Bobby Kennedy and the new politics of 1968

T.A. Barnhart

Forty years ago this week — May 21, a week before the 1968 Oregon primary — Bobby Kennedy addressed a group of journalists in San Francisco. The following excerpts from that address should sound familiar. Also familiar is this from the editors of this collection of speeches: "Kennedy was, in David Halberstam's phrase, a transitional figure in a transitional year."

RFK greeted by enthusiastic crowd as he campaigns for Democratic nomination in 1968It is clear by now that 1968 will go down as the year the new politics of the next decade or more began. It is the year when the existing political wisdom had proven unable to cope with the turbulence of our times, inspire our young people, or provide answers to problems we face as a nation. And therefore this is the year when the old politics must be a thing of the past.

But if this is true — and I profoundly believe that it is — then there is no more important question than what the new politics is. What are its components, and what does it mean tot he future of the country?

The most obvious element of the new politics is the politics of citizen participation, of personal involvement....

The [next] priority for change — the first element of a new politics for the United States — is in our policy toward the world. Too much and for too long, we have acted as if our great military might and wealth could about an American solution to every world problem....

The new politics of 1968 has a final need: and that is an end to some of the clich├ęs and stereotypes of past political rhetoric. In too much of our political dialogue, "liberals" have been those who wanted to spend more money, while "conservatives" have been those who wanted to pretend that all problems should solve themselves....

But the times are too difficult, our needs are too great, for such restricted visions. There is nothing "liberal" about a constant expansion of the federal government, stripping citizens of their public power — the right to share in the government of affairs — that was the founding purpose of this nation. There is noting conservative about standing idle while millions of fellow citizens lose their lives and their hopes, while their frustration turns to fury that tears the fabric of society and freedom....

What the new politics is, in the last analysis, is a reaffirmation of the best within the great political traditions of our nation: compassion for those who suffer, determination to right the wrongs within our nation, and a willingness to think and to act anew, free from old concepts and false illusions.

That is the kind of politics — that is the kind of leadership — the American people want.

RFK: Collected Speeches, Edwin O. Guthman & C. Richard Allen, eds.

  • LT (unverified)

    TA, great post!

    I'd suggest that the new politics must shun labels, and aim to address the gulf between those who score high on the "cares about people like me, understands my problems" scale used in some polls and those who preach at us that politics is all cut and dried so we shouldn't ask so many tough questions. I've worked in jobs like retail where the attitude towards public figures is as likely to be "let them work my shift for a day and see if they have the same attitude" as it is to be support for this or that politician or commentator.

    This is not a partisan issue. Does anyone wish as much as I do that those like McCain (yes, he is a war hero, but also the guy who opposes the 21st century GI Bill and any detailed discussion addressing the concerns of those who have actually served tours of duty in Iraq) should be required to engage in public dialogue with those like St. Rep. Boquist?

    I mean those who know that "support the troops" means concrete help rather than just car magnets and rhetoric, and who actually served in Iraq and don't see things the same way McCain sees them? (That speech Boquist made during the 2007 session is NOT the same attitude as McCain has.)

    The new politics should also trust the judgement of ordinary folks, rather than consultants or other "professionals" telling locals what the political landscape is. Given the new registration numbers (in some state rep. districts, red is turning to either purple or blue thanks to new registrations to vote in the primary), do previous "target" assumptions really apply this year?

    We should demand accountability and solutions --- not just rhetoric. The whole Republican dust up over Erickson shows an example of that. Finally, instead of "...but the Democrats" in answer to criticisms of actions by individual Republicans, lots of Republicans are now discussing what a Republican nominee actually did. That can only be good--esp. if it sends the GOP back to the roots it had back in the day when Paulus and Atiyeh were considered mainstream Republicans.

    The goal should be to solve problems. We should no longer tolerate any rhetoric which attacks individuals rather than looking for solutions to problems.

    I'm old enough to have voted in 1968. Back then, issues were debated rather than personalities, and I believe that is a good thing we should return to.

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    Extremely cool post.

    One key to 1968 (such a totally fascinating year) was that the labels that had defined the Democratic Party changed forever...Johnson acknowledged this change when he signed the civil rights bills...he knew that he was giving up the South, which had been a Democratic stronghold. Then, some believe that the Democratic Party went too far with busing, Vietnam, taxes, etc. and pushed the comfort level beyond acceptance. Whether that is true or not (certainly was with Vietnam) is a debate, and if Bobby Kennedy had been alive, he would have moderated that debate with great skill.

