Robert F. Kennedy 1968 presidential campaign
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|Robert Kennedy for President 1968|
|Campaign||U.S. presidential election, 1968|
|Candidate||Robert F. Kennedy|
U.S. Senator from New York
U.S. Attorney General
|Status||Announced: March 16, 1968|
Assassinated : June 6, 1968
The Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign began on March 16, 1968, when Robert Francis Kennedy (RFK), a U.S. Senator from New York who had won a Senate seat in 1964, entered an unlikely primary election as a challenger to incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). After Johnson announced on March 31 that he would not seek re-election, Kennedy still faced two rival candidates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination: the leading challenger Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey had entered the race after Johnson's withdrawal, but Kennedy and McCarthy remained the main challengers to the policies of the Johnson administration. During the spring of 1968, Kennedy campaigned in presidential primary elections throughout the United States. Kennedy's campaign was especially active in Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, California, and Washington, D.C.. He had been making progress in building Democratic support for his nomination when he was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
- 1 Announcement
- 2 Positions
- 3 Primary campaign
- 4 Relationships with groups and people
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
Kennedy was a late entry in making a campaign announcement for the primary race in the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1968. His political advisors had been pressuring him to make a decision, fearing Kennedy was running out of time to announce his candidacy. Although Kennedy and his advisors knew it would not be easy to beat the incumbent president, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy had not ruled out entering the race. U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy had announced his intention to run against Johnson for the Democratic nomination on November 30, 1967. Following McCarthy's announcement, Kennedy remarked to U.S. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota that he was, "worried about [McGovern] and other people making early commitments to [McCarthy]." At a breakfast with reporters at the National Press Club on January 30, 1968, Kennedy once again indicated that he had no plans to run, but a few weeks later he had changed his mind about entering the race.
In early February 1968, after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Kennedy received an anguished letter from writer Pete Hamill, noting that poor people in the Watts area of Los Angeles had hung pictures of Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, in their homes. Hamill's letter reminded Robert Kennedy that he had an "obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls." There were other factors that influenced Kennedy's decision to enter the presidential primary race. On February 29, 1968, the Kerner Commission issued a report on the racial unrest that had affected American cities during the previous summer. The Kerner Commission blamed "white racism" for the violence, but its findings were largely dismissed by the Johnson administration. Concerned about President Johnson's policies and actions, Kennedy asked his advisor, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr: "How can we possibly survive five more years of Lyndon Johnson?" Disagreement amongst Kennedy's friends, political advisors, and family members further complicated his decision to launch a primary challenge against the incumbent Johnson. Kennedy's wife Ethel supported the idea, but his brother Ted had been opposed to the candidacy. Ted did lend his support once Kennedy entered the race.
By late February or early March, 1968, Kennedy had finally made the decision to enter the race for president. On March 10, Kennedy traveled to California, to meet with civil rights activist César Chávez, at the end of a 25-day hunger strike. En route to California, Kennedy told his aide, Peter Edelman, that he had decided to run and had to "figure out how to get McCarthy out of it." The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy told several aides that he would run if he could persuade little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to withdraw from the presidential race. Kennedy agreed to McCarthy's request to delay an announcement of his intentions until after the New Hampshire primary. On March 12, when Johnson won an astonishingly narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary against McCarthy, who polled 42 percent of the vote, Kennedy knew it would be unlikely that the Minnesota senator would agree to withdraw. He moved forward with his plans to announce his candidacy.
On March 16, Kennedy declared, "I am today announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can." Kennedy made this announcement from the same spot in the Senate Caucus Room where John F. Kennedy had announced his presidential candidacy in January 1960. McCarthy supporters angrily denounced Kennedy as an opportunist. With Kennedy joining the race, liberal Democrats thought that votes among supporters of the anti-war movement would now be split between McCarthy and Kennedy.
