In her frantic search for an antidote to Donald Trump’s racial and ethnic demagoguery, Hillary Clinton would do well to look back at Robert F. Kennedy’s spirited bid for the White House half a century ago. That crusade later inspired not just the liberal Barack Obama but the third-wayer Bill Clinton. It reached a crescendo on the night of Bobby’s momentous victory in the California primary, when he seemed on the verge of becoming the tough liberal—or perhaps tender conservative—who could stitch back together a divided land. His murder in June 1968, at the moment of his triumph, symbolized what we had lost and what we still might become.
America in 1968 was racially riven to an extent that is inconceivable today, no matter how much Trump tries to rekindle ethnic animosities. In that era, the most iconic figure from Louisiana to the Carolinas was Jim Crow, a song-and-dance caricature played by a white minstrel in blackface whose name had become shorthand for the amalgam of statutes and norms mandating the segregation of the races everywhere from libraries, beauty parlors, and baseball diamonds to public toilets, parks, and drinking fountains. While the U.S. government had been slowly striking down such barriers, starting in the armed forces and public schools, white Southerners were slow to yield and quick to harbor grudges against Yankees interfering with the Southern way of life.
Liberals were also deeply divided then, even more than the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders camps are today, over everything from whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam, to whether it was OK to challenge your own party’s sitting president. The America of 1968 had lost both its postwar sense of unbounded possibilities and John F. Kennedy, the youthful president who embodied that enthusiasm and promised new frontiers ahead. Now JFK’s messianic younger brother was offering fresh dreams. He imagined a country split less between right and left, or black and white, than between good and bad.
Robert F. Kennedy leads a party across a suspension bridge, February 14, 1968, during his tour of Eastern Kentucky to look at Appalachian poverty.
The early Bobby Kennedy was among the unlikeliest leaders in the land to topple the ramparts of hate and division and span the divides. In the rich white communities where he and his brother John were raised—Hyannis Port, Riverdale, Bronxville, and Palm Beach—race wasn’t a topic of dinner-table conversation. “What we did grow up with [was] the idea that there were a lot of people that were less fortunate … this was during the 1930s,” Bobby said. But “as far as separating the Negroes for having a more difficult time than the white people, that was not a particular issue in our house.” He was equally clueless in the first half of his tenure as attorney general, when the Kennedy administration named too many racist judges, took too long to file a serious-minded civil rights bill, and left black voters who had helped pull JFK to victory in 1960 looking for more forceful answers.
But RFK was the fastest of learners. As America’s chief law enforcement officer, he oversaw the federal response to every racial conflagration, from the violent resistance to the Freedom Riders seeking to integrate interstate transportation, to the race riots spawned when the first black students enrolled at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama. Later, as a U.S. senator from New York, he would show President Lyndon Johnson how to breathe life into ghettos like Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, prove to Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman that tenant farmers in the Mississippi Delta really were starving, and stand by Cesar Chavez when the founder of the Farm Workers Union staged his famous hunger strikes. Bobby Kennedy grew not by reading books, as brother Jack had, nor by chumming around with the brainy and powerful like his father, Joseph P. Experience transformed him. He came to understand poverty the way a novelist might, or a priest, sitting on the dirt floor of a shotgun shack in the Mississippi Delta trying to connect with a starving toddler. It was the same with farmworkers and coal miners. To Bobby, policy was personal and power was its handmaiden.
“These are moral issues, not legal ones. … The stifling air of prejudice is not fit to be breathed by the people of a nation that takes pride in calling itself free,” RFK told an audience at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall during his battle for a civil rights bill. “This is a national crisis, and it is immediate.” A month later, testifying before the Senate, he posed this unanswerable question: “How can we say, to a Negro in Jackson: ‘When a war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you’re a citizen of Mississippi and we can’t help you?’”