    The same fundamental shifts are now taking place. George W. Bush has pushed people too far, and Republican now means excessive spending, disregard of public sentiment and frankly, base stupidity. Now, I'm not saying that Republicans are stupid (really, Uncle Fred, I'm not) but the disregard of fact-based knowledge has pushed many to the point of disgust.

    Like Bobby Kennedy, Obama has the skill to moderate this change, to suggest a new political party paradigm. I can't tell you how excited I am to watch, to participate, in a tremendous time of change.

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    LT, I'm mulling over the main substance of your response. And there is something to your last sentence. But I think it might be only partly true.

    My parents were McCarthy people in the Mass. primary in '68 on anti-war grounds (not sure if Kennedy was in by then, but I believe so), and it does seem to me that personality was at least part of the competition between McCarthy and Kennedy. I know some early McCarthy people resented RFK as an opportunist, after McC had taken out Johnson over Vietnam. Not sure if that's how my parents saw it, or if they were attracted to McCarthy's intellectualism, but I am pretty sure that one way or another personality was part of their choice.

    And then, in the general, there was a sort of cold war in the house, with one of my parents voting for Humphrey because of Nixon, and the other not voting, or writing in McCarthy or something, because of Humphrey being too close to Johnson's war policies. (And Stever Maurer, this was not about ideological purity but about anger and outrage, which are rather different.)

    In a way their division was about issues, but it was also I think about judgments of personality or character: Would / could Humphrey be his own man? Was Nixon's personality and character just too much to contemplate?

    It looks to me in retrospect, based on history reading, as if the question of whether there was a substantial difference between Nixon and Humphrey on the war must have turned in part on what you thought about Humphrey's personal ability to break with the pro-war establishment.

    But I wasn't there in the sense of actually confronting the choices or having a clear understanding of what people were debating. Do you think the Nixon-Humphrey choice was mainly about issues? Would that have been different for whatever subset of people who saw the war as THE issue?

    (Anyone else who "was there" and wants to take a stab at these questions, I'd be interested -- I'm still trying to figure out stuff about my parents 40 years on.)

    T.A. -second the kudos for putting this up.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)


    Refering to the Wikipedia article "United States presidential election, 1968": After Senator McCarthy narrowly lost to President Johnson in the first primary in NH on March 12, Senator Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16. On March 31 President Johnson unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy, prompting Vice President Humphrey to throw his hat in the ring, but not to participate directly in the primaries. On April 30 Senator McCarthy won the Massachusetts primary, as did Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (at least they didn't go for Nixon!)

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)

    Do you think the Nixon-Humphrey choice was mainly about issues?

    There was a lot in the mix there, the way the Democratic convention went down was no small matter. Humphrey's independence was a big issue, he had been too good of a Vice President.

    Then look what we got, democracy is the most just form of government, the governed ALWAYS get what they deserve.

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    Do you think the Nixon-Humphrey choice was mainly about issues? Would that have been different for whatever subset of people who saw the war as THE issue?

    For those who saw the war as THE issue, there was little to choose between them and it may even be that Humphrey was more tainted by it than Nixon. All I know for sure (I wouldn't turn 21 until 1970 and couldn't vote), is that a huge number of potential voters and precinct workers were completely turned off by Humphrey as the Establishment candidate.

    In retrospect, the parent that voted for Humphrey was strategically correct but it wouldn't have felt much like that at the time and some people were even willing to believe that Nixon would get us out of the war.

  • Pat Malach (unverified)

    "I'm old enough to have voted in 1968. Back then, issues were debated rather than personalities, and I believe that is a good thing we should return to."

    The notion that we've left behind a golden time where only issues were discussed during campaigns is quite fanciful.

    Kennedy looked better on TV than did Nixon during their legendary debates.

    Other campaigns involved discussions of wives drug habits, mental health of running mates, etc., etc., etc.

  • LT (unverified)

    "For those who saw the war as THE issue, there was little to choose between them and it may even be that Humphrey was more tainted by it than Nixon"

    What we now know is that LBJ had more control over money Humphrey would need than we knew at the time.

