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What If Robert Kennedy Lived?

Within days, even hours, after Senator Robert Kennedy was fatally shot 30 years ago, politicians and journalists began asking each other the tantalizing questions.

What if Sirhan Sirhan, the brooding young Jordanian who assassinated Kennedy, had not chosen to go to the senator's victory party at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that night? Or what if the bullet had misfired and Kennedy had survived the attempt on his life?

Would he have gone on to win the Democratic presidential nomination in Chicago that August? And if so, would he have been elected to the White House in November?

Such intriguing speculations must be considered within the context of the political upheavals that, even before Kennedy's death, had rocked the country during the first few months of 1968.

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A Bitter Split Over Vietnamcolor>

President Lyndon Johnson
Source: AP
When that year began, President Lyndon Johnson was in deep trouble. Because of the war in Vietnam, LBJ had lost the broad consensus of support he had enjoyed four years earlier when he led his party to a landslide victory over the Republicans and their presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. By 1968 the Democrats were bitterly divided over the war and so, in fact, was most of the country.

As early as the fall of 1967, antiwar Democrats had urgently appealed to Kennedy to challenge Johnson for the nomination. But Kennedy rejected their entreaties and in doing so, he cited two main reasons:

  • He was convinced that it was all but impossible for an incumbent president to be ousted from office by a member of his own party.
  • Kennedy believed his candidacy would only deepen the divisions that plagued the Democrats and thus make it easier for a Republican to capture the White House in '68.

So it was left to another Democratic senator -- Eugene McCarthy -- to take up the banner of insurgency and challenge Johnson in the early primary battles. And it was McCarthy's strong showing in the critical first test -- the New Hampshire primary in March of '68 -- that prompted Kennedy to "reassess" his position.

President Johnson Withdrawscolor>

The surprise result in New Hampshire persuaded Kennedy that Johnson was far more vulnerable than he had believed, and that the divisions within the party were deeper and more corrosive than he had realized. So, rather belatedly, he entered the race for the Democratic nomination.

That decision provoked a barrage of criticism from both wings of his party. The defenders of Johnson and the status quo naturally resented Kennedy's rebellious move, while McCarthy's avid supportes accused the new candidate of trying to usurp the crusade of their hero who, after all, had put himself on the line at a time when Kennedy had refused to translate his convictions into action.

Nor did matters improve that much when, on March 31, President Johnson stunned the nation with his announcement that he would not be a candidate for re-election. That merely opened the door to another status-quo candidate -- Vice President Hubert Humphrey -- although by the time he scrambled into the fray, it was too late for him to compete in the primaries.

Hupert Humphrey
Source: AP
So, with Humphrey confined to lining up delegate support behind the scenes and with the Republicans coalescing behind their front-runner, Richard Nixon, all the media focus that spring was on the internecine primary confrontations between the two antiwar candidates.

Their first showdown came in Indiana. Kennedy won that primary, and followed it up with another decisive victory in Nebraska. Then, just when it looked as if McCarthy was going down for the count, he rallied his forces and defeated Kennedy in the Oregon primary.

That was the first time any Kennedy had lost an election -- any election.

Catastrophe Follows Victorycolor>

So it was against this glum background that Robert Kennedy began the last week of his life. Turning his sights to the critical June 4 primary in California with its rich harvest of delegates, Kennedy knew he had to defeat McCarthy in the nation's largest state in order to keep his candidacy alive.

And win he did. On the night of his stirring comeback victory in the California primary, Kennedy came down to the ballroom at his headquarters hotel, the Ambassador, to thank the throng of cheering supporters. But also in the crowd that night was the young man with the gun -- Sirhan Sirhan.

As Kennedy finished his remarks and left the platform at 12:15 AM, Sirhan opened fire. One of the bullets struck the senator in the head and left him grievously wounded. He died about 24 hours later.

And already by then, the question was being asked: what if Kennedy had not been killed on the night on his crowning triumph in the 1968 primary campaign?

