Going to California: RFK, the 1968 Democratic Primary, and the 2016 Election

Warren K. Leffler, "Negro demonstration in Washington, D.C. Justice Dept. Bobby Kennedy speaking to crowd", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Warren K. Leffler, “Negro demonstration in Washington, D.C. Justice Dept. Bobby Kennedy speaking to crowd”, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

According to Democratic advance man and speechwriter John B. Martin, Robert F. Kennedy “had a fatalistic view that if he was going to get killed he was going to get killed and there was nothing to be done about it.”[1] Under President John F. Kennedy, Martin had served as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, but he had been a longtime Democratic operative working on the Stevenson campaign in 1952 and JFK’s in 1960. Martin advised RFK in his insurgent 1968 campaign for the nomination of the Democratic Party, thereby witnessing the ups and downs of Kennedy’s politicking in Indiana and California. On the anniversary of RFK’s death, Martin’s unpublished campaign journal provides insight into the compromises, moral and political, of candidates and the changed landscape of twenty-first century presidential elections while outlining the tragedy of Bobby’s assassination.

Primary Nation

In 1968, primaries mattered less than they do today; they weren’t binding, and most states didn’t even hold them. In fact, only 14 occurred in the 1968 Democratic race. As a result, the convention meant more than the primaries. In 1960, LBJ made a run at the presidential nomination during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles despite hardly rating in the primary race. The eventual 1968 Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, never even entered a single primary (forced to wait for LBJ to announce he would not run, Humphrey’s candidacy was not able to enter any primaries). After 1968, the McGovern-Frasier Commission came up with a number of reforms that without getting into the weeds, more or less altered the importance of the primary process for both parties. RFK entered the ’68 race in March but didn’t record a victory until the Indiana primary in May, followed by a second in Nebraska the same month.

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President John F. Kennedy with U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, John B. Martin, July 8, 1963; Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Indiana might have been a valuable win, but Martin believed observers would ignore it. “Some writers discounted it on the grounds that it was a small state and not typical, with a heavy Negro population,” Martin wrote. California would be a “truer test because it was so big and diverse, a nation in itself.”[2] A triumph there, many believed, would demonstrate RFK’s national appeal. The Golden State had been depicted as a “microcosm” of the nation so many times in the media “it had become cliché,” noted historian Joseph Palmero in 2008. It would not, however, be easy. “California is, I think, the hardest state in the union to campaign partly because of its size and diversity,” Martin noted. “It really is an empire. The suburbs around Los Angeles reached for unbelievable and endless miles and miles and miles.”[3]

Earlier in the year, RFK’s California polls appeared weak. According to Martin, RFK struggled with white suburban voters. “He had no contact with, no rapport with, no feel for, the petit bourgeois, the suburbanites,” wrote Martin.   Luckily for RFK, Indiana had lacked large swaths of this population, but metropolitan areas in Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco represented a very different reality. “In Indiana, he simply did little or [nothing] about [suburbanites]. In California, though he had to play to them . . . he hated it.”[4]

Granted, Indiana required some policy acrobats. RFK had to say and do things, according to Martin, that were at odds with his larger worldview. He had to talk the politics of white backlash to autoworkers and others; ensure voters about the need for “law and order” in the streets. “Once he asked when he could have a liberal day,” wrote Martin.[5] Yet it also had large swaths of African Americans, RFK won nearly 90 percent of their vote in Indianapolis.

A valuable, experienced aide, Martin knew the other campaign workers had doubts about him. RFK’s younger aides believed Martin to be exerting too much influence over Kennedy. “They conceived all this as a struggle for the soul of Robert Kennedy,” noted Martin, who saw things much more pragmatically. “I conceived it as an effort to win the Indiana election.”[6] Indiana voters, he argued were “hard and hard hearted, not warm and generous” but RFK had “touched something inside of them.”[7]

Consider the Source

Obviously, Martin’s own politics color his account. ““There was a great deal of talk that spring about the new politics and I thought most of it was crap,” he wrote. Effective politics was more about emotion. “[T]he core and guts of any political campaign is old fashioned gut politics – appealing to diverse groups of voters in one way or another, sometimes by telling them what they wanted to hear, sometimes by doing the reverse, sometimes by kidding them, but always making the pitch.”[8]