On March 31, President Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out the presidential race. He withdrew from the election during a televised speech, where he also announced a partial halt to the bombing of Vietnam and proposed peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, long a champion of labor unions and civil rights, entered the race on April 27, with support from the party "establishment"—including the Democratic members of Congress, mayors, governors, and labor unions. Although he was a write-in candidate in some of the contests, Humphrey had announced his candidacy too late to be a formal candidate in most of the primaries. Despite late entry into the primary race, Humphrey had the support of the president and many Democratic insiders, which gave him a better chance at gaining convention delegates in the non-primary states. In contrast, Kennedy, like his brother before him, had planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries. Because Democratic party leaders would influence delegate selection and convention votes, Kennedy's strategy was to influence the decision-makers with crucial wins in the primary elections. This strategy had worked for John F. Kennedy in 1960, when he beat Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia democratic primary.
Kennedy delivered his first campaign speech on March 18 at Kansas State University, where he had previously agreed to give a lecture honoring former Kansas governor and Republican Alfred Landon. At Kansas State, Kennedy drew a "record-setting crowd of 14,500 students" for his Landon Lecture. In his speech, Kennedy apologized for early mistakes and attacked President Johnson's Vietnam policy saying, "I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path." He further acknowledged that "past error is not excuse for its own perpetration." Later that day at the University of Kansas Kennedy spoke to an audience of 19,000—one of the largest in the university's history. During that speech he said, "I don't think that we have to shoot each other, to beat each other, to curse each other and criticize each other, I think that we can do better in this country. And that is why I run for President of the United States." From Kansas, Kennedy went on to campaign in the Democratic primaries in Indiana, Washington, DC, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, and California.
Kennedy's political platform emphasized racial equality, economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power and social improvement. A crucial element of his campaign was youth engagement. Kennedy identified America's youth with the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and social equality.
Kennedy's policy objectives were not popular with the business world, where he was viewed as a fiscal liability. Businesses were opposed to the tax increases that would be necessary to fund Kennedy's proposed social programs. During a speech given at the Indiana University Medical School, Kennedy was asked, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you're proposing?" Kennedy replied to the medical students, who were poised to enter lucrative careers, "From you."
During a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School, Kennedy expressed the administration's commitment to civil rights and school desegregation: "We will not stand by or be aloof—we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."
In February 1962, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had called Martin Luther King Jr. an "enemy of the state", presented RFK with allegations that some of King's close confidants and advisers were communists. He viewed King as a troublemaker. Kennedy gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones on a short term "trial basis" in October 1963, but Hoover extended the clearance so his men would be "unshackled" in their search for evidence against King. Although the wire tapping continued through 1966, no evidence of Communist activity or influence was uncovered as to King.
Kennedy maintained a strong commitment to civil rights enforcement. In 1962, he commented about the large role the civil rights movement played in his public and private life—from prosecuting corrupt southern electoral officials to answering late night calls from Mrs. King when her husband, Dr. King, was imprisoned during demonstrations in Alabama. During his tenure as Attorney General, Kennedy pursued a relentless policy of desegregation for his administration, which was unpredcedented on Capitol Hill. He demanded that every area of government begin recruiting realistic levels of black and other ethnic workers.
Law and order
In 1968, Kennedy expressed his strong willingness to support a bill that was under consideration[by whom?] for the abolition of the death penalty.[better source needed] He argued that rising crime rates could be countered with more job and educational opportunities.
Kennedy supported laws that would reduce casual firearm purchases. He said he believed in keeping firearms away from "people who have no business" with them—specifying criminals, individuals with mental health issues, and minors as classes of persons who should be prevented from purchasing firearms.
Job opportunities and welfare reform
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Kennedy argued that increased government cooperation with private enterprise would reduce housing and employment woes in the United States. He also argued that the focus of welfare spending should be shifted more towards improving credit and income for farmers.
Kennedy did not support an immediate withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Vietnam or an immediate end to the war. He sought to end the conflict by strengthening the South Vietnamese military and reducing corruption within the South Vietnamese government. He supported a peace settlement between North and South Vietnam.
Kennedy argued for legislation, which would reform flagrant tax loopholes.
