What If Robert F. Kennedy Had Lived?

After Robert Kennedy decisively defeated Eugene McCarthy in Nebraska, the campaign moved on to Oregon for a May 28 primary. McCarthy won the Oregon primary by a 44 percent to 38 percent margin. The Oregon electorate was more favorable to McCarthy since it largely consisted of middle class white voters. It was the first loss for any of the Kennedy brothers after twenty seven consecutive electoral victories.

Robert Kennedy rebounded from that loss to defeat McCarthy in California and South Dakota on June 4. The California win was especially significant because California had a unique winner take all rule for the delegates. Kennedy carried South Dakota with strong support from the Native-American vote.

Kennedy and his supporters were jubilant in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that night. Senior Advisor Larry O’Brien was upbeat and said: “The nomination is within our grasp. But it’s not locked up.” For the first time since he announced for president, Kennedy believed he could win. “Make room for the next leader of the free world,” he quipped. Presumptive Republican nominee Richard Nixon told his family: “It sure looks like we’ll be going against Bobby,”

Despite Kennedy’s impressive showing, he still trailed Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the all important delegate count. The delegate breakdown was as follows:

Humphrey 994

Kennedy 524.5

McCarthy 204

Undecided 872

The magic number needed to clinch the nomination was 1,312.

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 American history is: What if Kennedy had lived?

In order to win the nomination, Kennedy would have had to win the bulk of the undecided delegates and peel away some delegates who were committed to Humphrey and McCarthy. The party leaders who controlled the vast majority of the remaining delegates would have had to be convinced to support Kennedy.

Perhaps the most important party leader was Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who controlled the Illinois delegation. In addition, Daley had sufficient influence to convince party leaders outside of Illinois to back Kennedy. Early in the campaign, Kennedy had said: “Dick Daley is the ballgame.”

Evidence has emerged in the last several years that Daley planned to endorse Kennedy if he won the California primary. On the evening of June 4, Kennedy called his long time friend and advisor Kenny O’Donnell who was in Washington with Daley ally and Illinois U.S. House member Dan Rostenkowski. O’Donnell told Kennedy that was going to win the nomination. Kennedy said: “I think I may.”

The New York Senator then asked Rostenkowski for an endorsement. Rostenkowski replied: “Daley is my guy. I do what Daley tells me….You win California, you get Daley, we all come along.” Both O’Donnell and Rostenkowski assured Kennedy that the Illinois delegation would support him. O’Donnell wrapped up the conversation and said: “Bobby, you did it, you son of a bitch! See you tomorrow.”

The Kennedy campaign was in a good position to take advantage of a Daley endorsement since they already had a detailed campaign plan ready to roll out after June 4. The first move was to encourage soft McCarthy supporters to defect to the Kennedy camp. Anti-war activist and McCarthy supporter Allard Lowenstein planned to switch his support to Kennedy if he won the California primary. Sam Brown — who had organized McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign- and several other senior McCarthy advisors told former Kennedy speechwriter Jeff Greenfield that they planned to support Kennedy if he won in California. It is doubtful if McCarthy would have backed Kennedy after California since he was still bitter about Kennedy’s entry into the race and did not endorse Humphrey until one week before the general election.

The next primary after California was in New York on June 18. It was also the last primary on the schedule in 1968. Kennedy planned a two week blitz to nail down most of New York’s rich delegate haul. Kennedy insiders believed that he was in a position to win as many as one hundred sixty out of New York’s one hundred ninety delegates.

The Kennedy campaign planned a national television advertising campaign after the last primary and in the run up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They planned on running two major documentaries on Kennedy as well as numerous short television advertisements.

At the same time, Kennedy planned to campaign in twenty six states and all of the major urban areas. The New York Senator wanted to convert the pre-convention phase of the campaign into a sort of national primary aimed at convincing both undecided delegates and delegates already committed to the other candidates to support him.

Kennedy planned to wrap up this phase of the campaign with a trip to Poland, Italy, West Germany and West Berlin aimed at further burnishing his foreign policy credentials. He could have expected huge crowds and a very warm reception in Europe. This would have reminded the voters back home that he was essentially the deputy president during the Kennedy Administration.

The modern equivalent was Barack Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Berlin during the summer of 2008. Obama was greeted like a conquering hero when he addressed two hundred thousand people in Berlin during his triumphant tour. Kennedy would have received a similar reception.

The Kennedy campaign was convinced that support for Humphrey was soft and that his delegate totals were inflated. They were convinced that support for Humphrey would decline during the summer months. In addition, support for McCarthy among younger votes was declining due to McCarthy’s personal attacks on Kennedy — rather than Humphrey — in Oregon.

