and the Transformation of American Politics (2017)
RFK decided not to run in the Florida primary, knowing that Senator George Smathers, posing as the “Favorite Son” candidate for Humphrey, was far too popular in his home state, so the showdown in the Sunshine State was McCarthy vs. Smathers (Humphrey). RFK’s strategy in the primaries was simple: don’t lose. The strategy sounded simple, but it was complex to execute. RFK entered too late to get on the ballots in the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts primaries, the next two after Wisconsin; so it wasn’t until 7 May 1968 in Indiana that the “real” primary between McCarthy and RFK could occur. That being said, Indiana’s governor was the “Favorite Son” candidate on behalf of Humphrey, so it was conceivable that RFK could finish third.
McCarthy was feeling the pressure in that he had never faced an opponent like RFK, and it was the first time he had directly faced an opponent in a primary. McCarthy faced a whole family of Kennedys, since if RFK wasn’t in Indiana, then there was Teddy, or Rose, or Ethel (RFK’s wife). McCarthy discovered that everything he had heard about the Kennedy campaign/political machine was true. The results in Indiana were: RFK 42%, Indiana’s Governor 31%, and McCarthy 27%. McCarthy refused to admit an outright loss to RFK, even though he finished a distant third . . . but the results were ambiguous enough where McCarthy was able to keep going.
Once a candidate announced, he was automatically on the Oregon primary ballot, and that candidate would have to completely withdraw as a candidate in order to remove his name from the state’s ballot. Oregon was one of the strongest anti-war states, and Oregon Senator Wayne Morse was the first Senator to oppose the war, and he was one of only two Senators that didn’t vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It was McCarthy, not RFK, that held the advantage in the Oregon Democratic primary. McCarthy came out on the attack, reminding voters of RFK’s early support of the Vietnam War. McCarthy also reminded voters of Attorney General RFK’s authorization of FBI wiretaps on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which wasn’t yet proven, but rumored to be true.
McCarthy, having accepted campaign money from the Humphrey campaign, publicly stated that he would support Humphrey if the Vice-President changed his stance on the Vietnam War, which was in part an effort to diminish RFK’s popularity in California. The McCarthy campaign staffers were in an uproar, since it appeared that McCarthy was getting ready to step aside for Humphrey.
California was the primary that most closely resembled the general election in that it was a huge state with multiple mega-urban areas, and CA’s population was just as diverse as America’s. To win in CA meant a candidate had to know their audience, and compared to RFK, McCarthy had a steep learning curve to overcome. McCarthy discovered that other issues mattered in CA in addition to Vietnam, and McCarthy had moved to the left of RFK on domestic issues, which sounded ominous to California’s white Democratic voters.
Not only were the Democratic leaders shaken to their core when LBJ dropped out, with chaos replacing order, but then RFK entered the race, which represented a serious challenge to Humphrey. Yet most of those party leaders/bosses expected RFK to drop out when the going got rough, and simply wait for 1972. Then Humphrey announced that he wouldn’t actively campaign in the primaries, and it was tough enough for the Democratic leadership to be pumped up about Humphrey in any case. So, slowly, the leaders of the Democratic Party worked their way to at least accepting RFK as a serious candidate by doing nothing other than watching events unfold, and California would go a long way in showing RFK’s electability in their eyes.
While McCarthy had his own constellation of Hollywood stars campaigning for him, such as Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, and the musical duo of Simon and Garfunkel, McCarthy knew that he couldn’t compete with RFK in California, so he focused on college campuses, where he was a rock star. On the final weekend before the California primary, McCarthy and RFK debated on television. RFK had refused to debate McCarthy, but his loss in Oregon changed his mind. ABC’s Frank Reynolds moderated the debate, and there were not any fireworks, and neither candidate claimed victory.
The last polls showed the race between McCarthy and RFK too close to call in CA, and most knew that the loser of the primary would be done. There was the additional potential political quagmire for both McCarthy and RFK if they lost in terms of endorsing the winner, or remaining in the race until the bitter end, which would tarnish the luster for which they stood.
Before midnight on election night, RFK knew that he had won the CA primary (RFK 46%, McCarthy 42%). McCarthy found out that RFK was giving his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel before he had conceded, which was without a doubt a serious breach of political etiquette on the part of RFK. But RFK wanted his victory photos in the Eastern newspapers, and it was already 3 am on the East Coast. As RFK delivered his victory speech to his enthusiastic supporters, McCarthy was writing his concession speech, but he would never be able to give it.
Rosey Grier had been a friend of the Kennedys for years, and he had appointed himself to be RFK’s bodyguard for his campaign. Grier simply made it his mission to make sure that RFK wasn’t in any danger, and if he was, Rosey Grier would be in the way. Soon after RFK left the podium and went through the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen to meet with reporters, 8 shots rang out. Grier had been guarding Ethel Kennedy (who was 8 months pregnant) as RFK left the podium. It was too late when Grier reached RFK, but in an ironic twist, it was Grier that made sure the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, wasn’t torn apart by the crowd of onlookers.