Cuban Missile Crisis
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As his brother's confidante, Kennedy oversaw the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) anti-Castro activities after the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. He also helped develop the strategy to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, instead of initiating a military strike that might have led to nuclear war. Kennedy had been among the more hawkish elements of the administration on matters concerning Cuban insurrectionary aid. He had initially been a strong supporter of covert actions in Cuba; his position changed when became aware of the CIA tendency to draw-out initiatives and provide itself with almost-unchecked authority in matters of foreign covert operations.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was successful in obtaining compromises from key figures in the warhawk camp. He was involved in negotiations to secure the blockade that averted a full military engagement between the U.S. and Soviet Russia. His clandestine meetings with members of the Soviet government provided a key link to Nikita Khrushchev during moments of the Crisis where the threat of nuclear strikes was a possibility.
On the last night of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy expressed his gratitude for his brother's contributions to averting nuclear war with a simple comment: "Thank God for Bobby".
In 1968, Kennedy was successful in four state primaries: Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and California; as well as Washington D.C. McCarthy won six state primaries: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, and Illinois. Of the state primaries in which they campaigned directly against one another, Kennedy won three (Indiana, Nebraska, and California) while McCarthy was only successful in one (Oregon).
A Gallup poll conducted in the fall of 1965 showed 72% of respondents believed RFK wanted to become the president, and 40% of independents and 56% of Democrats stated their support for a possible bid. Harris and Gallup polls released in August 1966 showed RFK being favored over President Johnson for the nomination by 2% among Democrats and 14% by independents. A late March Gallup poll released shortly before RFK's entry into the primary showed him leading President Johnson by three points at 44% to 41%. A poll released in the early part of April featured Kennedy with a 26-point lead over McCarthy in the Indiana primary, at 46% to 19%. Another April poll in Indiana, the Oliver Quayle survey, showed Kennedy with a three-to-one lead over McCarthy and the state's governor Roger D. Branigin; Schmitt noted the poll featured a large portion of respondents refuting the label that RFK was not trustworthy along with being "too tough and ruthless." An April 28 Gallup poll showed Kennedy at 28% support by Democratic voters, Humphrey behind by three points and McCarthy ahead by five. A May 26 Associated Press poll showed RFK behind Humphrey among Pennsylvania national convention delegates, 1 to 27. A June 2 Gallup poll showed Kennedy at 19% support among Democratic county chairmen, Humphrey at 67% and McCarthy at 6%. A June 3 poll showed Kennedy leading McCarthy by nine points in the California primary, at 39% to 30%. The following day, CBS polls showed Kennedy leading McCarthy by seven points.
On March 27, 1968, Kennedy announced his intention to run against McCarthy in the Indiana primary. His aides told him that a race in Indiana would be an extremely tight race and advised him against it. Despite the concerns of his advisors, Kennedy traveled to Indianapolis the following day and filed to run in the Indiana primary. At the Indiana Statehouse, Kennedy told a cheering crowd that the state was important to his campaign: "If we can win in Indiana, we can win in every other state, and win when we go to the convention in August."
On April 4, Kennedy made his first campaign stop in Indiana at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, followed by a speech at Ball State University in Muncie. In his speech at Ball State, Kennedy suggested that the 1968 election would "determine the direction that the United States is going to move" and that the American people should "examine everything. Not take anything for granted." In addition, Kennedy enumerated his concerns about poverty and hunger, lawlessness and violence, jobs and economic development, and foreign policy. He emphasized that Americans had a "moral obligation"[clarification needed] and should "make an honest effort to understand one another and move forward together."
After leaving the stage at Ball State, Kennedy boarded a plane for Indianapolis. When he arrived in Indianapolis he was informed of King's assassination. Later that evening, Kennedy made a brief speech on the assassination of King to a crowd gathered for a political rally at 17th and Broadway—an African American neighborhood near the north side of Indianapolis. He attempted to console the crowd with calls for peace and compassion. After attending King's funeral in Atlanta, Georgia, Kennedy turned his attention back to the primary campaign. He drew huge crowds at campaign stops across the country. Kennedy's Indiana campaign resumed on April 10.
