Robert Kennedy’s last words, spoken at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968, following his dramatic California Democratic presidential primary triumph, were indicative of his optimism: “So now it’s on to Chicago — and let’s win there.”
Having edged out Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy in California, Sen. Kennedy now turned his sites on the opponent who had the most national convention delegates of all without entering a single primary: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, backed by outgoing President Lyndon Johnson.
McCarthy and Kennedy were vigorously opposed Vietnam, while Humphrey seconded LBJ’s pro-war position.
Political reporters universally salivated at the prospect of a convention battle royal.
But it was not to be. Moments after he left the podium and went through the hotel kitchen, Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet.
Fifty years later, there is widespread discussion in the press on how far RFK would have gone in his pursuit of the goal his brother Jack had achieved. Would he have been nominated in Chicago and, if so, would he have turned eventual nominee Humphrey’s narrow loss to Republican Richard Nixon into a victory in November?
No one can say what would have happened had Kennedy lived.
Writing in "The Making of the President 1968," the late Theodore White concluded that Kennedy would “definitely” have been nominated in Chicago. He envisioned supporters of RFK’s fellow anti-war candidate McCarthy switching to the Kennedy banner and then a few powerful Democratic “establishment” bosses such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley —ostensibly committed to Humphrey — breaking ranks because they perceived the brother of the revered JFK as their party’s best hope of keeping the White House.
“I would have switched from Gene to Bobby — never any doubt,” Sam Brown, a leader of the “Dump LBJ” movement from which McCarthy’s candidacy emerged, told Newsmax. “And I think lots of people Humphrey counted on may or may not have been as reliable as they thought. Could they, for sure, have relied, for instance, on Richard Daley? I think not.”
Brown believes “Bobby would have started with his and McCarthy’s delegates and then built in some ‘machine’ delegates and union delegates not affiliated with the Teamsters [whom Kennedy had pursued in court as attorney general].
But other Democrats who were there question whether McCarthy and his supporters would have switched over to Kennedy.
“I would have stuck with Gene McCarthy,” said Bill Press, later Democratic state chairman of California and author of a new memoir “From the Left.” “But I also believe the Democratic National Committee had rigged the nomination for Humphrey.”
The late Lawrence F. O’Brien, close associate of John and Robert Kennedy and Humphrey’s campaign manager in 1968, concluded in his memoir “No Final Victories” that Humphrey was on the verge of wrapping up the nomination even before RFK’s death.
“I agree with Larry O’Brien — Bobby was headed for defeat in Chicago,” columnist Pat Buchanan, a top campaign aide to Nixon in 1968. “Would Gene McCarthy had endorsed him after Bobby had come in and taken much Gene’s natural vote and cost him his one chance?”
Although they differ on switching from McCarthy to Kennedy at the convention, Brown and Press believe Kennedy would have been the Democrats’ strongest candidate in 1968.
Buchanan disagrees sharply.
In his words, “RFK was, by 1968, moving into the leadership of the left wing of a Democratic Party that was split three ways. He could never have united the party. Not only was Wallace running as a third party candidate, LBJ and [Texas Gov. John] Connally would never have delivered Texas for Bobby they way they did for Hubert.”
“People forget,” Buchanan told me. “Bobby never had to compete with Humphrey for black votes and never had to compete with Wallace for white working class votes. I can’t think of a single state Bobby would have won in ’68 that Hubert did not win, and Bobby could never have won Texas as Hubert did.”
“Of all the Democratic candidates,” said Buchanan, “I felt Bobby would have been the easiest for Mr. Nixon to defeat.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
© 2022 Newsmax. All rights reserved.