy because if his crowds were too frenzied they might frighten moderate Democrats and party leaders, but if they were small and unresponsive, party leaders would probably stick with Johnson. Further complicating this strategy were Kennedy’s shortcomings as a campaigner. Although he had been involved in politics since 1952 and had been a skilled manager of his older brother’s campaigns, he had run for public office only once, in the 1964 New York Senate race. In that campaign, he had proved himself to be a clumsy and uninspiring speaker, stammering and speaking in a monotone, prone to long silences, uncomfortable before enthusiastic crowds, and seemingly unable to shake his post-Dallas melancholy.
When Kennedy flew to Kansas City on the evening of March 17 to launch his presidential campaign, no one could be sure that he would draw the kinds of crowds and ignite the kind of enthusiasm he would need. He had decided to deliver his first campaign speech at Kansas State University (K.S.U.) only because he had already agreed to give a lecture there in a series honoring former Kansas governor and Republican icon Alf Landon. It was not a state where, given more time, he would have chosen to launch his campaign. Richard Nixon had trounced J.F.K. in Kansas in 1960, and the state had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only three times since 1916. Among the previous Landon lecturers had been Republican governors George Romney, of Michigan, and Ronald Reagan, of California. They had drawn large crowds, but when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the campus in January, university officials played down his visit, his audience was not a huge one, and the manager of a local radio station had warned his counterpart at the campus station that he would be doing Kansans “a disservice” by broadcasting King’s words.
West Coast supporters waiting for the candidate.
Before heading to the airport to board a flight to Kansas City, Kennedy called campaign aide Jim Tolan. He had been in Kansas for several days preparing the ground, becoming more nervous by the hour because he knew that if Kansas was a disaster the entire campaign could be derailed. Kennedy reached him at the Topeka offices of the state’s Democratic governor, Robert Docking. He told Tolan he was worried that McCarthy’s supporters would heckle him, conservative students would boo him, the press would report it all, and his campaign would be finished in a day. “You had better do well tomorrow,” Kennedy told his aide, “because the eyes and ears of the world are on those two stops.”
“Do You Think They’ll Boo Him?”
Most of Kennedy’s campaign flights would be jolly affairs marked by singing, drinking, and practical jokes. But his first one was tense, and the droning engines, night sky, and haze of cigarette smoke—along with the suspicion among some in the Kennedy entourage that they were embarking on an enterprise that might end very badly—evoked a squad of paratroopers preparing to jump into a countryside of uncertain loyalties, where they might be hailed as liberators or shot before hitting the ground.
Ethel Kennedy had left from Washington a few hours before on a different flight and would join her husband at the Kansas City airport for the short hop to Topeka. After losing her parents and brother in plane crashes, she was a nervous flier and liked to travel with friends she called “pals” or “sparklies,” who distracted her during flights and helped with her grooming and wardrobe. None of her top four “pals” had been available on such short notice, so she had recruited Rene Carpenter, the estranged wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter. Rene threw some clothes in a bag, filled a thermos with gin-and-tonics, and hurried to the airport. But that day she found Ethel less concerned with crashing than with how these conservative Kansans would treat her husband, and during the flight she and Carpenter traded jokes in dark humor. “Do you think they’ll boo him?” Ethel asked. “Will they hate him?” She never posed the next question, the one that was probably running through the minds of others accompanying Robert Kennedy to Kansas that afternoon: “Will they kill him?”
Anyone walking up the aisle of a Robert Kennedy flight would have seen rows of seats occupied by people whom author Victor Navasky in his book Kennedy Justice called Honorary Kennedys—men and women linked to the Kennedy family through friendship, marriage, work, and political alliances, and willing to put their careers and private lives on hold while they helped a Kennedy win an election. The Honorary Kennedys joining Bobby’s campaign fell into five groups: men such as Edwin Guthman and John Seigenthaler, who had worked for him in the Justice Department; current Senate aides such as Jeff Greenfield and Adam Walinsky; Pierre Salinger, Kenny O’Donnell, and Ted Sorensen, who had served in J.F.K.’s campaign and White House; “Teddy’s people,” whose first loyalty was to Ted Kennedy; and personal friends such as mountaineer Jim Whittaker and former pro football star Roosevelt (Rosey) Grier. The Honorary Kennedys differed from the usual network of friends, former aides, and political advisers who join a presidential campaign in that many had worked only in Kennedy campaigns and their loyalty to the Kennedy family was more personal than ideological.
