The year was 1968. It was a contentious presidential election year. The incumbant president Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson had bowed out of the election with a shocking announcement in March. The Vietnam War was tearing Americans apart. Johnson’s popularity was at an all-time low. The Republican frontrunner for the nomination was former Vice President Richard M. Nixon who promised peace with honor in Vietnam if he was elected. (Above: Photo taken from RFK funeral train. Paul Fusco photo.)
On the Democratic side President Johnson had lost the New Hampshire primary to little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota who promised unconditional withdrawal from the war. After this primary loss President Johnson suddenly announced that he would not stand for re-election. The sudden withdrawal of Johnson opened the field. Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race late, after the primaries (only thirteen states had primaries at this time), and promised to continue Johnson’s policies. He proposed to negotiage a peace, but not at any cost.
Senator McCarthy was winning primaries and support as the anti-war candidate. Sitting on the sidelines was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. At the urging of supporters he entered the race and he too began winning primaries and support as an anti-war candidate. He brought the Kennedy name and support to the race. McCarthy did not have a national base and began losing ground to Kennedy. Humphrey was the party favorite, except he didn’t enter any primaries and Kennedy began gaining in delegate support and in public support. Kennedy hoped to force McCarthy out of the race by winning the delegate-rich California primary, then it would be just Kennedy and Humphrey at the convention. By the time the California primary came on June 4th, it was obvious the nomination would have to be decided at the convention in Chicago in August.
The California primary was the biggest and most delegate-rich for any candidate. Senator Kennedy won it overwhelming. It was also the last primary. The next event to determine the Democratic nominee was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
In the early hours of June 5th, after his primary victory, Senator Robert F. Kennedy went to the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles and gave a victory speech to his supporters. Shortly after midnight, he concluded his speech with the words of encouragement to them, “Now on to Chicago and let’s win there.”
He planned to go into the crowd and shake hands, but his friends directed him to leave backstage through the kitchen area to avoid the crowds. Kennedy was shaking hands with kitchen staff on his way out, when a Palestinian immigrant Sirhan B. Sirhan stepped forward and at point blank range emptied his eight-shot Ivor Johnson revolver at the senator. Kennedy slumped to the concrete floor of the kitchen and lay on his back bleeding profusely from his head. One of the kitchen staff cradled his head as friends and supporters wrestled with Sirhan and finally subdued him. Several others were wounded.
Senator Kennedy was rushed to the hospital where doctors performed surgery, but in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968 Robert Francis Kennedy died of his gunshot wounds. The hopes and dreams for real change died with him.
Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee without virtually any opposition, and Richard Nixon was the Republican nominee. Nixon was elected in a landslide in November 1968. A peace was negotiated in Vietnam after several more years of fighting. Nixon and Spiro Agnew, his Vice President, were re-elected in 1972, and both subsequently resigned in disgrace.
I still remember Bobby’s inspiring words,
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”