By the time he jumped into the 1968 presidential race, civil rights had become a defining issue for Bobby, along with ending the war. But what was truly remarkable was his gift for connecting to the white working class as well as to blacks. He was building bridges—between blacks, browns, and blue-collar whites, as well as between hippies and hard hats—in stark contrast to the divisions sowed then by Richard Nixon and today by Donald Trump. Just how far Bobby had come was apparent in three magical moments during that short-lived campaign.
His first occasion of clarity came the night of April 4, when he was kicking off his campaign in Indiana for round one of the presidential primary tests. Boarding a plane from Muncie to Indianapolis, he got word that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot; by the time Kennedy landed, King was dead. An outdoor rally had been planned for the heart of Indianapolis’s ghetto at 17th and Broadway, but the mayor and chief of police told Bobby not to go, fearing for his safety and their city’s. Bobby wouldn’t hear of it—“I’m going to go there,” he said, “and that’s it”—continuing on to the black neighborhood and asking his police escort to peel off just before he arrived. When an aide handed him scribbled notes he stuffed them into his pocket, preferring to extemporize but unsure what the nearly all-black crowd of a thousand knew about King’s condition and what it would be open to hearing from a white politician.
“I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some—some very sad news for all of you. … Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight,” he said from the flatbed truck that served as his platform, his black overcoat pulled tight against the raw cold as his audience gasped as one: “No! No!” He continued, louder but his voice still tremulous, “For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with—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. … What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King—yeah, it’s true—but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”
Kennedy, visibly shaken, as he informs an audience in a black section of Indianapolis, "Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight." Kennedy learned of Dr. King's death when his plane landed in Indianapolis.
His remarks, lasting barely five minutes, were pitch perfect. No one else had Bobby’s credibility in talking about the pain of a loved one gunned down, or about racial reconciliation. It was the first time he had opened up that way about Jack and his listeners sensed it, wanting to comfort him even as he tried to soothe them. “To do it that night was an incredibly powerful and connective and emotionally honest gesture,” said John Lewis, a Freedom Rider and aide to Dr. King in his youth, now a congressman. Lewis knew the strains in Bobby’s relationship with Martin and had taken heat for joining the Kennedy campaign. “I said to some of my friends, ‘Dr. King may be gone but we still have Robert Kennedy.”’ Not only did Bobby prove wrong the mayor and police chief, but the crowd—some carrying knives and homemade bombs—dispersed as he’d asked. Indianapolis was hailed as an island of calm during that Holy Week Uprising that saw riots break out in more than a hundred U.S. cities. And more than any of King’s would-be successors, Kennedy would inherit the slain leader’s mantles of prophecy and advocacy, if only for a few brief weeks until he was also gunned down. The way he had held his inner-city audience spellbound was unimaginable for Bobby’s political rivals—President Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, or Senator Eugene McCarthy. If the King murder and its aftermath put urban unrest back on the front burner of the 1968 campaign, it also reinforced that Bobby was the one Caucasian in America trusted by Black Muslims and black mothers. As the signs in the ghetto said, Kennedy White but Alright.
Whites apparently thought so, too, drawn in by everything from memories of Bobby’s slain brother to a sense that the more they saw him, the more this blue-blooded Bay Stater seemed down-to-earth and authentic. Whatever the reason, the result was that Bobby’s audiences began mirroring the Hoosier State’s mid-American electorate. “The matrons on their porches, with their aprons, pin-curlers in hair; the old ladies of Indiana, with their white pinafores over blue dresses, teeter-tottering in tennis shoes to catch a glimpse of him and mothering him from afar. (‘He looks so tired, the poor boy, why do they make him work so hard?’),” wrote veteran campaign chronicler Teddy White. “Blue-collar workingmen thickened the crowds, a rare sight in daytime political campaigning, and one saw them shyly wipe their hands on overalls or shirts before offering hands to the candidate to shake. One grasped for analogy: “Along the highway, as the car swept along, he was, obviously, The Kennedy, of the Family and Blood Royal, the Prince Coming to Town. In a working-class district he was Robin Hood. At night, in such places as Gary and South Bend on the final weekend, he was the Prince, Robin Hood, and the Pied Piper all combined.”