During the flight to Kansas City, Kennedy told the Honorary Kennedys and reporters gathered in the aisle around his seat, “I didn’t want to run for President. But when [Johnson] made it clear the war would go on, and that nothing was going to change, I had no choice.”
He was last to disembark in Kansas City. After waving from the doorway and slipping a hand into the pocket of his suit jacket—a J.F.K. mannerism—he started down the flight of metal stairs. Ethel Kennedy, Rene Carpenter, and Governor Docking stood below with reporters, policemen, and students from a local Catholic college. It was a small though acceptable crowd, given that Kennedy was staying only long enough to board Docking’s private plane. But while he was still on the stairs, the doors of the terminal flew open and more than a thousand people, led by a vanguard of young women screaming “Bobby!,” dashed across the tarmac. After they pinned him against the bottom of the stairway he laughed and, delighted by their enthusiasm, began, “We’re going to change the policy of the United States.” When he finished he told them they had just heard his first campaign speech, adding, “Now, let’s all clap.”
Reporters called it a turnout worthy of a general election, and evidence of a “subterranean longing for change,” but it was less spontaneous than it seemed. Herb Schmertz, who would later become known for the Mobil Oil essays he placed in advertisements on the New York Times op-ed page, had brought in a busload of TWA flight-attendant trainees and announced Kennedy’s imminent arrival over the public-address system. Unlike most Kennedy staffers, Schmertz believed in the Vietnam War, and still does. When asked why he worked for Kennedy, he offers some breezy explanations, such as “Campaigns attract the most beautiful women” and “You know, you don’t necessarily have to agree with your candidate on everything,” before giving the real Honorary Kennedy reason: “Ah, well, the things you do for your friends.”
That night at the governor’s mansion Kennedy and Docking sat alone in the study, eating sandwiches, drinking beer, and smoking cigars. Docking’s late father, who had preceded him as governor, had been a minor Honorary Kennedy and an early J.F.K. supporter, rewarded for his loyalty with a position at the Export Import Bank. But despite this—and despite the fact that Docking had just witnessed a second demonstration of Bobby’s popularity, at a local indoor rally, where a mob of prominent Kansas Democrats had yanked the buttons off his coat and shirt (now being sewn back on in the next room by Rene Carpenter)—Kennedy did not press Docking to support him or keep the Kansas delegation uncommitted.
Fred Dutton, an attorney who had worked in J.F.K.’s White House and had been drafted as Bobby’s de facto campaign manager, was socializing with Docking’s aides in another room. He was not surprised to hear later that Kennedy had failed to capitalize on this opportunity to solicit Docking’s support. Dutton knew that although Bobby had performed the usual political horse-trading for his older brother he found it impossible to do so for himself. Offering Docking a quid pro quo or reminding him of the favors J.F.K. had done for his father was, according to Dutton, “the kind of things Bob just couldn’t do.”
The Kennedys and Rene Carpenter spent the night in rooms on the second floor of the governor’s mansion. The next morning, Ethel knocked on Carpenter’s door and whispered, “Can you please help Bobby?” She explained that he was having breakfast alone with the Dockings while she was still doing her hair. Knowing what this meant, Carpenter threw on some clothes and dashed downstairs. Bobby was sitting at the end of a long table, staring silently at his plate, picking at his food. Making small talk was something else he could not do. “I mean, he simply could not do it,” Carpenter says. “So I began chattering away and saved the day.”
Kennedy and campaign manager Fred Dutton (holding portable speaker) at a nighttime rally in the Midwest.
Later, as she and Ethel drove to the campus, they joked about how they would survive when the conservative K.S.U. students attacked their car. “I’ll pretend I’m you,” Carpenter said. “I’ll throw my body over yours,” Ethel promised. “I’ll stop the bullet.”
“Bobby Is Groovy!”
Kennedy ate a second breakfast at the student union, where he told a group of university officials and student leaders, “Some of you may not like what you’re going to hear in a few minutes, but it’s what I believe; and if I’m elected President, it’s what I’m going to do.”
Before leaving for the Ahearn Field House, where the rally would be held, he stopped in the men’s room and stood at a urinal next to Dan Lykins, head of K.S.U. Collegians for Kennedy. Lykins tried making small talk. Kennedy cut him off and asked, “What kind of a reception do you think I’ll get?”
“There’s more anti-war sentiment here than people think, and my gut feeling is that people loved your brother.”
“But what kind of a reception will I get?”
“McCarthy has some support, but I think they’ll give you a standing ovation.”
“I hope you’re right,” Kennedy said grimly.
