Jeff Greenfield Interview On Robert Kennedy’s Campaign In Nebraska
I interviewed Jeff Greenfield on December 27, 2022 about the 1968 Nebraska primary. Greenfield was one of Robert F. Kennedy’s speechwriters. He went on to a long and distinguished career in the media and is the author of many books and articles.
The interview wasn’t really much of a question and answer session. Greenfield just wanted to talk about his experiences working for Kennedy and the Nebraska campaign. Throughout the interview, Greenfield was gracious and friendly.
In the interview, Greenfield makes reference to Kennedy’s whistle stop tour across Nebraska. On April 27, 1968, Kennedy took a train tour of Nebraska where he gave speeches in eleven towns and was seen by anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 people.
The campaign stops at Chadron, Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota occurred on April 16, 1968.
The interview has been slightly edited for clarity but it accurately reflects Greenfield’s remarks.
“I think I have a real warm spot in my heart for that primary. It was probably the most enjoyable. It had a whole kind of old fashioned aspect of how America used to perform in the pre-TV age.
Particularly more than anything else it was the whistle stop day. It was the highlight of the whole campaign. It was the best day of the campaign. The whistle stop began in Indiana. You got this New York Senator, a Washington guy who was far was from the mid west as you could imagine a character.
Nebraska was rural based. It was at first glance, it wouldn’t fit Bobby at all. He didn’t have a choice. He announced so late, there were only a handful of primaries open to him. Of course, Nebraska was one.
The decision was made to take this campaign through the state winding up in Omaha, stopping at many small towns. It infused the campaign. I tell you the irony. When he announced, Hubert Humphrey talked about the politics of joy. Kennedy criticized that line. How can you talk about the politics of joy with the race riots and the war in Vietnam?
I don’t think any of these towns had seen a major presidential candidate come through in a pretty long time. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt did or maybe Truman did. You’re coming through towns who hadn’t seen anything like this. What you got was spontaneous, I’m sure there were advance men….spontaneous in the sense this wasn’t choregraphed from Washington or campaign headquarters. You come into town and the high school bands would come out.
I can remember one place where it was something like Serbo-Croatian day. I’m not completely sure about the nationality, though. People were dressed in the outfits of that particular part of the world. I remember him asking how many people here are Serbo-Croatians. I may have this wrong. It’s been fifty years on.
You have all of this traditional community celebration. Conservatives talk about much more than liberals. The real America. Here he was going through about as a real America as you could find. Small town Nebraska farm country. That’s pretty basic. He was reveling in it. There was a sense that people were attracted to him. This is one of those odd bits of political alchemy. What did these people see in this wealthy, powerful, east coast Catholic guy? But there was a real connection going on — as the voted showed.
It might have had something to do with that he was not a conventional politician by any means. It may have been Kennedy nostalgia from 1960. There was a whole day of that energy come into these little towns. It was a connection going on. It spilled over into the rally in Omaha. I’m sure he had a pretty good crowd there. One of them didn’t like him much. And he started heckling Bobby. And Kennedy turned to his wife. He said, “Ethel, I don’t think the vote in Omaha is going to be unanimous.”
At the end of the speech, which was something he did all through the campaign, which was ask for questions. So at the end of the speech, he turned to the heckler. He said: “What do you want to say?” I don’t remember what followed. I remember him doing that, unlike, asking the police to throw him. And he was buoyant. He was enjoying himself. I think the crowd got that, too.
The night of the California primary, he won also a big victory in South Dakota. I was on that trip to South Dakota on April 16. I tried to bang out a speech for Pine Ridge. That’s a whole other story.
That’s really my feeling about Nebraska. It was one of those best days that worked.
There’s one thing I want to mention to you. The ads that he ran in Nebraska. Here’s the point to make. The first line in one of those speeches is he never milked a cow. He’s a man of cities. But he understands. So, instead of him putting on overalls and trying to pretend some obviously non-existent link to agriculture — they acknowledged this is who he is. He understands your problems. But don’t think we’re trying to sell you this guy as farmer Bobby. That’s an interesting way to begin an ad in Nebraska. He’s never milked a cow. He’s a man of the cities.
I’ll tell you what else he would do. But he used to go through these farm counties and explain he’s a one man price support family. Think of the amount of milk my family drinks. Think of the amount of corn we eat. Think of the amount of bread and meat. One of things he did throughout the campaign was he sort of mocked the pretensions of normal political people.
Mitt Romney may have been the best case. Everywhere place he goes was the best place. The trees were the right height. Or whatever.
Bobby would play. He would plead for sympathy. “Do you really want to see the faces of my children if you don’t vote for me? Think of those poor children. “
But certainly the willingness of the ads to be honest and say look we’re not going to bullshit you about this stuff. It would be ludicrous. You would know it was false.
There were other ads where he sat with women. And just talked.
Q: Can we ask you about Robert F. Kennedy the man? What was he like to work for as a boss?
A: The best thing about working for him was that he drilled down. He wouldn’t take the conventional answer. He would say things like where did you find this. He was beyond like a conventional liberal. It was a pleasure. He didn’t think you should just spend more money on schools. He thought schools had to be restructured.
He didn’t like welfare because he thought it demeaned the recipients and angered the taxpayers. He wanted to know why there weren’t jobs for people. He would ask much more fundamental questions.
He wasn’t a yeller. If you didn’t something he didn’t like, you would get the steely blues. Those blue eyes. He didn’t scream. Or yell at you.
Q: Lincoln Star reporter Don Walton said that Kennedy was very inquisitive. He said it was like Kennedy interviewed you. Walton said that Kennedy was constantly asking him about Nebraska and what was on the voters’ minds.
Greenfield: I think that’s very accurate. He was trying to drill down to the core.
The first day I was working for his Senate office, he had me follow him to a Senate Education Committee hearing. This was just two years after federal aide to education had passed. He was asking the head of this department: He was saying in effect what are we doing with this money? How come the IQs of black kids between third and sixth grade drop? What are we not doing? Instead of saying oh great let’s spend 10% more or 20% more. No. No. What are the schools doing? Or not doing? He was just very unconventional.
Some of the speeches he gave. He probably gave them in Nebraska. He was skeptical about big government in the broadest sense. He liked community control. The whole Bedford-Stuyvesant program was about putting power back down at the grass roots level.
That’s what he was like.”