Robert F. Kennedy

part 1, 2, 3

Robert Kennedy attracted exuberant and sometimes chaotic crowds during the course of his campaign.
Photo by Steve Shapiro

In late March, Robert Kennedy campaigned in 13 states, from Alabama to New York to California. He had long odds against him. The Democratic Party was filled with people who opposed him. As attorney general in his brother's administration, Kennedy had alienated southern Democrats by attacking segregation; he made enemies of labor leaders by fighting corruption in American unions.

"Kennedy had to demonstrate to [Democratic Party] leaders that their local tickets were going to be helped if they had Kennedy at the head of the ticket," Mankiewicz says. In 1968, party bosses still enjoyed vast power over who got the presidential nomination. Kennedy had to prove he was a contender to Democratic power brokers like Richard J. Daley, the legendary mayor of Chicago. To do so, Kennedy needed to draw large crowds at his rallies and favorable press coverage from the big-city reporters traveling with him. As Kennedy's campaign unfolded, though, he faced a peculiar problem. The exuberant and sometimes chaotic crowds he attracted might look to old-guard Democrats like undesirable hippies and radicals. At times the campaign tried to tone down Kennedy's words or the delivery of his speeches, but frenzied crowds kept coming.

In some ways, Robert Kennedy was a magnetic politician in spite of himself. He could be awkward on television and bashful before crowds. He was not a particularly electrifying speechmaker like his brother John. "He was a nervous speaker," Clarke says of Kennedy. "He looked down at his feet when there was applause. His hands and legs often shook." But Kennedy also came across as passionate and sincere; he often won his audiences with self-deprecating jokes and by wisecracking with the crowd.

Robert Kennedy campaign ad: Nebraska farmers.
Video courtesy rfkmustdie

Just as often, Kennedy would challenge his listeners to care about issues that might seem remote to them. To Kennedy, the campaign was a way to teach Americans about each other, as well as a way to win the White House. One journalist described him as a "reverse demagogue." In places like Ft. Wayne, Ind., Kennedy would insist that problems of African-Americans in urban slums affected even an audience that had "very few black faces." Kennedy acknowledged that it might make more sense for him to give a speech on race somewhere else. But Americans, he said, "want to do the right thing" when given honest, clear direction. The Ft. Wayne audience readily applauded.

Indiana was the first primary contest for Kennedy and he considered it a "must win." In early spring, two shocking events, coming within a week of each other, reshaped his campaign there.

On March 31, President Johnson stunned the nation and his own political party by declaring that he would not seek reelection. Privately, Johnson knew his presidency was in profound trouble and he detested the prospect of fighting for the nomination against his bitter rival Kennedy. Publicly, the president promised to devote his energies to seeking peace in Vietnam.

Both Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy would have to recalibrate their campaigns. Johnson's move had, for a time anyway, deprived them of the war as a central campaign issue.

Then came another shock. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Robert Kennedy was campaigning in Indianapolis. The city's police chief warned Kennedy to cancel a campaign rally that day in an African-American neighborhood. Kennedy insisted on going.

Thousands of people - mostly black - waited for Kennedy. Those closest to the platform had not yet heard the news about King. They were wearing campaign buttons and holding signs. But a group of young militants was arriving on the perimeter, ready for violence. A cold, light rain fell as Kennedy spoke extemporaneously. He said:

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed. But he was killed by a white man we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

Many in the crowd wept, or took in Kennedy's words silently. Then the crowd quietly drifted away.

Kennedy's associates were stunned to hear him speak openly about his own brother's assassination almost five years earlier. It was something he never talked about in public. That night, more than 100 American cities were wracked by racial violence. Indianapolis remained peaceful.

In a TV interview the next morning, Kennedy showed insight into white anger, as well as the frustrations of African-Americans. Some whites, he said, could not understand black dissatisfaction given the passage of civil rights bills and the domestic spending programs of recent years.

Kennedy was trying to empathize with the kind of blue-collar Democrats who would help him win the Indiana primary. (Later these Democrats voted for the Alabama demagogue George Wallace in the general election.)

Somehow, Kennedy could appeal to those disaffected white voters without inflaming their resentments. It could have been his law-and-order record as attorney general, or that this son of a privileged New England family seemed to identify so naturally with the problems of ordinary folk.

As attorney general, Kennedy had approved FBI eavesdropping on Martin Luther King Jr. But Kennedy's friends say he was deeply disturbed by the civil rights leader's killing. At a speech to business and civic leaders in Cleveland two days after King's death, Kennedy said the "indifference, inaction and decay" of American social institutions were just as responsible for the violence plaguing America as assassins and rioters. "These were profoundly radical words, even for 1968" says author Thurston Clarke.

Continue to part 3