Saturday, March 16, 2013

This Day in Electoral History (RFK Launches Last Campaign)

March 16, 1968—Robert F. Kennedy, deciding that Lyndon Johnson’s below-expectations victory in the New Hampshire primary meant he could not divide the party worse than it already was, announced his candidacy for President in the same Senate room where his brother John had declared his eight years before.

The symbolism was unmistakable, not just in the setting but in the statement from the U.S. senator from New York: Camelot would be taken back from those who had plunged the realm of civilization into chaos. As it turned out, though, Bobby would only reenact his brother’s Arthurian odyssey of exhilaration and tragedy.

Bobby’s move opened him up to charges he was at some pains to deny: that he was a “spoiler” of the insurgent candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, who had assumed the real risk of defying President Johnson over the Vietnam War by taking him on in the primaries. As much as RFK concentrated in his statement on the issues he cared passionately about (inequality, civil rights, the plight of American cities), the ensuing 85-day campaign became a triangular psychodrama involving himself, the President and the Senator from Minnesota.

In his announcement, the Senator and former Attorney-General insisted that he held “no personal animosity or disrespect toward President Johnson,” going on to observe that his brother Jack’s successor in the Oval Office “was extremely kind to me and members of my family in the difficult months which followed the events of November of 1963.” But, though meant to strike grace notes, both statements—certainly the first, and arguably even the second—were disingenuous.

The title of an account that examined the two men’s relationship perfectly sums how they viewed each other: Jeff Shesol’s Mutual Contempt. The source of the conflict derived from the fight for the 1960 Democratic Party nomination, when Bobby came to loathe LBJ and his camp for insinuations about Jack Kennedy’s health, while Johnson regarded Bobby (then serving as his brother’s campaign manager) as a ''grandstanding little runt'' for attempting to withdraw JFK's previous offer of the Vice-Presidency.

While candidate and President Kennedy had coolly decided that he needed LBJ’s support in Texas enough to let bygones be bygones, Bobby made little secret of his animosity. In the wake of the President’s assassination—in Johnson’s home territory, at that—the Attorney-General's dislike mounted, fed by small but fresh outrages (e.g., Johnson’s reportedly overeager assumption of power on the plane ride back from Dallas, his abrupt dismissal of JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln). For his part, LBJ made it all too clear that he did not want Bobby as his running mate in his own 1964 run, and he bemoaned how quickly RFK (now a Senator from New York) became, in effect, the center of opposition to his Vietnam policy.

Bobby’s announcement of his candidacy was “the final straw,” a now-retired LBJ told future biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin: “The thing I feared from the first day of my Presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, were dancing in the streets.” (Two weeks after RFK’s declaration, LBJ announced he would not be a candidate for re-election—then privately told Vice-President Hubert Humphrey that he had his blessings if he wanted to enter the race.)

As for McCarthy: Robert Kennedy made sure in the declaration of his candidacy to take note of his colleague's “remarkable” showing in New Hampshire. (It was not a victory—McCarthy had achieved 42.2% of the vote—but the tally pitilessly exposed LBJ’s vulnerability.) But if the relationship between himself and his fellow Senator hadn’t reached the level of all-out blood feud, as it had with Johnson, there were certainly longstanding tensions that rose to the surface now.

Again, some of this dated back to the 1960 campaign. Instead of falling behind the candidacy of JFK, another Catholic of Irish-American descent, McCarthy nominated Adlai Stevenson at the Democratic Convention with an eloquent plea for the delegates to “not leave this man without honor in his own party.” It also appears that one of McCarthy’s quips from that year—“I’m twice as Catholic as Kennedy and twice as liberal as [Hubert] Humphrey”—had been exaggerated by a reporter into “I should run for President—I’m twice as Catholic as Kennedy, twice as liberal as Humphrey and twice as smart as [Stuart] Symington.”

The remark, however embroidered, did have at its core a truth: McCarthy’s perceptions of his intellectual gifts vis-à-vis the Kennedy clan, not just the President but his aggressive younger brother. Seven years ago, a Michael Novak essay for First Things magazine recalled his involvement in the ’68 campaign, when he had reluctantly turned away from the candidacy of friend McCarthy in favor of RFK. An intellectual who had read (and could often recite) Yeats and assorted Catholic fiction writers, McCarthy “didn't think much of the unlearned "Southie's" Boston-style Catholicism," Novak observed. "McCarthy wanted to blaze a new path for Christians and Jews in public life. A path of learning and poetry and joyous fun.”

