Forty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered on the very night he defeated his fellow anti-war insurgent Eugene McCarthy in the California Democratic presidential primary. This week the news media are full of remembrances of RFK, rehearsing how his assassination, echoing his brother’s five years earlier, dashed a generation’s hopes for a new era of liberalism. But in a political season that resembles 1968, another aspect of the assassination is also worth considering, especially with the Democratic Party now seeking to unify its ranks. For in 1968, the persistence of intra-party divisions—which helped usher in the presidency of Richard M. Nixon—stemmed not just from the tragedy of Kennedy’s murder but also from McCarthy’s own subsequent failure of leadership. McCarthy’s refusal to extend a hand to disoriented Kennedy supporters after June 6 left the party sundered, directionless, and ripe for defeat.
Eugene McCarthy never liked the Kennedys. At least since 1960, when he had placed Adlai Stevenson’s name in nomination at the Democratic convention that chose JFK for president, the high-minded Minnesota senator had resented the hardball style and political success of the whole family. Understandably, he begrudged RFK’s entry into the 1968 race. After all, back in November 1967, McCarthy had courageously challenged Lyndon B. Johnson, a sitting president, for the Democratic nomination, arguing that it was time to bring home the half-million Americans fighting in Vietnam. McCarthy’s close second-place finish in the March 12 New Hampshire primary exposed Johnson’s profound vulnerabilities. Only then did Kennedy—after some perfunctory soundings about a joint anti-war effort with McCarthy—throw his hat in the ring, quickly earning him treatment as a more plausible pretender to the nomination. McCarthy, who later claimed RFK had promised him he wouldn’t run, was livid.
Two weeks later, LBJ forswore a second term. Anti-war Democrats rushed to align with one insurgent or the other. McCarthy won the intellectuals, the professionals, and the young, who, distancing themselves from their long-haired contemporaries, vowed to get “Clean for Gene.” Kennedy attracted blue-collar, Hispanic, and black support. He complained that McCarthy got the “A” students, and he got the “B” students.
The primary battles were brutal, producing at least as much bad feeling as this year’s. Against a backdrop of violent campus protests and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., McCarthy and Kennedy squared off in Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, and California. (Not until 1972 did primaries become the dominant method of delegate selection.) Playing to his upscale base, McCarthy blasted Kennedy for having wiretapped King while attorney general. RFK, for his part, catered to the concerns of his new base—stressing, for example, his former credentials as “the chief law enforcement officer of the United States” in front of audiences worried about rising crime and urban riots. He also assailed McCarthy’s previous opposition to a minimum-wage law and his allegedly weak civil rights record—enduring charges of being “ruthless” and dishonest in distorting his rival’s record.
Even as McCarthy styled himself the clean politician, however, he dished it out, too. He mocked Kennedy and his supporters. A major gaffe occurred in Oregon, when McCarthy sniffed that Kennedy supporters were “less intelligent” than his own and belittled Indiana (which had by then gone for Kennedy) for lacking a poet of the stature of Robert Lowell—a friend of McCarthy’s who often traveled with him. McCarthy also took swipes at Kennedy for chasing after black and white working-class votes.
More negativity infused a debate before the California primary. McCarthy made two ill-considered statements: that he would accept a coalition government that included Communists in Saigon and that only the relocation of inner-city blacks would solve the urban problem. Kennedy pounced, portraying the former idea as soft on communism and the latter diagnosis as a scheme to bus tens of thousands of ghetto residents into white, conservative Orange County. Angered at these characterizations, McCarthy resolved not to support Kennedy if he became the nominee.
By the time of Kennedy’s murder, there was no love lost between the two men. Still, McCarthy’s reaction to the assassination was singularly hardhearted. One aide recalled him sneering about his fallen rival, “Demagoguing to the last.” Another heard him say that Kennedy “brought it on himself”—implying, by perverse logic, that because Kennedy had promised military support to the state of Israel, he had somehow provoked Sirhan Sirhan, the Arab-American gunman who killed him. (In fact, Sirhan had long planned to commit the murder on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War.)
Kennedy’s death, of course, did not leave McCarthy alone in the race. All along, many party regulars had preferred Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who announced his candidacy in April but sat out the primaries, instead building his delegate base in states without primaries—which back then constituted a majority. Indeed, with Kennedy’s assassination, many observers thought that front-runner status had devolved not to McCarthy but to Humphrey. Yet while McCarthy formally suspended his campaign in recognition of Kennedy’s death, and although he proceeded to engage in various acts of willful self-sabotage, he nonetheless won a big victory in the June 18 New York primary and swept around the country in search of uncommitted delegates. Yet, stubbornly, he refused to make any gestures of reconciliation toward Kennedy’s inner circle or his millions of supporters.
A few key Kennedy aides soon prevailed on McGovern to join the race as a kind of placeholder at the upcoming Chicago convention—a possible nominee but also a candidate for Kennedy’s delegates to rally behind until a deal could be struck. The move, of course, also made clear to McCarthy that they hadn’t forgiven his various digs at RFK during the primary season. Meanwhile, others started an informal “Draft Ted” movement to get the youngest Kennedy brother, then 36, to pick up the standard. Both ploys reflected a recognition that Humphrey, for all his delegates, still wasn’t the inevitable nominee and that McCarthy’s cache of several hundred delegates, when coupled with Kennedy’s, might still produce an anti-war nominee.
For a moment it looked possible. In Chicago, Richard Goodwin—the former JFK aide who’d gone to work for McCarthy, switched to RFK, then returned to the McCarthy camp after the assassination—sent word to friends in the Kennedy camp that McCarthy wanted to talk. Privately, the senator told Kennedy in-law Steve Smith that he would be willing to step aside in favor of Ted. But even in concession, McCarthy couldn’t be gracious. He told Smith that he would take such a step for Ted, but he wouldn’t have done it for Bobby. The gratuitous jab killed any prospect of a deal. In his conversations with Humphrey, meanwhile, McCarthy insisted that he not choose Ted Kennedy as his running mate.
McCarthy made almost no efforts on his own behalf at the convention. In a debate with Humphrey and McGovern before the California delegation, he refused to state his position on the war, saying, “The people know my position.” He didn’t even speak during the convention’s debate over what the platform would say about Vietnam. But when Humphrey got the nod, McCarthy suggested that, as the winner of the most primary votes, he had been robbed of the nomination. He didn’t endorse Humphrey until Oct. 29, and even then he took swipes at the vice president for his stands on the war and the draft. Humphrey lost to Nixon by 0.7 percent of the popular vote, although Nixon took 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191.
Whether Robert Kennedy could have beaten Humphrey for the nomination is impossible to say. Certainly, it would have been hard. But following Kennedy’s death, Gene McCarthy’s willful aloofness and inability to bring unity to a party cleaved during a hard-fought primary season amounted to a second tragedy for the Democrats.