The field house was a hulking stone structure with exposed steel rafters and a dirt ring to accommodate livestock shows and rodeos. Because Kennedy attracted a record-setting crowd of 14,500, students stood in stairwells, sat cross-legged on the basketball court and under the press tables, and perched on the rafters and scoreboard, dangling their legs in space. Their signs said, bobby is groovy! and kiss me, bobby. Others said, gene for integrity and traitor!
The Kennedys walked onto the dais with Kansas State president James McCain, Governor and Mrs. Docking, and former governor Alf Landon. The students jumped up, cheering, stamping their feet, and scuffing up clouds of dust that dimmed the light and hung like smoke. They cheered because Kennedy was youthful and handsome, John Kennedy’s brother, and he reminded them of happier times. Seventeen-year-old Kevin Rochat, the son of a K.S.U. official, cheered because he thought everything had gone wrong since J.F.K.’s assassination, and only his brother could make it right. Ralph Titus, who managed the university radio station, believes these conservative students cheered because Vietnam had made even them uneasy.
Kennedy edited his speech during the introductions, sometimes glancing up to study the students in the front rows, as if he were changing the text according to their expressions. He saw girls in long skirts who had never worn makeup, and short-haired boys in neckties who were brave enough to leave their prairie towns but not to burn their draft cards.
Kennedy himself looked so nervous and vulnerable that Jim Slattery, head of the Kennedy for President Club at nearby Washburn University, had a sudden urge to climb onto the platform and hug him. He thought, Come on! Come on! You’re my guy!
As Kennedy began, his voice cracked, and those near the stage noticed his hands trembling and his right leg shaking.
After praising Landon’s distinguished career, he said, “I am also glad to come to the home state of another great Kansan, who wrote, ‘If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all their youthful vision and vigor then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better the world for tomorrow.’ ”
The audience quieted, and Landon and the dignitaries exchanged worried glances. Docking wore a quizzical “Where is he going with this?” expression.
Later that spring, after students at Columbia had occupied university offices and race riots had convulsed more than 100 American cities, no politician—perhaps not even Kennedy—would have uttered these words on a college campus. But by March 1968, students had already picketed military recruiting centers, marched on the Pentagon, and burned draft cards, making this a risky way for Kennedy to open his first campaign speech. Had there been talk radio and 24-hour news cycles, this sound bite might have destroyed his candidacy in a matter of days.
After a pause, Kennedy identified the author of the quotation, saying, “The man who wrote these words was that notorious man William Allen White—the late editor of The Emporia Gazette.” White had been a close friend of Landon’s, an important figure in American journalism, and an icon to Kansas Republicans. According to Jim Slattery, all eyes now went to Landon, waiting for his reaction. If there was a moment when Kennedy’s campaign hung in the balance, this was it.
Landon slapped his knee and guffawed, and the field house erupted in laughter and applause. Kennedy continued, saying, “[White] is an honored man today; but when he lived and when he wrote, he was often reviled as an extremist—or worse—on your campus and across this nation. For he spoke as he believed. He did not conceal his concern in comforting words; he did not delude his readers or himself with false hope or with illusion. It is in this spirit that I wish to talk to you today.”
He told the K.S.U. students that their country was “deep in a malaise of the spirit” and suffering from “a deep crisis of confidence”—the kinds of phrases that no politician has dared utter since President Carter was pilloried for speaking of a national “crisis of confidence” during his notorious “malaise speech,” in which he never used the word “malaise.”
Kennedy opened his attack on President Johnson’s Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. “Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public,” he said. “I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”
He acknowledged that the effort may have been “doomed from the start” and admitted that the South Vietnamese governments, which his brother’s administration had supported, had been “riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed,” adding, “If that is the case, as it may well be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles [from Antigone]: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil.’ The only sin, he said, is pride.”
Kennedy’s apology elicited the loudest cheers of the morning so far, perhaps because these students appreciated hearing an adult admit to a mistake, or because they too had once supported the war and Kennedy’s mea culpa made it easier for them to admit that they too had been wrong.
He framed his opposition to Vietnam in moral terms, telling them, “I am concerned—as I believe most Americans are concerned—that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong.… I am concerned—as I believe most Americans are concerned—that we are acting as if no other nation existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike.”
Mourners in Baltimore wave to the funeral train that took Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C., for burial, on June 8, 1968. During the campaign, friends, aides, supporters, and journalists had been haunted by fears that he would be shot.
