The betting odds on the presidential prospects of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are giving the namesake son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy a less than zero chance of defeating incumbent and fellow Democrat President Joe Biden in the 2024 Democratic primary.
To which I would caution: not so fast. Remember Eugene McCarthy?
For those who came in late, a quick history of 1968 — a time that is doubtless seared into Bob Kennedy Jr.’s memory, if not his soul — is in order.
At the time, I was a 17-year-old junior in … ahem … high school. And, in spite of having Republican activist parents, I was a seriously enthusiastic supporter of … Bobby Kennedy.
For those who came in late, 1968 was nothing if not a year filled with political turmoil. And, unsuspectingly, the turmoil began to center around a then-obscure liberal Democrat senator from Minnesota named Eugene McCarthy.
McCarthy was barely known outside of his own Minnesota. He had earned a reputation in the Senate and Washington as a decidedly bookish intellectual, a liberal’s liberal. Suffice it to say that charisma was not his political stock in trade.
But if nothing else, Gene McCarthy was a man of principle. And in 1968, that meant that he was a fierce opponent of the ongoing bloody disaster that was the Vietnam War. Which, in turn, meant that he had become a bitter opponent of not just the war, but also the president of the United States who was leading that war — Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Four years earlier, LBJ, who had been elevated from the vice presidency at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — Bob Jr.’s uncle — had won a thundering election victory over the Republican Party’s nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater.
But by 1968, the conduct of the war had become ferociously controversial, particularly with young, college-age Americans. Protests had erupted all over the country, and McCarthy was not alone in his role as an LBJ critic.
Also out there as a critic was Bob’s father — by then a New York senator. RFK’s relationship with LBJ was legendarily bad. He was constantly being urged to challenge LBJ for the nomination — yet, perhaps because of that well-known animosity with his brother’s former vice president, RFK Sr. declined. He didn’t want a presidential race of his to be seen as merely a race to settle old political and personal scores.
As this became clear, in stepped Eugene McCarthy, to the surprise of many. Political observers shook their heads and rolled their eyes. Gene McCarthy? Outside Minnesota, hardly anybody knew who he was. As noted, charisma was not his thing.
What was not understood by the political observers of the day was that it was precisely McCarthy’s passionate anti-war stance that resonated big-time with the college kid set. In a time when hippies were everywhere — along with the slovenliness and long-haired, scruffy look that were all the youthful rage — suddenly there was change in the air.
College kids from across the country descended on the first primary state of New Hampshire, where McCarthy was making his first-on-the-ballot challenge to LBJ. Their motto: Be Clean for Gene.
Suddenly, the slovenliness was replaced with jackets and ties for guys, and dresses or dress slacks and blouses for girls. Gone were the blue jeans, and barbers started getting seriously busy with young guys getting their long hair shorn back to the short, neat style of their fathers, not to mention shaving off their beards.
Primary election day — March 12 — arrived. And to the complete shock of the political establishment, Eugene McCarthy — he the unknown, uncharismatic senator — scored a startling 42 percent of the vote, a mere seven points behind the supposedly unbeatable LBJ himself.
And then all political hell broke loose. It was impossible now for Sen. Kennedy to ignore the demands that he enter the race. And within days of the New Hampshire primary, RFK Sr. did just that.
Suddenly Bobby Kennedy was everywhere. McCarthy seemed to recede — and then another political shock. On the night of March 31, President Johnson took to the nation’s television screens to report on the status of the Vietnam War. To the complete shock of just about everyone, he got to the close of his speech and started to talk about how much the war needed his constant personal attention. Then came this: “Accordingly, I will not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
In a blink, the political world was turned upside down. Suddenly, the race for the Democratic nomination became a showdown between RFK, McCarthy, and quickly LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. The latter had also been McCarthy’s longtime colleague as the other senator from Minnesota. Not to be forgotten either was the entrance of Alabama Democrat Gov. George Wallace.
Yet this had become a genuinely high-stakes battle between the charismatic Bobby and the scholarly and intellectual McCarthy, with the latter having a sudden following of a zillion college kids. Back and forth the McCarthy versus Kennedy battle went, with McCarthy winning six primaries to Kennedy’s four. All of those were multi-candidate races, with those that were just Kennedy versus McCarthy giving RFK three and McCarthy but one.
