Since we began the day contemplating the RFK assassination, it’s appropriate to bring it near to closing time with the eternal What-If of 1968: what if RFK had evaded Sirhan Sirhan that fateful night and lived on in vigor?
It’s not a question asked often enough these days that there’s any established conventional wisdom on the subject, though it’s probably safe to say a lot of Kennedy admirers assume he would have rolled on to the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But as RFK biographer Evan Thomas noted in a Newsweek piece marking the 40th anniversary of the assassination, that’s far from clear:
One reality check to start: it is far from a sure bet that RFK would have been nominated, and if nominated, elected. Kennedy was winning most of the primaries at the time of his death in June 1968, but under the old rules the bosses still controlled the Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president and Kennedy’s real rival for the nomination (not Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the poet-politician who was fading in the stretch), was the favorite of the bosses. Kennedy was regarded as too “hot” and too radical by the big city and Big Labor chieftains. RFK was counting on Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to turn the tide, but Daley was not a sure bet (despite some romantic and unconfirmed reporting that Daley promised his support in a phone call to Bobby just before Kennedy was killed). And RFK would have faced a formidable foe in Richard Nixon in November. The New Nixon was an expert at divide and conquer, and he was building a Silent Majority of white middle-class Americans fearful of rioting blacks and hippie college radicals.
To add a little detail to Thomas’ reminder of the realities of 1968, it’s worth remembering that the primary season, and thus the effective mass involvement of rank-and-file Democratic voters in the nominating process, ended the night RFK was assassinated. The next real contest was a set of delegate-election caucuses in New York, where McCarthy supporters were planning a nasty ambush of RFK in his own state, which might well have eliminated his California momentum.
If, as is more likely the case, RFK in conjunction with McCarthy (and several favorite-son candidates) had been able to prevent Hubert Humphrey’s nomination, it was generally thought at the time that more conservative Democrats would have preferred McCarthy (who came very near to becoming LBJ’s running-mate in 1964) to Kennedy. Thomas is right to suggest that Daly could have been crucial to the outcome—whatever he did or didn’t say to RFK in June, he did by all accounts flirt with a Ted Kennedy draft right up to the last minute at the Convention. But there’s no telling whether a living RFK would have been able to avoid the polarization of Chicago between antiwar protesters and Daly’s vengeful police.
There’s more reason (at least as I recall polling at the time; can’t seem to find any links to contemporary surveys) to think that had RFK (or for that matter, McCarthy) won the 1968 Democratic nomination, he’d have run better against Nixon than Humphrey, particularly in urban (CA, IL, OH, NJ) and strongly antiwar (WI, OR) states that Humphrey narrowly lost. So that might well have meant no extended Vietnam War, no Nixon presidency, no Watergate.
An RFK presidency might well have also led to an earlier conservative takeover of the GOP (in 1972 or 1976); a Reagan nomination in either year would have been a strong possibility without an incumbent president Nixon or Ford. But we’re already getting pretty deep into alternative history-land, so I’ll leave further speculation to the novelists. Suffice it to say American lost something precious and potentially transformational on this day 45 years ago.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.