Kennedy's campaign advisor John Bartlow Martin urged the candidate to speak out against violence and rioting, emphasize his "law enforcement experience" as former U.S. Attorney General, and promote the idea that the federal government and the private sector should work together to solve domestic issues. Martin also urged Kennedy to speak out on the war in Vietnam—support for the cessation of hostilities and reallocating war funds to domestic programs were ideas which "always got applause." To appeal to Indiana's more-conservative voters, Kennedy "toned down his rhetoric" as well.
RFK delivered a speech before the Indianapolis real estate board on May 2, advocating for reliance on private enterprise instead of the federal government. During this speech, Kennedy argued that the national economy would be "restored" by the Vietnam War's conclusion.
In the days before the Indiana primary, a battle ensued between Kennedy, McCarthy, and Indiana Governor Roger D. Branigin. Branigin was a "favorite son candidate" and stand-in for LBJ. He has been described as a "formidable foe who had enormous power over the distribution of the approximately seven thousand patronage jobs in the state." Branigan campaigned in nearly all of the state's 92 counties, while McCarthy's campaign strategy concentrated on Indiana's rural areas and small towns. According to Kennedy's advisor, Martin, the campaign gained momentum with Kennedy's visits to central and southern Indiana on April 22 and 23, which included a memorable whistle-stop railroad trip aboard the Wabash Cannonball.
The Indiana primary was held on May 7: Kennedy won with 42 percent of the vote; Branigan was second with 31 percent of the vote; and McCarthy, earning 27 percent, came in third. With this victory in Indiana, Kennedy's campaign gained momentum going into the Nebraska primary.
Nebraska and Oregon primaries
Campaigning vigorously in Nebraska, Kennedy hoped for a big win to give him momentum going into the California primary, in which McCarthy held a strong presence. While McCarthy made only one visit to Nebraska, Kennedy made numerous appearances. It was during this primary that Kennedy began enjoying himself as he was "open and uncomplicated".[clarification needed] Kennedy's advisors had been worried about his chances in Nebraska, given RFK's lack of experience with the issues of ranching and agriculture—subjects of high importance to Nebraskans—and the short amount of time to campaign in the state after the Indiana primary. RFK won the Nebraska primary on May 14, with 51.4 percent of the vote to McCarthy's 31 percent. Kennedy won 24 of the 25 counties that he visited ahead of the vote; of those, Mills noted that the sole county he lost harbored the University of Nebraska, where a plurality of students favored McCarthy, and that RFK had been defeated by "precisely two votes." After the results, Kennedy declared that he and McCarthy, both anti-war candidates, had collectively managed to earn over 80 percent of the vote. He described this as "a smashing repudiation" of the Johnson-Humphrey administration.
In contrast to Nebraska, the Oregon primary posed several challenges to Kennedy's campaign. His campaign organization, run by Congresswoman Edith Green, was not strong and his platform emphasizing poverty, hunger, and minority issues did not resonate with Oregon voters. Mills wrote the following about RFK's calls for unity amongst Americans: "As far as Oregonians were concerned, America had not fallen apart." The Kennedy campaign circulated material on McCarthy's record; McCarthy had voted against a minimum wage law and repeal of the poll tax in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The McCarthy campaign responded with charges that Kennedy illegally taped Martin Luther King, Jr. as United States Attorney General. Kennedy admitted these mentions of McCarthy's record did not bother his supporters.[clarification needed]
Ten days ahead of the primary, RFK recognized the uphill battle he faced in winning the primary: "This state is like one giant suburb. I appeal best to people who have problems." During a speech he gave in California, Kennedy said, "I think that if I get beaten in any primary, I am not a very viable candidate." The comment further intensified the importance of the Oregon primary. Kennedy realized that losing the Oregon primary would pose a risk to his credibility and began what Dary G. Richardson dubbed an "Olympian-like pace". He campaigned for sixteen hours a day; in the weeks before the election, his campaign canvased 50,000 homes.
