The Powerful Myth of Would-Be President RFK, 50 Years Later

Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, moments before his assassination 50 years ago today.

Fifty years ago today, I awoke to a radio that was playing the famous recording from Mutual Broadcasting System reporter Andrew West, who was an eyewitness to Robert Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Terrible little political junkie that I was, I had been up late watching returns from the California primary that RFK had just won — but not late enough to learn of the assassination that West’s panic-stricken voice indelibly described:

Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald! 

Moments before being fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy had said to the celebrating crowd at the Ambassador: “It’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” That year as in most years, the California primary was the last on the schedule, and RFK was pointing toward the twilight struggle over delegates that would precede the national convention in late August.

It has been widely surmised in the years since, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither proved nor disproved, that had Kennedy not been assassinated that night, he would have gone on to win the Democratic presidential nomination and then the presidency, sparing America and the world from years more of bloody conflict in Vietnam, and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption, and eventual disgrace.

In fact, our best guess from this distance (reinforced by serious examinations of the issue from RFK biographer Evan Thomas and historian of the 1968 election Michael A. Cohen) is that Kennedy’s odds of winning the nomination were slim by the time of his death. His antiwar rival Eugene McCarthy was in no mood to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had an iron grip on delegates from many of the 33 states that did not hold primaries (and even some that did, but which did not bind delegates to primary results). Kennedy himself seemed to believe his only chance to win was by reconstructing his late brother’s alliances with old-school urban political bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley, and it’s at best a wild conjecture that they would have defied LBJ and the unions that were so close to Humphrey to take a flyer on Bobby.

And even if Kennedy had won the nomination, he, like Humphrey, would have led into the general election a divided party that had done horribly into the 1966 midterms and had lost much of its white southern wing to George Wallace. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether RFK’s countercultural associations would have alienated fewer Democrats than Humphrey’s tardy establishment of an independent position on Vietnam. And there’s no telling what LBJ might have done to complicate life for the bitter rival he loathed and feared for so long.

Even RFK aide Jeff Greenfield, who wrote an alternative history account of a Robert F. Kennedy presidency, concedes that on this day 50 years ago the path to that actually happening was rocky and uncertain:

“We were losing altitude,” de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton reflected later, looking back at the political terrain Kennedy was facing. In fact, the day of the primary, Dutton was skeptical enough of our chances to suggest that RFK would take the vice-presidential slot if offered.

There is a reason for the persistent myth of the world we lost to RFK’s assassin, that goes beyond loathing for LBJ or Humphrey or Nixon or the policies they embraced. And it involves more, I think, than just general Kennedy/Camelot nostalgia. For a whole generation of progressive political activists and journalists, there was a glimmer of something different in RFK than the more conventional politics of his brothers Jack and Ted — an ability to both put together a mind-bending coalition of minority and white-working-class voters that would blow up the racial politics the GOP was beginning to aggressively embrace by 1968 and to keep the fraying New Deal majority alive.

One of many displays of mourning and unity as the train bearing the body of Robert F. Kennedy traveled from New York to Washington following his assassination. Photo: Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

This coalition was glimpsed by some journalists watching Kennedy win African-American and Polish-American voters in Indiana, and others examining his California victory and its heavy reliance on a black-brown-and-white working-class support base that eschewed the McCarthy-loving suburbs. Without exit polls and other modern tools, it is difficult to discern how broad RFK’s 1968 voting coalition actually was. But the fact that Kennedy was later adopted as a patron saint for all sorts of left-of-center folk (both left-bent radicals and centrist “New Democrats”) who were tired of the old-time religion of interest-group liberalism suggests that he might have been onto something new. Indeed, in a critical 2000 book about the RFK myth, Ronald Steele suggested just that:

He was the link between two competing visions: the welfare state world of the New Deal and the ‘middle way’ of latter-day New Democrats like Bill Clinton.”

Indeed, in the real world of politics without RFK, it has often been southern-bred centrists who have been been able to put together solid biracial coalitions that maintained minority enthusiasm and reached deep into the white working-class. No Kennedy coalitions were more mind-bending than that of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who had equally devoted support from African-Americans and former Wallace supporters — albeit only in his native South. Bill Clinton had some of the same appeal. But so too (mostly outside the South) did Barack Obama in 2008.

It may be significant or incidental that Carter lost a lot of his white working-class support in 1980 (after surviving an intraparty challenge from RFK’s brother) as did Obama in 2012. And then in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost in no small part because she did very poorly among white working-class voters while suffering from low turnout by minority voters as well. In terms of the enduring myth of RFK, HRC was the anti-Bobby, or at least the representative of a party that was struggling with both its New Deal and more recent constituencies.

And that’s partly why Bobby Kennedy remains so fascinating a character. In trying to build a multiracial coalition that includes a robust share of the still-very-large white working class, there remains the ancient formula of the social-Democratic Left: a class-based appeal that eschews all cultural or identity issues and simply pounds away at the need to defend and extend the universal benefit programs, progressive taxes, and anti-corporate regulations and trade policies that presumably all poorer folks support or ought to support. It seemed to work pretty well for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, and in all honesty, it has never really been tried by the national Democratic Party since the days of the actual New Deal.

But for progressives who, for one reason or another, don’t think white working-class losses or lagging minority turnout are the product of too little “populist” agitation or too much talk about the racial or cultural issues that voters seem to care greatly about, there is a persistent craving for something less formulaic and more poetic. Is it possible to develop a message that transcends group tensions by a higher appeal to common values and aspirations that cannot be captured by tax or benefit distribution tables or the lashing of a common corporate foe? Fifty years after the fact, the abiding myth of Bobby Kennedy is a testament to that abiding hope.

The Myth of the Would-Be President RFK, 50 Years Later