According to Robert Boorstin, Martin had lived a “peripatetic career,” one that traversed Midwestern coalfields, “racially divided Southern communities,” the political instability of the 1960s Caribbean, and numerous presidential campaigns. It also included 15 books and a great number of prize-winning articles for various respected magazines. Martin had started out as a crime reporter, and his attentions often focused on outsiders and others cast off by society. “I’ve always been interested in the individual human being and what happens to him in a society that really doesn’t work as well as it should,” he once noted.[9]

Yet, judging from his 1968 journal, Martin lacked a certain level of empathy or perhaps had been drained of it due to decades of campaign work and the assassination of JFK five years earlier. While younger workers on the campaign mourned the death of Martin Luther King, Martin provided a harsh assessment of the man, but one that gives insight into his own ideology:

“I realized I didn’t really care as much as the younger writers about King. I guess I did all my weeping in 1963 when JFK was killed. I couldn’t feel this one that much … I guess, watching TV, which had been running film clips from previous King speeches, that I thought he was a demagogue and demagogues often get shot; [like] Huey Long.   He knew it, he risked it.”

Calling King a demagogue feels more than a bit off the mark and at odds with RFK’s own views on the slain leader.

Whether Martin harbored a casual racism or had become emotionally calloused or, perhaps, both seems hard to say, but the comment reminds us of how different racial logic of the 1960s, even for ostensible liberals, was. After all, in his 1987 obituary, one book reviewer noted that Martin to his death remained “’a devoutly liberal Democrat, unabashed and unregenerate”—in regard to King, apparently, not that liberal. [10] One wonders what he thought of the numerous African American civil rights workers who lost their lives in the movement.

Feeling California

The California primary would be a dogfight between Eugene McCarthy and RFK. Kennedy’s strongest support came from Black, Latino, and working-class white districts in and outside of Los Angeles and several others cities across the state. He also established strong ties with Asian Americans in L.A. and San Francisco.[11] “Robert Kennedy had a real passion for the disadvantaged, the Negroes and poor Appalachian whites and starving American Indians and Mexican Migrant workers,” Martin reflected. “Jack Kennedy played for their votes but lacked the passion of Robert.”[12]

During the California race, RFK met with Cesar Chavez, who amazingly suspended the United Farm Workers (UFW) Grape Strike so unionists could vote for Kennedy. “Chavez, proved invaluable after unleashing his small army of organizers, canvassers, and get-out-the-vote activists for Kennedy,” noted Palmero. “He became a Kennedy delegate and state-level campaign official.”[13]

Marion Trikosko, "Interview with Cesar Chavez", April 20, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Marion Trikosko, “Interview with Cesar Chavez”, April 20, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Considering today’s political environment, where the Republican nominee plays to anger among whites over economic and cultural issues, Hillary Clinton seems to have secured much of the African, Asian, and Latino American vote, while Sanders appears to have cornered most of the youth electorate and some, though hardly a majority of middle class whites, Kennedy’s coalition proves mildly astonishing.

Of course, the math is more complicated than this. While Clinton has won several contests in states with large Latino populations (Florida, Texas, New York, Nevada, and Arizona; she’s also won 16 of 17 “majority Hispanic districts” during the democratic race), it remains to be seen how Mexican Americans and other Hispanic groups will vote for her in California. Moreover, Trump does have support among segments of better-off whites, Sanders has slices of younger minority voters, and Clinton does better with higher income voters than her democratic challenger.

Yet, the idea of building a coalition like that of RFK’s ’68 California campaign, particularly one that visibly embraced Latino field workers while also securing support from working class whites, seems far more difficult today, though perhaps Sanders might be building one in California. In Indiana, RFK could speak the language of alienated white workers because African Americans, Martin noted, trusted him: “They didn’t care if he talked backlash to Kokomo autoworkers. They knew that in his heart he was for them.”[14] That kind of flexibility does not exist today. The expansion of civil rights, economic change, social media, and identity politics (for whites and non-whites alike) changed the landscape.

Martin expressed other worries as well. The ’68 election, he believed, would not be about the most vigorous, dynamic candidate. “Kennedy is too exciting. The people, I thought, did not want to be excited,” he wrote. “In 1968 the people did not want to be summoned to great adventures as in 1960. They wanted to be let alone … They wanted change – change from Vietnam, from riots – but quiet change.”[15] RFK in contrast, pushed buttons for good and bad. “He aroused wild enthusiasm and love and equally wild hate.”