    What I can tell you about the discussions in my college and specifically in the boarding house where I lived that year is that ordinary voters of college age couldn't see that much difference between Nixon and Humphrey until the last several weeks or so. Sounds strange now, but Humphrey was the candidate who got the nomination in a very controversial convention after E. McCarthy had been defeated and Bobby Kennedy had been shot---and some historians say the convention rules would have been stacked against Bobby had he lived (hence the pre-occupation of some folks with delegate selection rules all these years). And according to some estimates, a relatively small vote by college students for Humphrey by those who voted otherwise or chose not to vote in 1968 could have tipped the election--it was that close.

    Professionals may have debated the role of college students versus unionized manufacturing and skilled tradesmen in those days, but ordinary folks didn't get into those discussions.

    AND, studies have shown that back then there were longer excerpts of speeches reported, not just 10 second sound bites.

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    Thanks for the responses. Your last point certainly is true, LT, and the longer excerpts allowed both fuller dealing with issues and more information about personality or character, IMO.

    I know the popular vote difference between Humphrey and Nixon was less than 300,000. I guess one would have to go back into the electoral college piece to judge about student (& others) absention effects. One part of the student aspect was the 21 year old voting age though; only about a third or maybe 4/5 of undergraduates probably were even nominally eligible to vote.

  • MCT (unverified)

    Great post....thoughtful responses....I love these kinds of conversations here!

    "I'm still trying to figure out stuff about my parents 40 years on."

    Yes the great political divide within families of that era, especially between the young and and their parents, was a social tragedy at the time. Some family rifts never mended. Hard to imagine that now that we have candidates who manage & spin more across the board appeal. My parents were proud of me because as a 16 yr old I volunteered at McCarthy headquarters, running mimeographs (remember the smell of the purple ink?) and getting out the vote. The war WAS the driving issue for the young...we knew that unless a young man came from a family wealthy enough to send him to college, he would be drafted. We watched (less censored than today) TV coverage of exactly what that meant. Jungle fights and body counts....flag draped coffins unloaded from cargo planes. Several of us were suspended from school for attending a funeral of an 18 year old alumnus who'd survived only one month in-country. A sweet-faced boy named Ken Hawkinson. We'd asked for and been denied permission to leave class. To our parents' credit, many protested, and mine went so far as to tell the Principal that he should have been at the service himself.

    That was the prevailing climate of the time....intense concerns about the war, civil rights, poverty. Much like today. But now we have a few more bones to care, the environment, jobs leaving the country, wage-to-cost-of-living disparity, immigration, to name a few.

    Ultimately my parents voted for Nixon, further enforcing my notion that they were clueless. Then came Watergate and a public (and journalistic) indignation that seems so honorable if innocent when stacked next to the lack of public indignation for the last 7 1/2 years. A few years later my father redeemed himself for his GOP vote when he told me "you kids were right about Nixon". He never voted GOP again. Now I have heard my grown and voting step-children tell me...."you were right about Bush." He got their 2000 vote on one issue only: gun control. Not even on the menu 8 years later.

    If the important question is 'what are the new politics?'....we should also ask if we learned anything from the old politics....I mean the way-back politics of the 60's. AND is it possible, after their demolition by Bush & Co., to reclaim our Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberites? Can we welcome in a new era while our civil rights have been and still are eroded? Laws are like a marriage contract.... a lot easier in the making, than in the getting out of. How 'bout that Patriot Act....think it will go away?

    The wheel turns, public need and awareness changes, and so should politics. I would say one good thing has been an off-shoot of the Bush reign.....a resurgence of public paticipation in the electoral process. I hope we will soon also demand accountability for, and a reversal of the damage of the past 8 years.

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    Itals apparently my fault, sorry.

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    AND is it possible, after their demolition by Bush & Co., to reclaim our Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberites? Can we welcome in a new era while our civil rights have been and still are eroded?

    Couldn't agree more. Someone, likely T. A. Barnhart, pointed me to places where Obama has said more about this than I had originally thought. Still there is an institutional interest in keeping power for the executive, once gained, that seems hard for presidents to overcome.

    The problem includes the so-called USA PATRIOT act, but along legislative lines, also the Clinton/Reno "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996," plus the various Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld extra-legislative, extra-judicial power grabs. This is definitely one of the places where Obama needs support to take what appear to be his good inclinations as far as we can get him to go.

  • MCT (unverified)

    ahhh yes....those pesky 1200 presidential 'signing statements', whereby the Judicial and Legislative branches become subservient to the Executive. You know, this is a part of the American democratic process we never learned in Civics class. I really should educate myself better as to how they work and whether they can be expunged. Seems to me we will need a big mop to clean up THAT mess.

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