Robert Kennedy’s Remarkable Speech At Creighton University

Nebraska in 1968 was critical because it was one of only fifteen 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.

Since only fifteen states held primaries, that meant that only 900 delegates out of 2,600 were selected in the primaries. (1) 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 Johnson’s 49%. The incumbent president had been expected to win by a wide margin in the Granite State.

Partially as a result of his poor showing in New Hampshire, Johnson surprised the country with his announcement on March 31 that: “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey began to lay the foundation for his own presidential campaign shortly after Johnson withdrew.

Meanwhile, 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.” (2)

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!”(3)

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 10,000. (4)

The New York Senator’s most interesting and controversial campaign appearance was at Creighton University on May 13, 1968 on a beautiful spring day. Kennedy delivered his speech around lunch time on the then eastern edge of the campus. It was estimated that this campaign stop was attended by approximately 4,000 people, who largely consisted of middle class, white students.

Kennedy’s speech was initially 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: “The worst sin is to be passive in political matters. A college education gives you a license to avoid the problems of the underprivileged. Or it can give you the knowledge to see your obligation to get involved. This is an important campaign, more important for your generation than for the older one. Now we have the capacity to destroy all mankind. We must decide whether man can survive.” (5)

Kennedy’s opening remarks drew a good round of applause and then the New York Senator opened up the event for questions. It all began on a jocular note in which Kennedy showed his considerable charm and humor — which was a staple of his campaign stops in Nebraska.

After one of the students asked him what differentiated himself from McCarthy, Kennedy quipped: “Charm, sense of humor. I think he’s occasionally ruthless.” (Kennedy had a reputation for being ruthless when he was his brother Jack’s campaign manager and Attorney General.) Kennedy added: “I don’t mean that. I don’t want a headline, Kennedy charges McCarthy. I’m the one who is ruthless.”

After more playful exchanges, Kennedy changed the subject to the draft. Things then 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 exchange followed. Kennedy: “In some parts of the country, a high school graduate has only a fifty-fifty chance of having a good eighth grade education. Negroes have twice as much chance to be drafted because, in many cases, they can’t attend college. “(6)

He went on: “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?” This elicited boos from the audience again. Kennedy continued: “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?(7) We can’t possibly go on as we are.”

A student then asked: “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.(8) You should be the last people to accept it in this country. So there!” (9)

Kennedy went on to say: “I think we should improve life in the United States. Will you work with me to bring whites and black together, to bring decent jobs, to bring decent housing for all?” Most of the students yelled yes, but there was a smattering of loud no responses. Kennedy went on: “Work with me so the next generation of black people has a better opportunity than you have had.” (10)

Dave Thompson of the Omaha World Herald wrote that the students appeared “stunned” by what he called Kennedy’s “stinging remarks.” The Washington Post reported that by the end of this appearance, Kennedy had “shamed the Creighton students into a red faced silence”

Kennedy’s passionate and unscripted remarks at Creighton reflected his strong opposition to draft deferments. He believed that college draft deferments were unjust due to his own family’s history of military service and sacrifice.

Jack was badly injured in 1943 when PT-109 collided with a Japanese destroyer. Joseph, Jr. was killed in a plane explosion in 1944 over the English Channel while participating in a dangerous mission. Robert himself volunteered for duty in the Navy when he was seventeen years old and was anxious to be deployed overseas. As it turned out, Robert did stateside duty in the Navy and received an honorable discharge in 1946.

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, as 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.

The campaign moved on to Oregon for a May 28 primary that McCarthy won 44% to 38%. It was the first loss for any of the Kennedy brothers after 27 consecutive electoral victories. Kennedy rebounded from that loss to beat McCarthy in California and South Dakota on June 4. On that evening, Kennedy and his staff were already planning ahead for the crucial New York primary on June 18.

As we all know, Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet that night in Los Angeles. One of the great what ifs of history is: 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, historians Larry Tye and Thurston Clarke have discovered that influential Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had promised to endorse Kennedy if he were to win the crucial California primary on June 4. (11) (12) 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. The Democratic Party would’ve been united in support of Kennedy since Humphrey had agreed to campaign for him if he was the Democratic nominee. As it was, Nixon defeated Humphrey by a mere half of a percentage point in the popular vote in November 1968. (That’s equivalent to Al Gore’s margin of victory over George W. Bush in the popular vote in 2000.) A Democratic party united behind Kennedy would’ve won the general election.

If Kennedy had been elected, he would have ended the Vietnam War much earlier than Nixon did. Needless to say, that would have saved thousands of lives.

Kennedy at Creighton — Footnotes

  1. Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy and the Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism (New York: Anchor Book 2004), 212.

2. “Robert Kennedy’s Catholicism was part of his personal life and politics,” CatholicPhilly.com, June 11, 2008.

3. Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 187–188.

4. Jules Witcover, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy, (New York: William Morrow, 1969), 163.

David Halberstam, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, (New York: Random House, 1968), 158.

5. “RFK, Creightonians Banter Draft Issue,” The Creightonian, May 17, 1968, 3.

6. ““RFK, Creightonians Banter Draft Issue,” The Creightonian, May 17, 1968, 3.

7. Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 190.

8. “Kennedy Scolds Students On War,” New York Times, May 14, 1968, 31.

9. “Get Off Your Duff, RFK Tells C.U. Youth,” Omaha World Herald, May 14, 1968, 4.

10. “Get Off Your Duff, RFK Tells C.U. Youth,” Omaha World Herald, May 14, 1968, 5.

11. “Robert Kennedy was a raw idealist cut down just when the presidency seemed within reach,” USA Today, June 15, 2018.

12. Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 269–270.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dennis P. Crawford graduated with a B.A. degree from Creighton University in 1982 and a J.D. degree from The Catholic University of America in 1985. Crawford has practiced personal injury and workers compensation law in the Lincoln, Nebraska area since 1986. He was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in Nebraska CD01 in 2014 and served as Second Associate Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party between 2012 and 2016. The author has been married to Diane since 1984 and they have three adult children.

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Dennis Crawford

Dennis Crawford

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I’m a trial lawyer, defender of democracy and a sports fan.