Novak doubted that Bobby possessed anything like this reflectiveness: “One wondered which serious religious authors he or his brothers had read, if any.” Yet over time—not only after his own turn toward neoconservatism, but after post-assassination allegations of an RFK affair with Marilyn Monroe—Novak preferred to be “more inclined to look upon his sheer raw guts and the burning determination of his eyes when he glimpsed something he had to do and fight through, whatever unknown difficulties he must face.”

RFK thought of McCarthy, in the words of speechwriter Jeff Greenfield, as "an indolent dilettante of a candidate." Historian Arthur Schlesinger reflected similar conventional wisdom of Kennedy and his closest advisers when he wrote that, following his election to the Senate, McCarthy had become "indolent, frivolous and cynical," as well as overly beholden to legislative requests from the banking community of the Twin Cities.

Three other circumstances surrounding Bobby Kennedy’s announcement are also noteworthy:

*McCarthy loyalists—including the candidate’s extraordinarily shrewd wife Abigail—believed that Walter Cronkite had flown to DC not only to discuss RFK’s entrance into the race but also to urge him toward that course. Douglas Brinkley's recent biography of the CBS anchor confirmed the truth of that rumor. It was indeed extraordinary—a journalist covertly abandoning the objectivity supposedly the hallmark of his profession—but also emblematic of the strong (but by no means universal) support that the Kennedys enjoyed in the media.

* The night before he declared he would jump into the race, RFK had been awakened by brother Ted, just back from a meeting in Green Bay, Wisc., with McCarthy, to announce that Abigail McCarthy “had killed” the chance for collaboration between the two campaigns against LBJ. In her gracefully written memoir, Private Faces Public Places, the Minnesota Senator’s wife expressed annoyance at any notion that she had nixed a deal, believing that Ted Kennedy had simply presumed that the presence of herself and daughter Mary had disinclined her husband to make common cause with the Kennedys against LBJ. The “deal” that Ted (wielding a briefcase, in the wee hours of the morning, in the hotel room)( had been deputized to make was that the Kennedys would help McCarthy in any possible way in the upcoming Wisconsin primary. McCarthy responded that he was doing well in the state and needed no help; that he was already on the ballot in Nebraska, Oregon and California; and that, “if we really want to challenge the President, there are primaries which have not been entered, and which it would serve a real purpose to enter” (West Virginia, Louisiana, maybe Florida). After Ted Kennedy and his aides left without accomplishing their mission, McCarthy remarked bitterly to his wife and Mary, “That’s the way they are. When it comes down to it, they never offer anything real.”

*Novak’s memoir of his relationship with the two liberal anti-war rivals to LBJ highlights that Robert Kennedy’s candidacy was as much existential as issues-based. For all his putative ruthlessness, Kennedy was riven by passions that, in the case of his candidacy, had left him indecisive, and the last five years had only amplified them. It had taken him months to work through his grief—and, perhaps, guilt—over his brother’s murder. (Had his feverish quest to bring down the Mafia and Fidel Castro resulted in retaliation from either?) Significantly, the one intellectual resource he had embraced during this period, at the urging of sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy, was Greek tragedy. 

Paradoxically, the shyest and most vulnerable of the Kennedy brothers had decided to plunge into a race in which he would take on rock-star proportions, with followers almost desperate to get close to him. The apocalyptic rhetoric of the candidate himself reflected this. RFK's closing sentence in his declaration--that what was at stake was nothing less than "our right to moral leadership of this planet"--was a secular restatement of another insurgent restoration campaign against an incumbent, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt's address to Progressive supporters in his battle against William Howard Taft in 1912: "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."  

“I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President,” Kennedy noted in his announcement. That very realization had made him reluctant in the first place to take on Johnson. But the question inevitably comes to mind how much he gauged the dangers of running in perhaps the most tumultuous year in American history. His own assassination in California less than three months later, just after the winner-take-all primary victory he needed to give him a realistic chance for the nomination, came in the middle of a period that also featured soldiers brought home on body bags, campus unrest, race riots, protests for almost every cause imaginable, and an assassination of another public figure, Martin Luther King Jr. 

As President, JFK had the responsibility of leading the free world in its hour of maximum danger, and as a Senator for nearly 50 years, Ted Kennedy left his mark on all kinds of legislation. But in all his ambition, animosity, anguish and achievement, Robert Kennedy will remain the most fascinating of his brothers for biographers, novelists, playwrights, and armchair psychologists.

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