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Viewpoints: Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy took away an inspiring leader, but would he have been great?

Much has been given him
and taken from him in life, and
somehow he has been enlarged
by both experiences.”
– Daniel Patrick Moynihan

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. His assassination on June 6, 50 years ago Wednesday, just as his campaign began to build, led to one of the great “what-ifs” of American history. Accordingly, here’s a look back: Could Kennedy have won in 1968 and been a successful president? What happened to his causes and family after Kennedy’s death? Does he have a political legacy? Like Bobby himself, the answers are complicated.

For those who don’t remember, Robert Frances Kennedy was the third son of Joseph (Ambassador to Great Britain) and Rose Kennedy (daughter of Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald). Growing up the “runt” of a hard-charging Irish-American family, he got along by combining incredible energy, toughness and will with empathy. That pattern – toughness combined with a big heart – would define him. Jules Ffeifer drew a famous cartoon about “the Good Bobby and Bad Bobby.”

He first drew attention as Staff Counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee investigating Organized Crime. RFK then managed his brother John’s campaign in 1960, where he upset Richard Nixon to become the nation’s first Catholic president.

Everyone credits Bobby with being the spark behind the pinpoint Kennedy organization that produced the highest turnout of the last 100 years. At his father’s insistence, Bobby became attorney general, an appointment roundly denounced and would be illegal today under anti-nepotism laws.

RFK answered the critics with a stellar performance: He directed a talented staff that wrote the Civil Rights & Voting Rights Acts, and the Immigration Reform Act, cracked down on organized crime, began designing programs that became “the War on Poverty,” and helped raise public concern for civil liberties and environmental degradation. He also played a key role in convincing his brother not to bomb Cuba during the Missile Crisis, thus saving the world from possible nuclear holocaust. As the recent CNN documentary on the Kennedys stated, he was the closest thing to a “co-president” the country ever had. Francis Biddle, Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general, wrote that RFK had done more for civil rights than any other AG in history.

Commenting on his family, JFK said: “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me, Bobby would.” That exact scenario began to play out on Nov. 22, 1963, with President Kennedy’s assassination. Bobby wanted to be the new President Lyndon B. Johnson’s running mate in 1964, but settled for a race for senator from New York.

Bobby’s parachuting into New York provoked resentment. The New York Times denounced him as a carpetbagger and endorsed his opponent, Sen. Kenneth Keating. RFK put together a coalition of minorities in the cities and won over normally Republican and independent voters in the smaller towns of upstate New York with intensely personal campaigning. Hillary Clinton used this exact model in 2000. Bobby won largely on the coattails of President Johnson. (Erie was his second best urban county outside New York City).

As senator, Kennedy became a hero to “The Other America:” the black ghettoes, the Hispanic barrios of the Southwest and the poverty-stricken Indian reservations. Since those groups were growing faster than the national average, it seemed RFK might have a national future.

Bobby denied any designs on national office, but few people believed him. The truth was that he was just waiting for the opportunity.

That opportunity came sooner than expected: Bobby declined to challenge LBJ in the run-up to 1968. But after the Tet Offensive in the winter of 1968 showed the Vietnam War was not going well, Johnson’s public support collapsed. A previously obscure Minnesota senator, Eugene McCarthy, held LBJ below 50 percent in the New Hampshire primary and surged into the lead in the upcoming Wisconsin Primary. Bobby “re-assessed” and jumped into the race a few days later, provoking howls from McCarthy supporters. Two weeks later, facing almost certain defeat, Johnson surprised the nation by announcing he would not run and his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, stepped up to carry the Johnson mantle.

Humphrey skipped the primaries, concentrating on the roughly 70 percent of delegates who would be chosen by local “bosses” like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Erie County’s Joe Crangle. With solid support from organized labor and “party regulars,” Humphrey quickly piled up delegates and, in late May, a Newsweek canvas gave HHH more than 90 percent of the necessary 1,312 delegates (with Bobby getting less than 1 percent of Southern delegates). By contrast, few in the party establishment favored RFK. Therefore, Bobby’s only chance was to convince party Leaders by winning primaries.

Since McCarthy had a head start with the mostly college-educated anti-war activists, RFK was forced to build a coalition of racial minorities and white workers. It worked: Bobby won primaries in Indiana, Nebraska and the District of Columbia, carrying both white workers and nearly 100 percent of the black and Hispanic vote. Apparently, the only people who liked him were the voters.

After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bobby calmed down a black crowd in Indianapolis by reminding them that his brother had also been murdered by a white man and that violence was no solution. (Many other cities went up in flames that night, but Indy stayed calm). But McCarthy upset him in Oregon, a state he called “one giant suburb.”