That biracial appeal paid off at the polls, as Bobby scored a more resounding victory in the Indiana primary than anyone in his camp had hoped at the start. He took 42.3 percent of the vote—compared with 30.7 for the governor and favorite son, Roger Branigin, and 27 for the fair-haired insurgent, Gene McCarthy—and won nine of 11 congressional districts along with 56 of the state’s 63 delegates. Kennedy beat Branigin in his home county, city, and precinct; doubled McCarthy’s take among Catholics, laborers, and younger voters; and won every substantial municipality except the college towns of Bloomington and Evansville. In black districts, he garnered a crushing 85 percent of the votes, on the same night that he thrashed Humphrey nearly two-to-one in the primary in predominantly black Washington, D.C. He also carried the seven largest counties in Indiana where Governor George Wallace, the racial-backlash candidate from Alabama, had done best in 1964.
Milestone two from the 1968 campaign came in the next battleground state, Nebraska, where Kennedy went to head-to-head with McCarthy, with no favorite son or other active candidate muddying the contest. Nebraska was an even less promising venue for Bobby than Indiana, with fewer blacks, more farmers, and closer proximity to McCarthy’s home in Minnesota. Of all 50 states, Nebraska was where John Kennedy lost to Richard Nixon by the widest margin in 1960. But the same mystical connection that JFK developed in 1960 with the coal miners of West Virginia, Bobby forged eight years later with the farmers of Nebraska. One day he was giving a talk and the wind blew away his text. Bobby: “There goes my farm program.” His listeners loved it. In Wahoo, on the last day of campaigning, Bobby pointed to a theater marquee reading The Happiest Millionaire and told his audience, “I hope that’s what you will make me tomorrow.” More smiles, from the crowd and the candidate. “There was a kind of communication between him and, you know, almost Grant Wood kind of characters in a sense—leather skinned, very hard working people, very traditional values … the last people in the world you would imagine Robert Kennedy to have any relationship with,” said Jeff Greenfield, an RFK speechwriter who was there. Farmers had “the sense that he was somehow not a part of all those gray, faceless, three-button-suited, crew-cut people that were responsible for a lot of what had driven them crazy.”
Robert F. Kennedy is shown touring the Mississippi Delta near Greenville, April 11, 1967, on an anti-poverty investigation.
They were right. Strip away the Kennedy name and privileges, and Bobby really was more like the Americans whose votes he sought than were the professorial Gene McCarthy, the introverted Richard Nixon, and the exasperatingly exuberant Hubert Humphrey. Bobby was smart but as anti-intellectual as any redneck. He relished sports, lacked patience, and loved God. His contradictions were in full view. Pulled by compassion to help the dispossessed, he was tempered by pragmatism and able to see the limits of government. He was less of a conventional politician than McCarthy, even if the college whiz kids rallying around McCarthy couldn’t see it, and he offered a palette of bold colors inaccessible to the pallid Humphrey and Nixon. When he was bored, his facial expression showed it, the same as when he was angry. What tied everything together for Bobby, as for most adults in this most youthful of nations, was his being crazy about kids. They sensed his magic and loved him back. At his best, the way he was in Nebraska, Bobby Kennedy was open and uncomplicated. And, for the first time in this long campaign, he was having fun.
