The Bobby Kennedy Myth (2023)

Fifty years ago this evening, Robert F. Kennedy stepped off a dais in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after declaring victory in California’s presidential primary. Moments later, as he walked through the kitchen to greet the hotel’s busboys and dishwashers, a lone gunman assassinated the New York senator in a tragic reprise of the events that had claimed his brother’s life just a few years earlier.

In the half-century since his death, Bobby Kennedy has come to embody the Democratic Party’s lost dream. He alone, it seemed, could draw working-class white, black and Latino voters into an umbrella coalition. He was an “activist champion of the country’s disinherited,” argues Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host and longtime political observer. He seemed uniquely capable of preaching a message of reconciliation in a country violently torn at the seams in 1968. Or, if he was not singular in this ability, then his powerful message of “inclusive patriotic populism,” as Richard D. Kahlenberg has argued, should inform today’s Democratic Party as it charts a long course back to power.

It’s a compelling story. But the truth is, we just don’t know. The myth of Kennedy’s cross-racial appeal is grounded in a limited number of precinct-level results from two states—Indiana and Nebraska—where the results were, at best, mixed. It seems equally likely that Kennedy, had he been nominated, was on track to sweep black and Latino neighborhoods but bleed support among working-class whites—the same fate that ultimately befell Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee that year.

Ironically, RFK’s younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, came closer to building what many pundits today believe is the Democratic Party’s winning combination: people of color, educated white suburbanites and enough blue-collar white workers who have been drifting for the past 50 years into Republican ranks.

But history doesn’t always tell a neat story. For those looking to either Kennedy brother for the magic formula, there is a warning. Context and contingency matter. What works in one year, for one candidate, might not work in the next. As instructive as the past might be, it doesn’t necessarily give us clear insight into the future.


The hard reality is this: Bobby Kennedy would most likely not have won the presidency, because he was already on track to lose his party’s nomination. In 1968 only 15 states chose their delegates by primary. Almost three-fifths of conventional delegates were selected by county committeemen, state party officers and elected officials, and those officials were squarely behind Humphrey.

Kennedy also faced opposition from three groups central to the nominating process: Southern Democrats, many of whom bitterly resented his advocacy of civil rights; many leaders of organized labor, who remembered his crackdowns on Jimmy Hoffa and other corrupt union officials; and—despite his upbringing and pedigree—titans of industry, who viewed with deep worry his steady, leftward drift during his four years in the Senate. “Who else could have brought together Big Business, Big Labor and the South?” Bobby quipped to a campaign aide.

Finally, young antiwar voters, whom he needed to draw into in his coalition, remained steadfastly loyal to Senator Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota Democrat who had preceded RFK in challenging President Lyndon B. Johnson, and who had “un-kinged” the incumbent by nearly beating him in the New Hampshire primary, thus prompting LBJ to drop out.

Despite victories in Indiana, Nebraska and California—and the likelihood of wins in New York and New Jersey later that spring—Bobby, who had expertly managed his brother Jack’s campaigns for the Senate and presidency, ran an astoundingly undisciplined campaign in 1968. His operation was torn between old-guard practitioners of traditional machine politics—disbursers of “walking around” money, delegate counters, deal-cutters—and young Senate aides who favored an aggressive, shock-and-awe appeal to the dispossessed. It’s hard to imagine they would have run a sufficiently methodical operation at the Democratic National Convention. And even if they had, the odds were steep.

Yet despite its shortcomings and structural blockers, Kennedy’s campaign was a singular event. “Black Bobby,” as his own family once called him in reference to the brooding, bitter, pragmatic enforcer who scoffed at liberals as impractical, even weak, dreamers—had evolved into a sad-eyed and genuinely empathetic champion of Americans who had been left behind: black people living in squalid urban ghettos, Latino immigrants laboring for pennies in California’s vineyards, poor white residents of Appalachian coal towns that had long ago been stripped to their veins.

At frantic rallies and in frenzied motorcade swings through black and Latino neighborhoods, Kennedy transformed into something bordering between Christ-like and celebrity. “The crowds were savage,” one of his advisers remembered. “They pulled off his cufflinks, tore off his clothes, tore ours. In bigger towns with bigger crowds, it was frightening.” Kennedy would stand in an open-topped convertible, a young aide kneeling with his arm wrapped around the candidate, who wore a weary half smile as residents reached out to touch his limp arms and hands or tear off a piece of clothing as a keepsake. “It was like he wasn’t there,” another aide observed. “His stare was vacant.”

