Saturday, May 30, 2020

RFK and the Decision to Run for President

Looking back more than half a century, most Americans know that Bobby Kennedy was shot while running for president, but not all realize that it was an agonizing decision, that he was late to the game, and that he had a great chance of being victorious. Kennedy could be a polarizing figure. Because he worked tirelessly and held staunchly to his beliefs, those who didn't agree with him though him ruthless and inflexible. However, those who agreed with his vision for a better America adored him and were intensely devoted to him.

Many Americans to this day remember Robert F Kennedy as the best president we never had, but he almost didn't even run in 1968. Most of his family and friends encouraged him to wait until 1972, so what changed his mind?

John and Robert Kennedy
John F Kennedy said his brother Robert was, "A puritan, absolutely incorruptible. Then he has this terrific executive energy." This summary of Bobby demonstrates why he struggled with the decision to run for president. He needed to know that it was the right thing to do, but answering that questions wasn't simple. Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded JFK was a sitting president and member of Kennedy's own party. It would take a lot to justify dividing the democratic party to run against him.

Bobby believed that Johnson was throwing away the progress that had been made during JFK's administration. "He knows all about politics and nothing about human beings," he succinctly described Johnson. As New York's junior senator, RFK had traveled around the country visiting the poor. Whether it was in Brooklyn, the Mississippi delta, Indian reservations, or migrant worker camps in California, Bobby found a way to connect to the people in a way that Lyndon Johnson never could - not that he ever tried.

RFK with Charles Evers
But that was not enough to cause Bobby to run for president in 1968. He couldn't divide the party because of personal dislike and disagreement. But there was also the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy had already taken the step of defying the party norm to run against the president on an anti-war platform. He was getting more support than many had suspected he would, and the Kennedy crew knew that Bobby would be even more popular. Except that it meant Bobby would be choosing to divide the party even further.

Neither McCarthy nor Johnson had the relationship with the poor and downtrodden like Kennedy. Johnson's failure to react to race riots in 1967 helped prompt Bobby into action. The people dying of violence and hunger were not just numbers to him, and when he spoke people knew he really cared. Could he leave them to another four years of Johnson policy? Was McCarthy likely to be better? Certainly, republican challenger, Richard Nixon, was not going to be a champion for the black or the poor.

Then the Tet Offensive began in January 1968. More than 100 cities and camps in South Vietnam were attacked, killing American soldiers and demonstrating the weakness of their position after years of involvement. RFK was livid that the lives of young - and primarily poor - men were being wasted on a war that the South Vietnamese didn't seem to be as invested in as they should have been. The vulnerability of US troops in Vietnam exposed the truth of how far from victory they really were. Bobby believed these young men deserved to be brought home.

RFK and Jackie after JFK assassination
Still, the decision wasn't simple. Some encouraged RFK to run while his political capital gained from the memory of his brother was high. Others thought he might have more accomplishments of his own to run on by 1972. Any political capital he had from any source might be lost if he ran but didn't win. He felt that he had a duty to run because it was the right thing to do to try make a positive difference, because he couldn't in good conscience endorse Johnson or McCarthy, and because he wanted to help people. The ambition to help others was always a greater incentive to action with Bobby Kennedy than political strategy. "Let's face it," he said to one reporter, "I appeal best to people who have problems."

In 1960, John F Kennedy had announced his intention to run for president in the caucus room of the Old Senate Building. On March 16, 1968, in the same room and at the same age, Robert F Kennedy did the same. Afterward, Jacqueline Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger, "Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby? The same thing that happened to Jack."

Additional Suggested Reading:

Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr
85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy by Jules Witcover
The Last Campaign: Robert F Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clarke

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