“Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!”
Those were Robert F. Kennedy’s hopeful last words, uttered 50 years ago next week, on June 6, at the conclusion of his speech claiming victory in the California presidential primary, minutes before he headed into the pantry of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel where his assassin was waiting on a low tray stacker. Nobody who listened, then or since, will forget what he said, yet almost nobody knew what he really meant.
Sure, Bobby Kennedy was talking about his hope of capturing the nomination at that summer’s Democratic National Convention in this Windy City. But he had no intention of waiting until August to wrap things up. This master of political maestros was planning to stop in Chicago on his way back East from Los Angeles. And he felt sure that a planned meeting with Mayor Richard J. Daley would yield both an endorsement and a critical leg up on the only rival who still mattered, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
“I would say there was a 70 percent chance he was going to endorse him,” says Daley’s son Bill. “Then the momentum would have shifted to where other people like my dad who were still left would have been hard pressed not to go there.”
It makes sense. The all-powerful Chicago mayor relished playing king-maker, and he loved the Kennedys, having helped put Bobby’s brother Jack in the White House eight years before. Humphrey, who hadn’t run in any primaries and was counting on power brokers like Daley to deliver the non-primary states, would have been devastated if the Chicago mayor sided with Bobby.
The what-if’s mushroom from there, and help explain our ongoing fascination with Bobby’s crusade for the presidency a half century after a volley of bullets from a 24-year-old Palestinian with the improbable name Sirhan Sirhan brought it to a halt. Would Kennedy have been the Democratic standard-bearer rather than Humphrey – and the president instead of Richard Nixon? Nixon thought the former, telling his family the night of the California primary, “It sure looks like we’ll be going against Bobby.” And RFK certainly knew Nixon’s vulnerabilities better than anybody, having orchestrated the campaign that beat him eight years before.
Bobby himself was too savvy a politician to get ahead of himself, but that night in Los Angeles — for the first time he’d jumped into the race in March — he believed it was doable. The dream — “make room for the next leader of the free world,” he’d mockingly say as he sprinted from hotel showers wrapped in a towel — suddenly seemed less distant.
Battle plans were being charted that very night for the campaign ahead. There’d be a full-court press in his adopted state of New York. A full-page ad in The New York Times would feature photos of AFL-CIO boss George Meany and segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox of Georgia — both staunchly anti-Kennedy — asking whether they should be allowed to pick the next president. The candidate would head overseas next, showing his gravitas by meeting with the pope and foreign leaders.
Nobody, least of all Bobby, minimized the obstacles. But after California he knew Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy no longer mattered and the only one who could deny him the nomination was Hubert Humphrey, or, as comedian Pat Paulson had dubbed him earlier that evening, Herbert Humphrey. “I’m going to chase Herbert’s ass all over the country,” Bobby vowed.
Sitting on the floor of his hotel room, arms around his knees, Bobby lit a victory cigar and contemplated. At the start he’d been unclear whether he was running as Joe Kennedy’s son, Jack’s brother, or President Lyndon Johnson’s avowed enemy. He still was all of those, but had found a voice and two uncomplicated reasons of his own: To end the war and poverty. They were enough, he told himself, as aides pressed him to head down to the ballroom.
Legions of restless believers were there singing “This Land Is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie ballad that Bobby had promised to make his national anthem. A few minutes before midnight he looked down at his bride Ethel, who was bouncing up and down on the bed. “Ready?” he asked. Then, knowing how McCarthy and others had teased him about his dog, he added impishly, “Do you think we should take Freckles down?”
Larry Tye’s latest book is “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.” Tye, a former reporter at The Boston Globe, is working on a biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His website is larrytye.com.
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