Next was California, more hospitable ground with its large black and Hispanic enclaves. A sharp debate performance against McCarthy helped tip the balance as RFK carried the winner-take-all primary by 46-42 percent. With a likely win in the New York caucuses next, he seemed to have the necessary momentum to challenge Humphrey at the Democratic Convention in August. But he was assassinated shortly after his victory.

Kennedy’s chances at the Democratic Convention would have depended on two men: New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein who designed McCarthy’s insurgency and Richard Daley. Could RFK have unified the anti-war forces? First, McCarthy is on record in his memoirs that he would have never endorsed RFK. But some of McCarthy’s delegates were more loyal to causes than to McCarthy. They surely would’ve gone to RFK with Lowenstein’s endorsement.

Since even Bobby’s campaign had him 400 delegates behind Humphrey, the only chance would be to stop HHH on the first ballot and then win later. Daley was the key here: After the California Primary, Illinois’ 118 delegates would have put Humphrey over the top. RFK himself said, “Daley’s the ballgame.” Daley had advised RFK not to challenge Johnson and never gave RFK any public support. However, Daley placed winning above all and if Bobby looked stronger in the fall, then “Da Mayor” might have swung to RFK. In fact, a few months later, Daley did try to draft Ted Kennedy when Humphrey looked like a sure loser. (This was before Teddy’s scandals). So, a Daley endorsement was a distinct possibility.

On the second ballot, RFK would have had to take most of McCarthy’s New England delegates, get the white Catholic delegates from the other Mid-Atlantic states, win a few of the new black delegates from the South and the Hispanics of the Southwest, woo Heartland delegates with the “electability” argument, and add the United Auto Worker delegates from Michigan. That was a gigantic order and the odds were against it.

But suppose “Daley the Kingmaker” got Bobby nominated. RFK would have had two big advantages over Humphrey:

1. The Democrats would likely have avoided the Chicago Convention riot that erupted when the anti-war “kids” felt they had been cheated; and 2. he had plenty of money. His general election chances would again come down to two men: labor leader George Meany and independent candidate George Wallace.

With strong labor support, Humphrey won a majority of white workers outside the South, rallying within 1 percent of winning. If labor delivered the same for RFK, he would have been competitive. Lou Harris estimated that if RFK won over 60 percent of white Catholics (likely, given his name and before abortion became a national issue), most of the Jewish vote and virtually all of the minority vote, he would have only needed about 25 percent of southerners and rural voters to win 45 percent of the popular vote. That would be enough to win a three-way race – as long as Wallace kept his 10-13 percent share.

Republicans would have almost certainly used the “a-vote-for-Wallace-is-a-vote-for-Bobby” argument to try to collapse Wallace. So it all depended on the Wallace vote: If he got 10 percent or more, Bobby would probably win. With Wallace splitting conservatives, the increased minority turnout for RFK would have tipped California, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Missouri into the Democratic column, thus making up for the loss of the entire South.

But even if RFK had drawn two “inside straights” to win, he would have likely struggled with the presidency. Besides the sky-high expectations a Kennedy win would have engendered, whoever entered the Oval Office in 1969 faced massive problems: ending the Vietnam War, mounting inflation, racial tension, urban poverty, pollution, deficits, congressional gridlock, soaring crime rates and drug abuse. Other than that. …

There’s no questioning RFK’s dedication and toughness, but the highly troubled times might have defeated even the most skillful leader.

Though it wasn’t his fault, the causes associated with RFK all floundered after his death: The War went on four more years, urban problems got worse, minority turnout fell and Democrats went into a deep funk. While he would be proud of all the political power minorities have won in the 21st century the nation still hasn’t solved rampant urban problems.

A good comparison to what an RFK presidency might have been like would be Barack Obama: cautious internationally, but willing to defend American interests and free-spending at home – and often frustrated.

While the nation may have missed a president, his family missed him even more. His children got into major trouble: drugs, reckless deaths and scandalous divorces – plus numerous lost campaigns. His younger brother Ted admitted that he had a nervous breakdown that culminated a year later with his accident on Chappaquiddick that killed RFK campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne and essentially ended his hopes for the presidency. Sirhan Sirhan not only killed a man, but also damaged numerous causes and severely wounded an entire family.

So, what are we left with? Definitely, a charismatic, energetic leader who inspired hope. But beyond his sharp performance as attorney general, does Robert F. Kennedy have a legacy? After RFK’s death, Congress passed a mild gun control bill, which didn’t exactly end gun violence in America. Bobby’s ideas of compassion for the poor and opposition to a too-aggressive foreign policy were largely ignored by the Republicans elected after him.

Evan Thomas wrote that Bobby was the first “rock-star, world-saver.” Perhaps he is the ultimate might-have-been. Then again, “Ask not …”

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant from California and the author of the forthcoming 21st Century America.

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