Don Walton Remembers: Robert Kennedy In Nebraska In 1968
In 1968, Nebraska was critical because it was one of only thirteen states that held a presidential primary election. In the era before the 1972 reforms which required the vast majority of states to hold primary elections, most delegates were chosen by party insiders and leaders in caucuses and conventions which they controlled. Before the 1972 election cycle, usually only 25% to 33% of the convention delegates were chosen in primaries. Presidential candidates ran in primary elections to prove to the party bosses that they were electable in the general election. They hoped that a series of victories in the primaries would convince these influential party leaders to support their candidacy.
The Democratic nomination fight in 1968 was dominated by the war in Vietnam. Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy announced his candidacy for the presidency in late 1967 in what looked like a quixotic bid to take out President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy shocked the world by winning 42% of the vote in the March 12 New Hampshire primary to LBJ’s 49%. Johnson had been expected to win by a wide margin in the Granite State.
Robert Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy on March 16, 1968 and his first major primary contest was in Indiana on May 7. Kennedy campaigned hard in Indiana and won that primary with 42% of the vote. A favorite son candidate who supported Hubert Humphrey finished second with 31% and McCarthy finished last with 27%. Kennedy won with a remarkable coalition of blue collar whites, farmers and urban minorities.
The Nebraska primary was one week later on May 14. Nevertheless, Kennedy had made numerous campaign stops in Nebraska before the Indiana primary beginning on March 28. By election day in Nebraska, Kennedy had campaigned in 25 counties and in every town with a population over 8,000.
Long time Lincoln Star and Lincoln Journal Star reporter Don Walton extensively covered Kennedy’s campaign in Nebraska. Don is truly the dean of the Nebraska press corps. Walton has been covering politics in Nebraska since 1960. He has interviewed John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush. He has covered numerous other presidents and presidential candidates when they have visited Nebraska.
Perhaps the highlight of Don’s long career as a reporter was when he covered Kennedy’s 1968 campaign in Nebraska. He was kind enough to visit with me about it recently over coffee at The Mill.
Walton’s first encounter with Kennedy was on April 20 at a cheese factory in Wakefield. Kennedy made a one day swing through northeast Nebraska that day. After leaving the factory, Don was invited by the Kennedy campaign to ride with the candidate for about one hour while he was transported to the Norfolk airport. Kennedy asked aide Fred Dutton to buy a six pack of beer and the party drank beer and ate cheese from the factory during the trip to Norfolk.
Don remembers Kennedy saying to him: “I will open the beer and you will cut the cheese.” Because they didn’t have any utensils in the car, Kennedy gave Don the beer opener and he cut up a big cheese ball with it. What Walton remembers best about this interview was when Kennedy asked him: “Why do the people of Nebraska support the war?” Don admits that he didn’t really have a good answer but he said Kennedy asked as many questions as he answered. Don said the war was always on Kennedy’s mind.
Walton’s best memory of the 1968 campaign was Kennedy’s appearance in Beatrice on May 10 — just four days before the crucial election. It was one stop on Kennedy’s final five day whirlwind tour of the state. Walton chose to drive his own car to Beatrice rather than be on the press bus because this would give him more freedom. Don emphasized that you couldn’t do this today due to security concerns.
After Kennedy addressed 3,000 supporters at Charles Park in downtown Beatrice, the press bus went to the next announced campaign stop. Walton took the initiative of following the Kennedy motorcade. Don was surprised when Kennedy went to what is now known as the Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC.) This is a facility where intellectually disabled people have been cared for since 1887.
Walton followed Kennedy to the entrance to BSDC, where the superintendent of the facility asked: “Would you like to see the wards?” Kennedy replied: “I would like to see the children.”
During this same exchange, Walton heard Kennedy insist that his dog Freckles be allowed to enter the facility. The BSDC staffer at the door initially told Kennedy dogs weren’t allowed but he relented when Kennedy convinced him the residents would love the dog. Don took the liberty of touring the facility with the Kennedy entourage.
After Kennedy entered BSDC, the residents had no idea who he was but they did love Freckles. While he was there, Kennedy spent most of his time with the children. Perhaps the most moving moment for Walton was when the candidate cradled two hydrocephalic babies. He didn’t hold them — he gave them love. Don said this was a glimpse of the real Robert F. Kennedy.
Here is how Walton described Kennedy’s remarkable visit to BSDC in an article he wrote for the Lincoln Journal Star on May 4, 2008:
“One personal anecdote from that 1968 campaign.
On a mild spring day, Kennedy swept across southeastern Nebraska, drawing big crowds in downtown squares, holding rallies in public parks.
As his campaign caravan, including the press bus, set out from Beatrice for the next town on the schedule, Kennedy’s car veered off.
Driving my own car that day in order to have more freedom of movement than riding the press bus, I followed the Kennedy car, not knowing where it was going.
Kennedy’s vehicle came to an unscheduled stop at the state institution that housed severely handicapped people described at the time as “mentally retarded.”
I parked and went inside with him.
Ignoring a staff member’s declaration at the door that dogs were not allowed inside the institution, Kennedy brought his dog, Freckles, with him.
Inside, Kennedy was hugged by people who had no idea who he was.
And the children who lived there were overjoyed to see the dog.
Kennedy walked through the entire building, asking about various residents he saw.
He reached out, touched hands, patted heads.
And for a long minute or two he held a hydrocephalic baby in his arms.
It was a personal and private act, all the more revealing and meaningful because it was out of sight of the press and cameras who had been sent ahead to the next stop.”
Don’s impression of Robert Kennedy the man was that he was just very inquisitive. He was constantly asking questions to learn more about the voters and their concerns. He also said Kennedy was a very hard worker. Walton said that he always looked sleep deprived and had blood shot eyes due to a lack of sleep. (The historians who have written about Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 have said the same thing.)
Kennedy’s hard work paid off — he beat McCarthy decisively by a 52% to 31% margin. Once again, like he did in Indiana, Kennedy did well with blue collar whites, farmers and urban voters. The New York Senator carried 60% of the farm vote and 60% of the blue collar vote. Kennedy carried 88 out of 93 counties. It was an impressive victory that made a strong case for his electability in the general election cycle.
As we all know, Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet a few weeks later in Los Angeles. One of the great what ifs of history was what if Kennedy had lived.
There were no guarantees he would’ve won the Democratic nomination over Hubert Humphrey. The Vice President had played the inside game very well and held the lead in the delegate count by June 1968. Nevertheless, historian Thurston Clarke discovered that influential Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had promised to endorse Kennedy if he were to win the crucial California primary on June 4. That might have opened the door to Kennedy winning the nomination.
I’m convinced that Kennedy would’ve defeated Richard Nixon in the general election. As it was, Nixon defeated Humphrey by a mere 1/2 of a percentage point in the popular vote in November 1968. If Kennedy had been elected, he would’ve ended the Vietnam War much earlier than Nixon did. As Walton told me at our interview, that would have saved thousands of lives.