On May 26, RFK was campaigning in Portland, accompanied by his wife Ethel and astronaut John Glenn. McCarthy was also campaigning in Portland and briefly encountered RFK's motorcade in Washington Park; Kennedy's campaign aides decided to hold his event in a different location. The following day, a spokesman for the RFK campaign accused the McCarthy and Humphrey campaigns of banding together against Kennedy. On May 28, McCarthy won the Oregon primary with 44.7 percent; Kennedy received 38.8 percent of votes. After Kennedy's loss was confirmed, RFK sent a congratulatory message to McCarthy in which he asserted that he would remain in the race. Larry Tye believes the defeat in Oregon had two effects: First, it proved to RFK that he needed to take risks in his campaigning. Second, the defeat convinced voters that Kennedy was vulnerable to electoral defeat.
After the loss in Oregon, Kennedy's campaign moved on to California.
California, South Dakota, and New Jersey primaries
After victories in Nebraska and Indiana, Kennedy hoped to take the California and South Dakota primaries on June 4. California was "the perfect place for Kennedy to demonstrate his voter-appeal." McCarthy's California campaign was well-funded and organized. For Kennedy, a defeat could have ended his hopes of securing the nomination. Kennedy was the weakest candidate in the South Dakota primary; McCarthy was a Senator in neighboring Minnesota and Humphrey had been raised in South Dakota.
On June 1, during the final days of the California campaign, Kennedy and McCarthy met for a televised debate. Kennedy had hopes of denting McCarthy's strength in California, but the debate proved to be "indecisive and disappointing." After the debate, undecided voters favored Kennedy to McCarthy 2 to 1, the first time in the primary that gains in undecided voters were found to mostly go to RFK.[clarification needed]
On June 3, in what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. dubbed a "final dash around the state", RFK traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach. RFK told Theodore H. White on June 4 that he could sway Democratic Party leaders with wins in both California and South Dakota. Kennedy won the South Dakota primary by a wide margin, beating McCarthy, 50 percent to 20 percent of the vote. Kennedy won in California with 46 percent of the vote to McCarthy's 42 percent—this was a crucial defeat to McCarthy's campaign and the biggest prize in the nominating process. Under the plurality voting system, Kennedy, despite having received only a plurality of the vote, was awarded all of the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Around midnight on June 4, Kennedy addressed supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, confidently promising to heal the many divisions within the country.
After addressing his supporters during the early morning hours of June 5, in a ballroom at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy left the ballroom through a service area to greet kitchen workers. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian-born Jordanian, opened fire with a .22 caliber revolver and mortally wounded Kennedy. Following the shooting, Kennedy was rushed to Central Receiving Hospital and then transferred to The Good Samaritan Hospital, where he died early in the morning on June 6.
Kennedy's body was returned to New York City, where he lay in repose at St. Patrick's Cathedral for several days before the Requiem Mass was held there on June 8. His younger brother, U.S. Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, eulogized him with the words: "My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it." Kennedy concluded the eulogy by paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, "As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?' " Later that day, a funeral train carried Kennedy's body from New York to Washington, D.C., where he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Relationships with groups and people
Kennedy had been a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. During the campaign, there were signs in black neighborhoods that read "Kennedy white but alright / The one before, he opened the door." In the Indiana primary, RFK secured 86% of the black vote. His performance was strongest in cities with the largest black populations. Richardson noted that Kennedy was appealing to low-earning black voters. Kennedy had received support from blacks by "an overwhelming margin". Support amongst black voters was one of the key factors in Kennedy's victory in Indiana. Samuel Lubell argued that the victory was partially inspired by RFK's support for corporate attempts to hire blacks; he wrote that Kennedy had largely won "the Negro wards".
