Robert Kennedy’s Remarkable Campaign Stop At Creighton University
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. The Hoosier state was make or break for Kennedy — and there were no guarantees he would win. McCarthy was riding a strong wave of momentum from his near upset in New Hampshire and a popular Democratic governor was on the ballot as a stalking horse for Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
One of Kennedy’s many good qualities was just his sheer political courage. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and disagree with the voters at his events. It was the genesis of what was later described by John McCain as “straight talk” in the 2000 and 2008 presidential election campaign cycles.
One of the key factors underlying Kennedy’s straight talk was that he was a devout Catholic. Jerald Podair, a history and American studies professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin wrote that: “Kennedy viewed his faith as a summons to heal the world, making it a more equal and just place. It was…Kennedy’s firmly believed Catholic view that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”
At a campaign stop at Indiana University Medical School, Kennedy gave a group of privileged medical students a strong dose of candor. When he addressed this largely hostile crowd, Kennedy came out for universal health coverage. During the contentious question and answer session that followed his speech, Kennedy was asked where the money was going to come from to pay for his proposed programs. He answered bluntly: “From you!” He then pointed at various students in the hall and kept shouting: “From you!…You!…You…You!”
Despite his sometimes blunt rhetoric, Kennedy won the Indiana primary with 42% of the vote. The 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 critical Nebraska primary was one week later on May 14. Once again, Kennedy campaigned hard — he visited 25 counties and campaigned in every town or city with a population in excess of 8,000. To me, the most interesting campaign stop he made was at Creighton University on the day before election day.
I’m fascinated by the Creighton event because this Omaha Jesuit university is a special place for me. I attended Creighton as an undergraduate between 1978 and 1982. I met my wife there. In addition, my two sisters and two brother-in-laws attended Creighton at some point when I was there. My family’s experience at Creighton was so rewarding that my oldest daughter attended Creighton and graduated in 2009.
I can tell you that between 1978–82, the Creighton student body largely consisted of upper middle class students from the midwest. We were a bit of a cosseted and insulated group of people but we were earnest and well meaning. My fellow students that I have maintained contact with have gone on to achieve great things and many of them have been involved in some aspect of public service. I suspect the Creighton students of 1968 were pretty similar to the ones I attended college with 10 or more years later.
Kennedy gave a speech on the eastern edge of the campus that was attended by an estimated 4,000 people. That is truly remarkable. I doubt we could have convinced 40 students to attend a political event at Creighton when I attended school there. During my time at Creighton, most students weren’t very interested in politics. The economy was performing poorly and most of us were just interested in getting a good job after we graduated.
Kennedy’s speech was well received because his address echoed the Jesuit message that one’s education should be seen as a tool for improving the lives of the poor. Nonetheless, things got more interesting when Kennedy came out for replacing the student deferment aspect of the draft with a lottery system. After hearing some boos from the students, Kennedy asked for a show of hands asking the students to indicate if they supported student deferments. Most of the hands went up.
Kennedy responded to this show of hands passionately and this remarkable exchanged followed.
Kennedy: “How can you possibly say …. Look around you. How many Black faces do you see here? How many American Indians? How many Mexican Americans? The fact is, if you look at any regiment or division of paratroopers in Vietnam, 45% of them are Black. How can you accept that? What I don’t understand is that you don’t even debate these things among yourselves. You’re the most exclusive minority in the world. Are you going to sit on your duffs and do nothing? Or just carry signs and protest?”
A student: “But isn’t the army one way of getting people out of the ghettos … and solving the ghetto problem?”
Kennedy was shocked and shot back: “Here, at a Catholic university, how can you say that we can deal with the problems of the poor by sending them to Vietnam? There is a great moral force in the United States about the wrongs of the Federal Government and all the mistakes Lyndon Johnson has made, and how Congress has failed to pass legislation dealing with civil rights. And yet, when it comes down to yourselves and your own individual lives, then you say students should be draft-deferred.”
The Washington Post reported that by the end of this appearance, Kennedy had “shamed the Creighton students into a red faced silence”
Kennedy’s heated exchange at Creighton didn’t hurt him. The next day, 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. Needless to say, that would have saved thousands of lives.