If Kennedy had lacked the requisite 1,312 delegates to win the nomination, his campaign planned a rules challenge to flip delegates from Humphrey to his campaign. The delegations from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were all white — in violation of the rules for the convention. Moreover, approximately six hundred delegates came from southern states. They were required to send racially representative delegations.

The delegations from many of these states were also bound by the “unit rule” — which bound all delegates to vote with a majority of the delegation. In other words, the unit rule bound the minority of delegates who supported Kennedy to vote for Humphrey. The unit rule was aimed at increasing southern clout in selecting a presidential nominee. This rule helped preserve segregation in the south for decades. Southern influence only began to decline in 1948.

Kennedy planned to file a challenge to the unit rule and the segregated delegations by moving to seat his own slate of delegates which were half white and half black. Humphrey was a champion of civil rights and he would have been under enormous pressure to agree to Kennedy’s challenges. A successful rules challenge would have won the nomination for Kennedy.

A Kennedy nomination would have prevented the anti-war riots that wrecked the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Those riots fractured the Democratic Party and Humphrey left Chicago as a heavy underdog. The Democratic Party would have united around Kennedy. Due to their good personal relationship, Humphrey would have endorsed Kennedy.

A wounded Humphrey and a divided Democratic Party nearly won the 1968 election. Nixon won the popular vote by a narrow 43.4% percent to 42.7% margin over Humphrey. Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace finished third with 13.5 percent of the popular vote.

The electoral vote was almost as close. Nixon beat Humphrey 301 to 191 in the electoral college. Wallace finished with 46 electoral votes by carrying five states in the south.

Jeff Greenfield makes a convincing case that Kennedy would have defeated Nixon in both the popular vote and electoral vote. Nixon narrowly carried Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and California. A united Democratic Party and a presidential nominee free of Lyndon Johnson’s baggage could have flipped those four states and won the election. Kennedy would have defeated Nixon 300 to 192 in the electoral college.

A Kennedy presidency would have been much different — and much better — than a Nixon presidency. A President Robert Kennedy would have made ending the American involvement in the Vietnam War a high priority. There is a good chance he could have wound down America’s involvement during his first term.

Nixon wanted to end or significantly limit American’s military intervention in Vietnam. However, Nixon did not want to do that during his first term because he knew that South Vietnam would collapse without American aide. Nixon did not want to be the first American president to lose a war during his first term because he believed that would jeopardize his re-election prospects. Nixon’s refusal to quickly wind down the war cost thousands of unnecessary lives.

A Kennedy Administration would have most likely passed a universal health care bill. In 1974, Nixon introduced a plan similar to the Affordable Care Act that would have guaranteed health insurance for all Americans. The Nixon plan would have reached its goals with an employer mandate, subsidies for the purchase of private insurance and a public option. Senator Ted Kennedy supported the Nixon plan and tried to rally Democratic support.

Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO rejected the Nixon plan and held out for a single payer system. Ted Kennedy told the AFL-CIO’s lobbyist: “This is the best deal we’re going to get.” The Massachusetts Senator later said that organized labor was “holding out for the perfect, rather than dealing with the good.”

A President Robert Kennedy — like his younger brother — would have supported a plan similar to the Nixon plan. Jeff Greenfield said wasn’t a conventional liberal. Robert Kennedy supported using the private sector to achieve progressive goals. A President Robert Kennedy would have pushed an Affordable Care Act like bill across the finish line with a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans.

A Kennedy presidency had the potential to unite the country. In contrast, Nixon gained power and maintained power by polarization and pitting one group of Americans against each other. Kennedy’s unique coalition of blue collar whites, ethnic whites, young people, farmers, African-Americans and Hispanics demonstrated his ability to unite the country.

By 1968, a majority of the American people were fed up with big government, crime and the Vietnam War. That opened the door for the likes of Nixon to win power by dividing the voters by using coded racial appeals. The election of Nixon in 1968 began the long conservative era that lasted until the financial crisis of 2008.

This recent conservative era gave us more division and levels of inequality that we have experienced since 1929. Since the Reagan Administration, all of the financial gains have gone to the wealthy and the rest of America has lost ground. That has destabilized the country’s economy and political system.

Robert Kennedy was the only politician who could have prevented the advent of this conservative era. Between his broad coalition and the use of a combination of the private sector and the government to achieve progressive ends, Kennedy could have maintained the Democratic coalition that dominated American politics between 1932 and 1968.

If Kennedy had lived, the Vietnam War would have ended a lot earlier and saved thousands of lives. There would have been no Watergate scandal. A Kennedy presidency could very well have staved off the era of cynicism toward the government and other institutions in American life.

The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy was truly one of the great tragedies of American history. Perhaps the only comparable tragedy was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The American people and the country would have been so much better off if Kennedy had lived.



I’m an aspiring historian, defender of democracy and a sports fan.

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Dennis Crawford

I’m an aspiring historian, defender of democracy and a sports fan.