In the Nebraska primary, Kennedy ended his campaigning in the state with a speech in a black neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska. While a late May poll showed that only 40% of overall respondents believed RFK embodied "many of the same outstanding qualities" of the late President Kennedy, 94% of black respondents agreed with the comparison. When McCarthy revealed that Kennedy had agreed to limited surveillance of Dr. King back in 1963, blacks in California considered switching their support to McCarthy. In Oakland, California, Kennedy met with Black Panthers amid other minority activists in a midnight session days before the California primary concluded. When he was shouted at, Kennedy prevented a black aide from intervening: "They need to tell people off. They need to tell me off." RFK won 90% of the black vote in the California primary. Larry Tye later said: "By the time of his death in June 1968, Bobby was the most trusted white man in black America." On the other hand, Michael A. Cohen noted that RFK's popularity with blacks had a negative effect on his appeal to the remainder of the electorate: "Rather than create an espirit de corps between the races, his close relationship to the black community turned many whites off."
Working class whites
Kennedy had broad support among blue-collar white voters during the campaign. Schmitt observed that "It was the allure of Kennedy as a bare knuckles advocate for their interests that led some of these same white voters to support the insurgent candidacy of George Wallace in the fall of 1968." An internal memo released during the Indiana primary showed that Kennedy-backing voters had favorable opinions of Wallace. Samuel Lubell, though noting Kennedy's support among blacks, stated that he "had also carried the racially sensitive low-income white workers who come in from rural areas to settle in east Omaha."
Kennedy endeared himself to farmworkers through his support of the Delano grape strike and subsequent communications with Cesar Chavez, who told students in California that Kennedy was the candidate for farmworkers. Tye wrote that RFK became a hero to farmworkers by questioning local law enforcement methods. RFK visited Delano during the campaign to display an endorsement for the grape strike, prompting Chavez to convince the United Farm Workers to begin voter turnout and registration campaigns. Marshall Ganz had arranged for Kennedy to speak to farmworkers after his victory speech in the California primary. Roger A. Bruns wrote the following about Kennedy's assassination: "For the country and especially for the farm workers community, the killing of Robert Kennedy was a profoundly tragic loss."
Chavez claimed there were fifty Hispanics supporting the Kennedy campaign for every one that had backed his brother's campaign eight years prior. In the California primary, 95% of voting Hispanics supported RFK and he won 100% in several precincts. By the time of the primary, he had become "the leading candidate among Latinos in California". Hispanic input heavily impacted Kennedy's victory.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Even before Kennedy announced his candidacy, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) was convinced that Kennedy wanted to challenge him. LBJ was convinced that his presidency would be "trapped forever between the two Kennedys" administrations. Jeff Shesol wrote that LBJ took the prospect of a contentious primary seriously, after having underestimated the political skillfulness of JFK in 1960. During a December 19, 1967 press conference, LBJ said the following about what he called the Kennedy-McCarthy movement: "I don't know what the effect of the Kennedy-McCarthy movement is having in the country ...I am not privileged to all of the conversations that have taken place ...I do know of the interest of both of them in the Presidency and the ambition of both of them." Prior to RFK's announcement of his intentions to run, close friend Arthur Schlesinger wrote in a journal that he'd never seen Kennedy "so torn about anything...I think that he cannot bear the thought of consigning the country to four more years of LBJ, without having done something to avert this."
Kennedy announced his candidacy after LBJ almost lost the New Hampshire primary. The day after announcing his candidacy, RFK predicted that Johnson would lose the general election if he was the party's nominee, if he continued to "follow the same policies we are following at the moment". Kennedy told reporters during a flight to Kansas City: "I didn't want to run for President. But when [Johnson] made it clear the war would go on, and that nothing was going to change, I had no choice." Clarke wrote that Kennedy was conveying he had a moral obligation to do everything in his power to prevent a prolonging of the policies he opposed. In mid-March, during an appearance at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, RFK charged LBJ's leadership with leading to the divisiveness of the U.S.: "They are the ones, the President of the United States, President Johnson, they are the ones who divide us." In late March, three days before LBJ announced that he would not be seeking the Democratic Party's nomination, James H. Rowe sent LBJ a memorandum charging that RFK's backers had said "the president would not run and that the best course for the Democrats was to 'Stay loose and stay committed.' " A late-March Gallup poll showed RFK defeating President Johnson in a national election.