He urged his audience to consider “the young men that we have sent there; not just the killed, but those who have to kill; not just the maimed, but all those who must look upon the results of what they are forced and have to do,” and to consider “the price we pay in our own innermost lives, and in the spirit of this country.” This was why, he said, “war is not an enterprise lightly to be undertaken, nor prolonged one moment past its absolute necessity.”
At first he seemed tentative and wooden, stammering and repeating himself, too nervous to punctuate his sentences with gestures. But with each round of applause he became more animated. Soon he was pounding the lectern with his right fist, and shouting out his words.
Rene Carpenter watched the students in the front rows. Their faces shone, and they opened their mouths in unison, shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
Hays Gorey, of Time, called the electricity between Kennedy and the K.S.U. students “real and rare” and said that “a good part of it is John F. Kennedy’s, of course, but John Kennedy … himself couldn’t be so passionate, and couldn’t set off such sparks.”
Kevin Rochat was close to weeping because Kennedy was so direct and honest. He kept telling himself, My God! He’s saying exactly what I’ve been thinking!
Jim Slattery, who would later be elected to Congress from Kansas, reread the K.S.U. speech during the second Iraq war and decided it was so powerful “because Kennedy was talking about what was right!”
Kennedy concluded by saying, “Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our own misguided policies—and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once said was the last, great hope of mankind. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America but for the heart of America. In these next eight months we are going to decide what this country will stand for—and what kind of men we are.”
He raised his fist in the air so it resembled the revolutionary symbol on posters hanging in student rooms that year, promised “a new America,” and the hall erupted in cheers and thunderous applause.
As he started to leave, waves of students rushed the platform, knocking over chairs and raising more dust. They grabbed at him, stroking his hair and ripping his shirtsleeves. Herb Schmertz was left with a lifelong phobia of crowds. University officials opened a path to a rear exit, but Kennedy waved them off and waded into the crowd. Photographer Stanley Tretick, of Look magazine, watched the mêlée and shouted, “This is Kansas, fucking Kansas! He’s going all the fucking way!”
“You Can Hear the Fabric Ripping”
One reporter would call the Landon lecture the first indication that “we were embarking on something unlike anything we had ever experienced.” Cries of “Holy shit!” and “What the hell are we in for?” echoed through the press bus as it pulled away from the campus. But once the excitement had ebbed, John J. Lindsay, of Newsweek, said, “Listen, I’m not sure we’re going to like how this turns out.”
To help promote Kennedy’s second speech of the day, at the University of Kansas, the campaign had planted an editorial in the school’s newspaper criticizing its students for being “conservative and apathetic.” This had the desired effect of swelling the audience at the Allen Fieldhouse to 19,000, one of the largest in university history. Kennedy’s reception was even more raucous than at Kansas State. Witnesses spoke of “roaring students” and “raw emotion let loose.” Reporter Jack Newfield, from The Village Voice, described it as “emotion beyond reason, cheering until saliva ran, clapping until hands hurt,” and New York Post columnist Jimmy Breslin believed it indicated that “the day when a politician can survive with slogans may be gone.”
Before returning to the Kansas City airport, the Kennedy press corps stopped for a quick restaurant meal. Jimmy Breslin asked a table of reporters, “Do you think this guy has the stuff to go all the way?”
“Yes, of course he has the stuff to go all the way,” John J. Lindsay replied. “But he’s not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it. Just as sure as we’re sitting here somebody is going to shoot him. He’s out there now waiting for him And, please God, I don’t think we’ll have a country after it.”
There was a stunned silence. Then, one by one, the other reporters agreed. But none asked the most heartbreaking question: Did Kennedy himself know it?
Riding in a convertible earlier that day had left Kennedy chilled, and he began the flight back to Washington huddled in his late brother’s topcoat. He became increasingly talkative, describing to reporters the expressions he had seen on the faces of individual students.
“You could see them from where you were?” Breslin asked.
“I saw them. I saw every face in the building,” Kennedy said, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Did you ever see anything like it? You can hear the fabric ripping. If we don’t get out of this war, I don’t know what these young people are going to do It’s very dangerous.”
He exclaimed to others stopping by his seat, “I feel free! I feel like a man again!,” and told Jim Tolan, “You know, I didn’t like myself for what I was doing and saying before, saying I would support Johnson.”
One of Kennedy’s favorite authors was Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to journalist Warren Rogers, he had marked three passages in the copy of Emerson’s essays that he kept on his desk at home in Hickory Hill. One declared, “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” Kennedy was about to discover if Emerson was right.