Bobby veered sharply between preaching a message of reconciliation and lobbing bruising attacks on those representing wealth, privilege and power (he was never so effective as when those attacks were aimed at his nemesis, President Johnson). To the black and brown voters who composed the base of his support, he seemed a savior. But to many middle-class white Democrats, Kennedy’s rallies and motorcades were unsettling. In their heat and intensity, they seemed eerily of a piece with violent antiwar protests and urban riots that defined that most disorderly time. “You have to turn it down,” implored Ted Sorensen, a longtime Kennedy family confidant. “We can’t,” Bobby replied. “It’s too late.”

The myth of Kennedy’s interracial appeal was born in Indiana, where the candidate trounced his cooler, more professorial rival, Eugene McCarthy. In the immediate aftermath of the primary, the influential political columnists Robert Novak and Rowland Evans noted that in Gary, “while Negro precincts were delivering about 90 percent for Kennedy, he was running 2 to 1 ahead in some Polish districts.” Such findings quickly formed the basis of Bobby’s image as a candidate of racial reconciliation. He was a tough, Irish Catholic Democrat with unimpeachable credentials as a Cold Warrior and law enforcer. But he was also the preferred candidate of the urban ghetto—a truth speaker on racial and economic injustice. “Kennedy’s Indiana Victory Proves His Appeal Defuses Backlash Voting,” one headline declared.

Historians and political scientists see the matter differently today. Kennedy’s own vote counters later conceded that he lost 59 out of 70 white precincts in Gary. While Kennedy’s internal polls showed him faring better than might be expected among former supporters of George Wallace’s bid for the Democratic nomination four years earlier, he nevertheless struggled to retain working-class, white ethnic voters and relied instead on robust turnout in minority neighborhoods for his electoral cushion.

The best analysis of the limited data available is Richard Kahlenberg’s superb and largely persuasive paper, “The Inclusive Populism of Robert Kennedy,” published earlier this year. Kahlenberg is more inclined to believe that RFK was on a path to build a winning alliance of working-class whites and minorities, but a fair read of his work acknowledges that we just don’t know. Kennedy didn’t run in enough primaries—and data science was too primitive in 1968—to tell us much. There is evidence to support either conclusion.

Counterfactuals are a dangerous game, but Kennedy and his team instinctively understood that their real base was among people of color. As early precincts from Gary reported on May 7, opening up a wide gap in what early returns had shown to be an unexpectedly close race against McCarthy, Ethel Kennedy, the candidate’s wife, crowed, “Don’t you just wish that everyone was black?”

What does seem clear is that Kennedy struggled with educated white professionals, a group central to the Democratic Party’s ambitions in 2018 and beyond. The journalist David Halberstam attributed much of the problem to style. Kennedy’s motorcades and rallies captured the very fever that many suburbanites hoped to quell. “There would be two minutes of television each night of Robert Kennedy being mauled, losing his shoes, and then there would be 15 free—that was painful—minutes of Gene McCarthy talking leisurely and seriously about the issues.”

Much focus is given to understanding whether Bobby Kennedy could have forged a white, black and brown working-class coalition, to the exclusion of considering whether he could have held enough white suburbanites to defeat Richard Nixon—assuming, that is, that he had been able to win the Democratic nomination.

Heading into the Oregon primary, Bobby rued that “it’s all white Protestants. There’s nothing for me to grab ahold of.” On the eve of the ballot, the candidate turned to his aide, Joe Dolan, and observed, “You think I’m going to lose.” “I know you are,” replied Dolan. “We don’t have blacks and Chicanos, and we do have gun nuts.” (Kennedy became an early gun safety supporter after his brother’s assassination, a position that was no more popular in certain pockets then than it is now.)

The Netflix documentary, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” opens with bracing—almost jaw-dropping—footage of Bobby campaigning in open-topped convertibles throughout California. It was days after his defeat in Oregon, and he was in the fight of his life. The crowds are interracial, to be sure, but upon close examination, they are composed of people of color in sharp disproportion to the state’s population in 1968. We don’t know how Kennedy might have fared among working-class whites if he had survived into the fall. But it’s fair to say that he was one of the first national Democrat in aftermath of the Voting Rights Act to solidify the loyalty of black and Latino voters in large and meaningful numbers.