RFK was at his apartment in the United Nations Plaza the night President Johnson announced his withdrawal from the primary, though unlike his supporters he was not optimistic about the news. He reportedly said, "The joy is premature." Smith observed that Johnson's withdrawal meant Kennedy would have to shift the focus of his critiques from the administration's policies on the Vietnam War. Shesol wrote that Kennedy moved to a praising tone of Johnson, crediting Johnson with fulfillment of "the policies of thirty years" during an April 1 appearance in New Jersey. While in Philadelphia, he called Johnson's withdrawal an "act of leadership and sacrifice". On April 3, 1968, three days after President Johnson announced that he would not seek the nomination, RFK and the President met at the White House. When asked about his intentions for the primary, LBJ replied: "Stay out of it". Although Johnson's withdrawal from the race meant Vice-President Humphrey would enter, RFK had gained the president's declaration of neutrality. In comments to Henry Ford II and Gregory Peck, LBJ concluded that RFK won his June debate with McCarthy.
After the primaries, McCarthy claimed that RFK had promised in November 1967 that he would not run. Prior to entering the race, RFK worried McCarthy lacked a platform, as the latter had rarely spoken about domestic issues. In mid-March, Ted Kennedy attempted to broker "a political deal" where his brother would remain out of the race, if McCarthy spoke out on domestic problems. McCarthy declined and the refusal propelled Schlesinger's unsuccessful suggestion that RFK endorse McCarthy. The day before RFK announced his entry into the primary, he told reporters Hayne Johnson and Jack Newfield: "I can't be a hypocrite anymore. I just don't believe Gene McCarthy would be a good president. If it had been George McGovern who had run in New Hampshire, I wouldn't have gotten into it. But what has McCarthy ever done for the ghettos or for the poor?"
The day Kennedy announced his entry into the primary, McCarthy reversed his decision to not enter the Indiana primary; he didn't want to help RFK's chances of winning any primaries. According to Dominic Sandbrook, Kennedy's entry into the primary caused a shift in McCarthy's campaign—McCarthy was forced to further develop his own platform, instead of merely being antagonistic to the Johnson administration's policies. Walter LaFeber believed that animosity between the Kennedy and McCarthy campaigns had grown by the end of March. Following President Johnson's withdrawal from the primary, McCarthy said: "Up to now Bobby was Jack running against Lyndon. Now Bobby has to run against Jack." Mills wrote that Kennedy's focus on providing assistance for the poor and powerless during the Indiana primary was meant to highlight an issue that the McCarthy campaign had neglected. After his Nebraska victory, Kennedy said that McCarthy supporters should support him to prevent the nomination of Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention. McCarthy rebuked RFK's proposals about fixing cities during a late May speech at University of California, Davis. The McCarthy campaign believed that if RFK did well enough to survive the California primary, it would lead to a fractured Democratic National Convention where McCarthy would be the alternative for those opposed to both RFK and Humphrey. After the California primary, McCarthy advisors joined the Kennedy campaign with plans for supporting it toward gaining the nomination.
Two days after RFK announced his candidacy, Vice President Humphrey said that RFK had supported the JFK administration's policies on the Vietnam conflict. Humphrey's office produced a statement from Kennedy, written six years prior, saying the U.S. would win in Vietnam.
Kennedy was in Nebraska when Humphrey entered the race on April 27. Kennedy welcomed Humphrey into the race, saying Humphrey's candidacy offered "clear alternatives" between the Johnson administration's policies and those of the primary candidates.
LaFeber wrote that Humphrey's entry seemed to be hinged entirely on President Johnson's distaste at the idea of Kennedy being the party's nominee in the general election. RFK took direct aim at Humphrey's "politics of joy" line during his announcement speech while campaigning in Indiana: "It is easy to say this is the politics of happiness—but if you see children starving in the Delta of Mississippi and despair on the Indian reservations, then you know that everybody in America is not satisfied."
