and the Transformation of American Politics (2017)
The entry of RFK worried Nixon, angered McCarthy, and excited Governors Nelson Rockefeller (NY), Ronald Reagan (CA), and George Wallace (AL). LBJ was haunted, in that he knew RFK would portray him as the sole owner of the War in Vietnam, totally discounting and ignoring JFK’s decisions/actions in SE Asia. RFK’s announcement energized LBJ with adrenaline and hatred (LBJ and RFK had hated each other since the mid-1950s with a passion basically unmatched among contemporary politicians).
LBJ’s Vietnam Speech was scheduled for the end of March, but hadn’t yet been announced to the public. From almost every one of his advisors, LBJ was counseled to find a politically acceptable way out of the war, arguing that credible steps towards peace would take the Republicans and rivals within the Democratic Party down several notches. LBJ saw the wisdom in that advice, enough so that he planned on making it his centerpiece in his Vietnam Speech. But there was nothing LBJ would say or do that would have stopped the planned protests in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention that summer.
To Rubin and Hoffman, Hayden, Davis, and Dellinger were the same uptight grown-ups that they were dedicated to humiliating. The Yippies didn’t hold back w/ their lurid-and-provocative statements, for example claiming that they were arranging a “Dawn Ass-Washing Ceremony” during the convention. But to all the radical protest leaders, the question hanging over their heads was this: what if LBJ didn’t get the nomination, and what if the nominee was RFK? Hayden knew there needed to be a “Plan B” in case RFK did get the nomination, and as far as the Yippies were concerned, RFK would simply ruin their fun.
On 23 March 1968, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), the Yippies, and various Black Power organizations met in a suburb of Chicago to plan, and the mood was discomfort and strain. The only real agreement reached was to reject McCarthy and RFK as real peace candidates, but everyone understood that their decision would be meaningless if either won the nomination. Later that week, Rubin wrote an article in the Village Voice in which he tried to dampen the rising enthusiasm over RFK.
Al Lowenstein was in agony, seeing two candidates running against LBJ, which could only benefit the President. Lowenstein was certain that a coalition between McCarthy and RFK would be necessary; to Lowenstein, the loser of the California primary would have to support the winner. But in the McCarthy camp, even talk of tolerating RFK was tantamount to heresy; for millions, McCarthy was the first brave Presidential candidate they had ever seen, and his supporters loved/admired McCarthy. McCarthy just may have been the last major Presidential candidate that didn’t flatter/insult the intelligence of the voter in order to gain support, Lowenstein soon found himself under suspicion on both the McCarthy and RFK camps, each seeing him as at least a potential turncoat.
The Wisconsin primary was on 2 April 1968, and RFK wasn’t in it, and the “Clean for Gene” kids poured into the state. Establishment Democrats loyal to LBJ continued to argue that New Hampshire was merely a fluke. Establishment Democrats were the last to figure out what was really going on in 1968, much like in 2008 when the Establishment Dems loyal to Hillary Clinton were too slow to recognize the rising tide that was Barack Obama, and then in 2016 with the challenge from Bernie Sanders.
However, politics as usual (the “Inside Game”) were still necessary to gain delegates, and RFK would need 1312 delegates to secure the nomination, but it was hard to see where any more than 800 delegates would come from. Most states didn’t have primaries, so getting pledged delegates remained an insider’s game. In 37 states, governors and party bosses still told delegates which candidate they had to support, and those governors/party bosses would stick with LBJ unless they were convinced he was a sure loser in November; and that’s what RFK hoped to prove in the few primaries in which he ran.
All agreed that California was by far the most important primary on 4 June 1968 in that it was among the last primaries, but more importantly CA was representative of the US electorate. RFK was already in CA campaigning and was gaining momentum. RFK was too late for the Wisconsin primary, and the deadline to enter the Indiana primary was closing in fast. RFK saw Indiana as his first-and-best chance to show that he was the real deal, and then perhaps California might earn him a place at the table at the convention.
As LBJ began his televised address, McCarthy was speaking to a crowd in Wisconsin, and RFK was flying back to New York City. Nixon was on pins and needles, hoping that LBJ’s speech wasn’t about finding a way out of the war. LBJ mentioned that he was creating a delegation for peace talks with North Vietnam, but he didn’t provide any specifics. LBJ predicted peace in SE Asia, which appeared to be designed to take some of the wind out of the sails of both McCarthy and RFK. Then LBJ lifted his right hand, which wasn’t visible to TV viewers since the camera was in close on LBJ’s face, and LBJ went off script. LBJ sent a lightning bolt across the American political landscape when he stated that he would not seek, and he would not accept, the nomination of his party for another term as President. Millions of Americans stared at their TV in stunned disbelief, not believing what they had just heard. What this represented to the Democratic Party was upcoming chaos instead of the preferred political predictability.
McCarthy had just finished his speech when he heard someone in the crowd yell “he’s not running”, and soon reporters mobbed the stage to ask McCarthy questions; McCarthy compared LBJ’s situation to a Greek Tragedy. In his speech, LBJ had also stated that he had stopped the bombing of North Vietnam and that he would not further escalate the war, both of which had been the first two goals of McCarthy’s candidacy. RFK didn’t find out until his plane landed, and his response was “you’re kidding”. Later, RFK wondered if LBJ had done so because he had entered the race. While corks were popping around him, RFK saw nothing to celebrate, in that the Presidency had just collapsed due to the Vietnam War.
LBJ's refusal to run in 1968 resulted in greater praise than did his landslide victory in 1964, and LBJ for the first time in many months was relaxed and relieved. On 2 April 1968, McCarthy won the Wisconsin primary, but the totals were confusing: McCarthy 56%, LBJ 35%, and a 6% write-in result for RFK. With LBJ out of the race, many wondered why McCarthy didn't win by a larger margin . . . and what did that 35% result for LBJ signify? So in essence, Wisconsin was ignored, and attention shifted to the Indiana Democratic primary, where RFK was on the ballot.