Warren K. Leffler, Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, April 11, 1968, U.S. News and World Report Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Warren K. Leffler, Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, April 11, 1968, U.S. News and World Report Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

After RFK’s assassination, Martin correctly predicted Richard Nixon would emerge as the new president, but he did so with a dripping bitterness.

“There seems to be something in the American electorate that cuts down and kills the off-trail, the best, the truly good — Stevenson, Jack and Robert Kennedy – and turns instead to the ordinary, the second-rate, the Johnsons and Humphreys and Nixons. There are many county commissioners with more on the ball than Nixon. Nixon is a hollow shell, a nothing, but he is likely to be the next president now. The country deserves him.”

In retrospect, equating Johnson with ordinariness seems far from accurate. Flawed, no doubt—a president undone by his inability to navigate the nation’s way out of Vietnam—but his domestic victories in the face of stalwart opposition now appear monumental. Throughout his presidency, critics assailed Barack Obama for not channeling his inner LBJ, but it was always a straw man. The kind of horse trading and back room politics isn’t possible today. Even then, as Johnson notes in the recent play and now HBO movie, All the Way, one had to resort to the dark arts and dogged resiliency to effect change. “I had to drag it into the light kicking and screaming all the way; this is how new things are born,” the fictional Johnson tells the audience near the conclusion. Considering Martin’s own pragmatic opinions, one might have expected he give more respect to Johnson—arguably, the pragmatist’s pragmatist. Yet, having worked for both JFK and RFK, Martin clearly absorbed a good deal of disregard for the Texan.

Needless to say, the tragedy of RFK’s death cannot be understated. RFK might have been less pure then we remember him—he was, after all, Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man, his behavior toward Lyndon Johnson could charitably be described as brutal in moments, and before his brother’s assassination he lacked a level of empathy—but he was attuned to the rights and hopes of the poor and minorities. The Democratic Party arguably would have been better off with him at the helm than Humphrey. Knowing what we now know about Nixon, one can probably say the same about the nation. Still, it remains conjecture.

Carol M. Highsmith, Robert F. Kennedy grave in Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, circa 1980 - 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Carol M. Highsmith, Robert F. Kennedy grave in Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, circa 1980 – 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

For the family, it was undoubtedly crushing. In September 1968, Jackie Kennedy wrote journalist Joseph Alsop, a longtime Kennedy confidante: “[Y]ou loved Bobby and you loved Jack – and in grief (which I now realize is an element one lives in – like sea or sky or earth – but an element one hopes eventually one might escape – never loving, never caring about anyone else – but perhaps grieving less) you are the person outside the family who truly seems as grieved as we are – And now I know it is forever – grieving.” Jackie reminisced painfully, thanking Alsop for his support over the past five years but noting “[t]here is so much love and pain – and one cannot or must not write what one feels.” Bobby loved Jack so much he “would have died for his brother every day of his life – and in the end – dying for him, died like him – We must never forget him,” she reflected.[16]

Nearly 50 years later, we shouldn’t. RFK reminds us not just of tragedy, but of the numerous ways politics has changed but continues to be a series of negotiations. Judging from Martin’s campaign journal, RFK truly cared about the less fortunate and minorities, yet he also made compromises, ones that he sometimes hated.

 

[1] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Robert O. Boorstin, Obituary, New York Times, January 5, 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/05/obituaries/john-bartlow-martin-71-author-and-envoy-dies.html

[10] Robert O. Boorstin, Obituary, New York Times, January 5, 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/05/obituaries/john-bartlow-martin-71-author-and-envoy-dies.html

[11] Joseph A. Palmero, “Here’s What RFK Did in California in 1968,” Huffington Post, January 10, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/heres-what-rfk-did-in-cal_b_80931.html

[12] Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Joseph A. Palmero, “Here’s What RFK Did in California in 1968,” Huffington Post, January 10, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/heres-what-rfk-did-in-cal_b_80931.html

[14] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[15] John B. Martin, Campaign Journal 1968, John B. Martin Papers, Box 81, Folder #1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Jackie Kennedy, Letter to Joseph Alsop, September 8, 1968, Joseph and Stewart Alsop Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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  1. […] discourse over the last few years—thanks in no small part to Occupy, Thomas Piketty, and Bernie Sanders—the widening gap between the service workers on one end and the knowledge workers on the other […]

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