Humphrey won 18% of write-in votes in the Massachusetts primary; it was seen as a victory over Kennedy's 28% vote total because Kennedy's Massachusetts campaign organization was significantly stronger than Humphrey's. The morning after his Oregon loss, Kennedy hosted a Los Angeles airport press conference in which he critiqued Humphrey for what he called an inability "to present his views to the voters of a single state." Kennedy also emphasized that there would be no anti-war Presidential candidate, if Humphrey were the Democratic candidate in the general election against former Vice President Nixon.
After winning the California primary, RFK said that he intended to follow Humphrey "all over the country" in pursuit of the nomination.
Reflecting on RFK's assassination, Humphrey said: "I was doing everything I could to get the nomination, but God knows I didn't want it that way." Humphrey went on to become the Democratic Party's nominee in the general election.
Richard J. Daley
Shortly before entering the race, on February 8, 1968, RFK met with Richard J. Daley about the chances of usurping the nomination from the incumbent President Johnson. RFK wanted Daley to use his influence to sway delegates and the Democratic National Convention in his favor toward nomination. Daley stated that he would remain committed to Johnson. Savage wrote that Daley was worried about an RFK Presidency because he had, as Attorney General, prosecuted Democratic machine politicians in several states.
After President Johnson withdrew from the primary, Nixon commented that RFK seemed favored for the nomination. When Richard Nixon heard that RFK had announced his candidacy, Nixon reportedly said, "We've just seen some very terrible forces unleashed. Something bad is going to come out of this." However, Nixon was relieved by RFK's entry into the Democratic primary—he believed the divisions created by RFK's candidacy would be an advantage for Republicans. In April, Nixon proposed a debate between Kennedy and himself. Nixon, who during his own campaign for the presidency spoke about federal power to the states and economic empowerment for blacks in a late May speech, said: "Bobby and I have been sounding pretty much alike." Kennedy tied with Nixon in polls conducted in the latter part of 1967. When Kennedy was announced the winner of the California primary, Nixon told his family: "It sure looks like we'll be going against Bobby."
Kennedy's wife, Ethel, regularly joined Kennedy when he was campaigning. His brother Ted and brother-in-law Steve Smith, were involved in the campaign as informal advisors. Ted and his sisters Jean Kennedy Smith and Patricia Kennedy Lawford were in the entourage of the Kennedy campaign at the Ambassador Hotel after RFK won the California primary. RFK met with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. ahead of making the announcement; the elder Kennedy dropped his head "to his chest in regret." Bzdek wrote, "He no longer wished to see three sons as president; he only wished to see the last two alive."
- Thomas, Evan (2000). Robert F. Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 351. ISBN 978-0684834801.
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- On September 14, 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to rename the Senate Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building (RSOB) to the Kennedy Senate Caucus Room in honor of the three Kennedy brothers who served in the Senate chamber. John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy announced their presidential campaigns in the room and their younger brother, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who died of cancer in August 2009, chaired hearings in the room on a health-care bill that bore his name. CNN Political Tracker blog (2009-09-14). "Senate Caucus Room renamed to honor Kennedy brothers". CNN Political Tracker. Retrieved 2012-05-18.
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- Johnson's name still appeared on the ballot in South Dakota and received 30 percent of the vote, which was recognized as support for Humphrey. McCarthy beat out Kennedy in the NJ primary, which only permitted write-ins and separately elected a slate of uncommitted delegates composed of state elected officials, winning 38 percent to 33 percent over RFK with Humphrey getting 21 percent and Wallace 5% with LBJ picking up a paltry 380 write-ins for 1.5 percent. Dooley, p. 134.
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I believed that Hubert Humphrey had waited too long before declaring his candidacy, and I saw no way a Kennedy juggernaut could be stopped once it had acquired the momentum of a California victory.
- Bzdek, p. 133.
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