A lesson for Obama from 1968.

The history behind current events.
June 4 2008 6:59 AM

After the Assassination

How Gene McCarthy's response to Bobby Kennedy's murder crippled the Democrats.

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By the time of Kennedy's murder, there was no love lost between the two men. Still, McCarthy's reaction to the assassination was singularly hardhearted. One aide recalled him sneering about his fallen rival, "Demagoguing to the last." Another heard him say that Kennedy "brought it on himself"—implying, by perverse logic, that because Kennedy had promised military support to the state of Israel, he had somehow provoked Sirhan Sirhan, the Arab-American gunman who killed him. (In fact, Sirhan had long planned to commit the murder on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War.)

Kennedy's death, of course, did not leave McCarthy alone in the race. All along, many party regulars had preferred Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who announced his candidacy in April but sat out the primaries, instead building his delegate base in states without primaries—which back then constituted a majority. Indeed, with Kennedy's assassination, many observers thought that front-runner status had devolved not to McCarthy but to Humphrey. Yet while McCarthy formally suspended his campaign in recognition of Kennedy's death, and although he proceeded to engage in various acts of willful self-sabotage, he nonetheless won a big victory in the June 18 New York primary and swept around the country in search of uncommitted delegates. Yet, stubbornly, he refused to make any gestures of reconciliation toward Kennedy's inner circle or his millions of supporters.

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A few key Kennedy aides soon prevailed on McGovern to join the race as a kind of placeholder at the upcoming Chicago convention—a possible nominee but also a candidate for Kennedy's delegates to rally behind until a deal could be struck. The move, of course, also made clear to McCarthy that they hadn't forgiven his various digs at RFK during the primary season. Meanwhile, others started an informal "Draft Ted" movement to get the youngest Kennedy brother, then 36, to pick up the standard. Both ploys reflected a recognition that Humphrey, for all his delegates, still wasn't the inevitable nominee and that McCarthy's cache of several hundred delegates, when coupled with Kennedy's, might still produce an anti-war nominee.

For a moment it looked possible. In Chicago, Richard Goodwin—the former JFK aide who'd gone to work for McCarthy, switched to RFK, then returned to the McCarthy camp after the assassination—sent word to friends in the Kennedy camp that McCarthy wanted to talk. Privately, the senator told Kennedy in-law Steve Smith that he would be willing to step aside in favor of Ted. But even in concession, McCarthy couldn't be gracious. He told Smith that he would take such a step for Ted, but he wouldn't have done it for Bobby. The gratuitous jab killed any prospect of a deal. In his conversations with Humphrey, meanwhile, McCarthy insisted that he not choose Ted Kennedy as his running mate.

McCarthy made almost no efforts on his own behalf at the convention. In a debate with Humphrey and McGovern before the California delegation, he refused to state his position on the war, saying, "The people know my position." He didn't even speak during the convention's debate over what the platform would say about Vietnam. But when Humphrey got the nod, McCarthy suggested that, as the winner of the most primary votes, he had been robbed of the nomination. He didn't endorse Humphrey until Oct. 29, and even then he took swipes at the vice president for his stands on the war and the draft. Humphrey lost to Nixon by 0.7 percent of the popular vote, although Nixon took 301 electoral votes to Humphrey's 191.

Whether Robert Kennedy could have beaten Humphrey for the nomination is impossible to say. Certainly, it would have been hard. But following Kennedy's death, Gene McCarthy's willful aloofness and inability to bring unity to a party cleaved during a hard-fought primary season amounted to a second tragedy for the Democrats.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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