After the Assassination
How Gene McCarthy's response to Bobby Kennedy's murder crippled the Democrats.
Forty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered on the very night he defeated his fellow anti-war insurgent Eugene McCarthy in the California Democratic presidential primary. This week the news media are full of remembrances of RFK, rehearsing how his assassination, echoing his brother's five years earlier, dashed a generation's hopes for a new era of liberalism. But in a political season that resembles 1968, another aspect of the assassination is also worth considering, especially with the Democratic Party now seeking to unify its ranks. For in 1968, the persistence of intra-party divisions—which helped usher in the presidency of Richard M. Nixon—stemmed not just from the tragedy of Kennedy's murder but also from McCarthy's own subsequent failure of leadership. McCarthy's refusal to extend a hand to disoriented Kennedy supporters after June 6 left the party sundered, directionless, and ripe for defeat.
Eugene McCarthy never liked the Kennedys. At least since 1960, when he had placed Adlai Stevenson's name in nomination at the Democratic convention that chose JFK for president, the high-minded Minnesota senator had resented the hardball style and political success of the whole family. Understandably, he begrudged RFK's entry into the 1968 race. After all, back in November 1967, McCarthy had courageously challenged Lyndon B. Johnson, a sitting president, for the Democratic nomination, arguing that it was time to bring home the half-million Americans fighting in Vietnam. McCarthy's close second-place finish in the March 12 New Hampshire primary exposed Johnson's profound vulnerabilities. Only then did Kennedy—after some perfunctory soundings about a joint anti-war effort with McCarthy—throw his hat in the ring, quickly earning him treatment as a more plausible pretender to the nomination. McCarthy, who later claimed RFK had promised him he wouldn't run, was livid.
Two weeks later, LBJ forswore a second term. Anti-war Democrats rushed to align with one insurgent or the other. McCarthy won the intellectuals, the professionals, and the young, who, distancing themselves from their long-haired contemporaries, vowed to get "Clean for Gene." Kennedy attracted blue-collar, Hispanic, and black support. He complained that McCarthy got the "A" students, and he got the "B" students.
The primary battles were brutal, producing at least as much bad feeling as this year's. Against a backdrop of violent campus protests and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., McCarthy and Kennedy squared off in Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, and California. (Not until 1972 did primaries become the dominant method of delegate selection.) Playing to his upscale base, McCarthy blasted Kennedy for having wiretapped King while attorney general. RFK, for his part, catered to the concerns of his new base—stressing, for example, his former credentials as "the chief law enforcement officer of the United States" in front of audiences worried about rising crime and urban riots. He also assailed McCarthy's previous opposition to a minimum-wage law and his allegedly weak civil rights record—enduring charges of being "ruthless" and dishonest in distorting his rival's record.
Even as McCarthy styled himself the clean politician, however, he dished it out, too. He mocked Kennedy and his supporters. A major gaffe occurred in Oregon, when McCarthy sniffed that Kennedy supporters were "less intelligent" than his own and belittled Indiana (which had by then gone for Kennedy) for lacking a poet of the stature of Robert Lowell—a friend of McCarthy's who often traveled with him. McCarthy also took swipes at Kennedy for chasing after black and white working-class votes.
More negativity infused a debate before the California primary. McCarthy made two ill-considered statements: that he would accept a coalition government that included Communists in Saigon and that only the relocation of inner-city blacks would solve the urban problem. Kennedy pounced, portraying the former idea as soft on communism and the latter diagnosis as a scheme to bus tens of thousands of ghetto residents into white, conservative Orange County. Angered at these characterizations, McCarthy resolved not to support Kennedy if he became the nominee.
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.
Photograph of Eugene McCarthy courtesy the U.S. Government.