Nebraskans also knew, the way most of us have forgotten, that before his days as a racial healer and progressive knight, there was a decidedly different Bobby Kennedy. Our favorite liberal was nurtured on the rightist orthodoxies of his dynasty-building father and started his public life as counsel to the left-baiting, table-thumping Senator Joseph McCarthy. That younger RFK was a bare-knuckled political operative who masterminded his brother’s whatever-it-takes bids for senator and president. As attorney general, Kennedy OK’d FBI wiretaps of Martin King, whom he never trusted. Even guerrilla warfare was in his toolkit: Bobby masterminded cloak-and-dagger operations against Communist Cuba that included blowing up railroad bridges, sabotaging crops, and plotting the elimination of President Fidel Castro. His steely conservatism would make him an idol to a young Rudolph Giuliani and younger Karl Rove. It also assured him acolytes in unlikely places like Nebraska.
The proof of the chemistry he’d created came on primary day, May 14, when an impressive 51.7 percent of Democratic Cornhuskers pulled their levers for Bobby, compared with McCarthy’s 31.2 percent, Humphrey’s 7.4 percent, and 5.6 percent for LBJ. That made the New Englander two for two in the Midwest, against his Midwestern rivals.
His third and last hurrah came in California, where he demonstrated that he hadn’t just been playing conventional divide-and-conquer politics in his pitches to Indiana blacks and Nebraska farmers. The Golden State had recently surpassed New York as the most populous state, and it had always been the most representative demographically and politically. It was going through the same agitation in 1968 as the rest of the nation, over a war that still roiled, riot-torn cities, and tensions between the old and new in everything from electioneering to hairstyles. The question was which presidential aspirant could restore both peace and harmony. Was it law-and-order types like California’s governor, Ronald Reagan, and its former senator, Richard Nixon? Or could it be Bobby Kennedy, whose fans imagined him reconciling warring factions here and in Vietnam even as his haters saw him as a juvenile delinquent in a suit? It had come down to a battle not just between right and left, but between despair and hope.
Half of his California advisers implored him to tone things down. Hold fewer rallies in the cities with less crowd frenzy, they said, and focus more on the white working-class Democrats who were escaping to the exurbs. Bobby might have given or taken that same advice in 1960, but not now. He might go down in California, but he’d go down swinging, not playing it safe the way he just had in the one primary he lost, in Oregon. “The issues,” he told one journalist, “are more important than me now.” In the last weeks he imported longtime confidants including his brother-in-law Steve Smith and his Justice Department friend John Seigenthaler, displacing although not replacing the Californians who had been in charge. He also fell back on his instincts, doing more, not less, barnstorming in strongholds of Mexican Americans, urban blacks, wage-earning whites, and other elements of the coalition into whose hands he was thrusting his fate. At each appearance, Bobby made clear not just that he was the only politician in that season of strife who was embraced on both sides of the railroad tracks—but that only he was willing to tell each side not merely what it wanted to hear but what it needed to know.
Alfred Pilsmore, left, 84-year-old Oglala Sioux Indian, discusses Indian needs with Robert F. Kennedy at the poverty-ridden Calico Indian village on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, April 16, 1968.
His fist was once again pounding his open palm, as fans in Los Angeles yelled “Sock it to ’em, Bobby!” He sounded his renewed theme at a reception at the Beverly Hilton Hotel: “If I died in Oregon, I hope Los Angeles is Resurrection City.” In Oakland, at a secret midnight session with Black Panthers and other minority activists, he listened to them vent in a way he hadn’t been able to in his earlier, angrier years. “These meetings aren’t very attractive,” Bobby said. “They need to tell people off. They need to tell me off.” When that bawling-out got especially nasty, a black Kennedy aide tried to intervene, but the candidate wouldn’t let him: “This is between them and me.”
Buoyed by unprecedented turnouts and majorities in black and Mexican American districts, in the end Kennedy scored a clear-cut victory with 46.3 percent of the vote, compared to McCarthy’s 41.8 and 12 percent for unpledged delegates. The trend was encouraging enough for him go on TV and quietly claim victory, and for journalists and friends gathered in the suite across the hall to start the party. For the first time since he’d jumped in, Bobby believed he could do it. The dream—“Make room for the next leader of the free world,” he’d mockingly say as he sprinted from hotel showers wrapped in a towel—now seemed less distant. That very night he held a series of one-on-ones with his trusted lieutenants, and began charting plans for the race ahead before an assassin halted his campaign of conciliation.