The end, of course, was tragic. Sen. Kennedy, newly victorious on the night of the California primary, smiled at his cheering fans, accepted his victory, then said: “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” Chicago, of course — interestingly then as well as 2024 — was to be the site of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He was led off the stage, exiting through the kitchen, where assassin Sirhan Sirhan was waiting, ending Bobby Kennedy’s campaign — and his life.
America was in shock. Accompanied by my Nixon-supporting Mom, I went to New York to stand for hours to walk past RFK’s casket, to reach out and touch it.
And, amusingly, there was something else that had to do with Joe Biden and my support for RFK. After RFK’s death, record producers issued long-playing albums of RFK’s speeches. Geek that I was, I would sit for hours in my room and memorize them. A full 19 years later, now a White House political aide to President Ronald Reagan, I learned that when caught by Biden’s presidential primary rival Gov. Michael Dukakis for plagiarizing from then-British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock, Biden’s campaign denied that he plagiarized.
Uh-oh. Not true.
I myself had caught Biden on C-SPAN giving a speech to the California Democratic Party — and realized as I listened that I was getting to the end of his sentences before he was. That being because I realized he was plagiarizing from, yes indeed, Robert Kennedy. I picked up the phone and called New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd, who was covering the Biden campaign. She asked if I could prove it. Yes, I replied. I produced my RFK record albums, noted the specific speech — and, two days later, this was the story on the front page of the Times. The headline: “Biden Is Facing Growing Debate On His Speeches.” My catch of Biden plagiarizing RFK was referenced on the inside. Shortly afterward, Biden was out of the race.
But back to 1968. The battle for the nomination went on after LBJ quit and RFK died, with LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, finally winning over McCarthy.
But the point here with Robert Kennedy Jr. is simple.
Eugene McCarthy — written off in early 1968 as a sure loser with no chance — suddenly became a major factor in the race. With his almost-defeat of LBJ in New Hampshire, McCarthy did indeed abruptly become a major player in the 1968 Democratic race for the nomination. In fact, it was because of McCarthy’s sudden show of force that RFK Sr. came into the race and persuaded LBJ to get out.
Now? In short, Bob Kennedy Jr. — who started at a surprising 14 percent in the polls and has now moved up in the latest Fox poll to 19 percent — could in fact create chaos for President Biden. Like LBJ, Joe Biden is not overwhelmingly popular in his own party. And like Gene McCarthy in 1968, not to mention his own father, Bob Kennedy could in fact be well-positioned to upend or come close to Biden in New Hampshire and/or elsewhere.
And if he did? As with 1968, one suspects chaos as the party finds its way forward. Who would the Democratic Party establishment turn to with the goal of beating RFK Jr? In 1968, the establishment was split on how to beat McCarthy. Split between Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, Kennedy’s tragic ending made the choice for Humphrey.
This time? If Biden is forced out, who would Democrats seek to defeat an energized RFK Jr? Would it be Vice President Kamala Harris? California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom? Hillary? John Kerry?
And if, in fact, the party winds up choosing a nominee who is not Joe Biden?
That result could well be attributed to the fact that Robert Kennedy Jr., like his father’s old 1968 rival Eugene McCarthy, had the courage to step up to the plate when no one else would, ignoring the naysayers and plunging ahead with an unlikely candidacy.
And, in doing so, changing his party — and the country.
Back there in my CNN days, I met RFK Jr. as I turned a corner for a moment in the CNN green room. There he was with CNN host Erin Burnett, on whose show he had just appeared. I shook his hand, told him I was honored to meet him, and I was. Certainly, the warm memories I had of his father are still with me.
No, we don’t agree on the issues of the day. I’m for Trump.
But that isn’t the point.
Among the words of his father are those that originated with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and which RFK Sr. quoted frequently. They said:
Life is action and passion, and it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
That was true in 1968, and it’s true now.
I have no idea how this latest Kennedy campaign will play out. But as the McCarthy campaign of 1968 vividly illustrated, it is a mistake of the first order to not take a serious candidate seriously.
Whatever else can be said about the campaign of Robert Kennedy Jr., it is that he should not be taken for granted.
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