One thing for sure: he no longer would have had to worry that much about McCarthy. The stakes in California were as vital to his candidacy as they were to Kennedy's, and there was widespread agreement that the winner of that primary would assume command as the clear leader of the antiwar forces that were gathering strength across the country.

But prevailing over Hubert Humphrey was another matter altogether. Even though he did not run in any of the primaries, Humphrey had he core apparatus of the Democratic Party behind him, as well as the power of the White House and all that it entailed.

When Conventional Wisdom Failedcolor>

In the final days of the California campaign, as it became apparent that Kennedy was going to win, the consensus among journalists and politicians was that he still faced a very steep uphill struggle to wrest the nomination away from Humphrey.

But that was the conventional wisdom, and if the turbulent events of 1968 taught us anything, it revealed how shaky and unreliable a barometer the conventional wisdom was that year. And had he lived, Kennedy would have brought to the next phase of the campaign certain advantages that he was ready and eager to exploit.

First of all, he would have come out of the California primary with a huge burst of momentum. And he would have spent the next two months putting the pressure on party leaders who controlled delegates in the key non-primary states to persuade them that his victories on the primary trail should not be ignored if the Democrats truly hoped to win in November.

In addition, the antiwar sentiment grew stronger and more intense during the summer months of 1968, and that, too, would have played to Kennedy's advantage.

Even with Kennedy gone, the rising tide of antiwar feeling had an adverse effect on Humphrey's candidacy, in large part because the vice president was having trouble separating himself from Johnson and the war policies that had destroyed his presidency. A living and combative Kennedy would have relentlessly drawn attention to that contrast.

The Humphrey slide that summer was so dramatic that by the time of the Democratic convention in August, polls showed him losing to Nixon in November. It's altogether likely that polls of a Nixon-Kennedy contest would have produced a sharply different result, for aside from the issues, the spring primaries had clearly revealed that there was still plenty of magic and clout to the Kennedy name.

The Second Kennedy Presidencycolor>

So, in light of all that, let's assume for the sake of argument that Kennedy would have found a way to win the Democratic nomination. Then what? Would he have defeated Nixon in the general election?
President Richard Nixon
Source: AP
Let's not forget that as the Democratic nominee, Humphrey came out of the riot-torn Chicago convention as severely damaged goods, and yet even in his battered condition he managed to turn the election into a cliffhanger, losing to Nixon by barely a whisker.

Does that not suggest that Kennedy -- with the all-important war issue working in hs favor -- would have defeated Nixon, just as his brother did eight years earlier?

So now speculation has brought us to a second Kennedy presidency, and how would that have differed from Nixon's reign in the White House?

Well, for one thing, it's a fairly safe bet that the war in Vietnam would not have dragged on another four years as it did under Nixon's leadership. The moral fuel that drove Kennedy to run for president was his deep belief that the U.S. presence in Vietnam should be brought to an end -- and as quickly as possible.

And it's an even safer bet that with Kennedy as president, there would have been no Watergate scandal.

If President Nixon Never Wascolor>

Beyond that, it's hard to be specific, except to say that Kennedy almost certainly would have brought renewed impetus to the social policies that defined the best of his brother's New Frontier initiatives and Johnson's Great Society programs.

In particular, he would have focused the power of the White House on the thorny problems of race and class, which caused so much disruption at the time and which persist to this day.

And had he succeeded in the pursuit of his liberal or progressive policies, Kennedy would have left a legacy that might well have influenced at least some of his successors.

In which case, the strong progressive tradition that we associate with some of our best presidents -- the two Roosevelts and Wilson and Truman, as well as JFK and LBJ -- would be alive and well in America today.

And if that were so, then here's the best part: Warren Beatty would not have been driven by his rage and frustration to make the film Bulworth, and we all would have spared that clamorous assault on our senses.

Find more about Robert F. Kennedy at

Written by Gary Paul Gates.
Produced by Adam S. Gaynor

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