His death didn’t end our fascination with Bobby Kennedy, however, as we still debate the grand what-ifs. Could he have won the Democratic nomination and been elected president if he had lived? Would he have carried his raw and untested idealism into the White House and sustained it in ways that defied his brother and could have renewed America? Unlike Jack, Bobby died before he had a chance to deliver or to disappoint. That the path led instead to President Richard Nixon, whose cynicism made him Bobby’s polar opposite, adds to the heartache. Bobby Kennedy’s history hints at more promise than even his boosters realized at the time of his death, because he drew such a wide range of Americans to his cause. This man, who grew up mingling with queens, popes, and Hollywood idols, forged bonds not just with Negroes, Chicanos, and American Indians, but with the firemen and bricklayers a later generation would call “Reagan Democrats.” Who else could claim concurrent friendships with the student radical Tom Hayden and the establishment mainstay Richard Daley? What other standard bearer, then or since, offered his blend of tenaciousness and gentleness?
His era’s most nostalgia-wrapped figure, Bobby was also its most avant-garde. He embodied the classic Kennedy blend of godawful disagreeable and transcendent good. But he was more passionate than his brother the president, more provocative, and more accessible. Half Che Guevara, half Niccolò Machiavelli, Bobby was a shaker-upper dedicated to the art of the possible. He laid claim to a rare piece of political ground as a pragmatic idealist. His ideological progression was inspiring if confounding. Instead of following a straight line from conservative to liberal, he had skipped straight to revolutionary. The man who had waged a holy war against Cuban Communists answered, “I know it,” when a friend opined that he “should be in the hills with Castro and Che.” He wrote that “a revolution is coming—a revolution that will be peaceful if we are wise enough, compassionate if we care enough, successful if we are fortunate enough, but a revolution that is coming whether we will it or not.” His political evolution also ran counter to the normal pattern of Americans’ becoming more cynical as they age, the way Ronald Reagan did in going from card-carrying New Dealer to icon of the right.
The insurgent had always been there in Bobby. He had seen close up the darkest sides of this country’s underbelly, from the Mob to the Teamsters, so his optimism was never starry-eyed. He’d experienced America’s problems and internalized what he had seen and felt. He told Native Americans in Oklahoma that he wished he were an Indian. He meant it no less when he said the same thing to sugarcane cutters in Brazil, blacks in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and children everywhere. In today’s derisive political context he’d be decried as a flip-flopper. But his transformation was heartfelt and transcended politics, as muckraker Jack Newfield saw, reflecting a “private, internal change, from rigidity to existential doubt, from coldness to an intuitive sensitivity for sorrow and pain, from one-dimensional competitiveness to fatalism, from football to poetry, from Irish-Catholic Boston’s political clubhouses to the unknown.” For those who knew him as a boy it seemed less a remake than a purposeful return to an earlier gentleness, when he had been the bashful runt of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s litter.
Conveniently for Bobby, America was undergoing its own upheaval in the mid-1960s that was not unlike today’s. An old politics dominated by big-city machines and labor unions was yielding to a new one whose touchstones were television, grassroots organizing, and a distrust of anything old. The Cold War and New Deal seemed archaic to the generation of the Thaw and the New Left. Race riots were igniting the cities and Vietnam was widening the split between parents and children. Even the Catholic Church was riven and trying to reform. There was no national consensus anymore—but there were few figures in American politics more able and determined to bridge the chasm between the alienated and the mainstream than Bobby, who had lived on both sides. He sensed the changes early and they pulled him ahead even as he gave them voice and direction. He was halfway between the old and new, adjusting on the run and with conviction. That he could change so substantially and convincingly over the course of his brief public life helped restore a changing America’s faith in redemption.