Bobby Kennedy—a late arrival to the cause of racial justice, but a powerful and important voice in the last years of his short life—didn’t live long enough to build on that legacy. As the nation’s demographics changed, Democrats would struggle to layer other groups on top of its growing minority base: young people, the LGBT community, suburban professionals and enough working-class whites to avoid an absolute rout in key states.

That’s the coalition that Barack Obama assembled in 2008 and 2012. But he wasn’t the first to build it. That honor falls to Bobby’s younger brother, Teddy.


Having spent nearly four years leading liberals in opposition to their party’s centrist president, in November 1979 Ted Kennedy—the youngest and last-surviving of Joe Kennedy’s sons—announced that he would challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination the next year. The campaign did not begin promisingly.

In the early months of the race, CBS aired a documentary on Kennedy in which the Massachusetts senator nearly came unraveled. After stumbling through tense questioning from newsman Roger Mudd about his conduct 10 years earlier at Chappaquiddick, Kennedy badly flubbed what should have been a soft-ball question: Why was he running for president?

“Well, I’m—were I to—to make the announcement,” he began in a halting voice, “… is because I have a great belief in this country, that is—has more natural resources than any nation in the world … the greatest technology of any country in the world … the greatest political system in the world … And I would basically feel that—that it’s imperative for this country to move forward, that it can’t stand still, or otherwise it moves back.” Kennedy’s performance was shockingly sub-par and created a clear impression that he had no particular reason, other than personal ambition, for seeking the highest office in the land. “He was running because he wanted to be president,” Carter’s chief of staff later noted. “That was not such an unusual motive, but most aspirants figure out some way to disguise it better.”

As an anxious nation rallied behind its commander in chief in the initial days of the Iran hostage crisis in November 1979 (hard though it is to imagine all these years later, Carter’s rating in the Gallup Poll shot up from 32 percent to 61 percent overnight), the Boston Globe observed that “the flame under the [Kennedy] charisma has been turned down so low it seems to have gone out, and the motivation seems muffled. It is a Kennedy campaign without a Kennedy.”

Yet by late spring, after losing a string of critical early primary and caucus states, Kennedy hit his stride. He defeated Carter in delegate-rich New York and then proceeded to win a straight row of contests in Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Mexico, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Michigan. As the hostage crisis wore on—and after Carter ordered a disastrous, failed rescue mission in April—exit polls revealed that Kennedy was attracting support from voters disillusioned by the president’s inability to resolve the situation in the Middle East and equally animated by economic concerns over persistent stagflation, mounting job losses in the manufacturing sector and soaring energy and food prices. Increasingly, Kennedy homed in on economic grievances that resonated across a broad swath of voters from different backgrounds.

As a journalist observed, the electoral coalition that Kennedy managed to assemble late in the primary season was precisely the alignment his brother Bobby had attempted with great fanfare but less success to cobble together in 1968: “blacks and liberals and blue-collar conservatives, all united by their anger at the way things were.”

It was both an understatement and a half-truth. Exit polls and precinct-level data revealed that Kennedy trounced Carter in heavily black and Latino precincts. In New York, he won the 10th Congressional District—a Bronx-based district populated mostly by black and Latino residents—by a 2-to-1 margin. He also won early 70 percent of the vote in the 8th District in Queens, an enclave of Roman Catholic working-class and middle-class families. He performed similarly well in Philadelphia and its suburbs, among black and working-class white voters, though Carter bested him in smaller towns in the western part of the state, where Kennedy’s advocacy of abortion rights and gun safety measures was a liability.

In Arizona and New Mexico, Teddy racked up lopsided numbers in heavily Latino precincts. Though the president enjoyed the support of the state party chair and the mayor of Albuquerque, Kennedy amassed 4-to-1 and 3-to-1 majorities in counties where Latino voters composed the lion’s share of the electorate.

It wasn’t merely that Kennedy managed to build the coalition that eluded his brother, though by April he led Carter in polling among Jews, Catholics and liberals. He also broadened that coalition to include new constituencies. In California, he and his wife campaigned openly in gay bars around San Francisco’s Castro district, leading the San Francisco Chronicle to marvel at the “striking diversity” of the crowd. Kennedy pulled under one roof representatives of blue-collar labor unions, LGBT activists, and black and Latino community organizers. He also began performing well in middle-class suburbs—not necessarily winning them outright, but drawing near enough to Carter blunt his advantage.

By the time Kennedy recovered his early momentum, the president had already won enough delegates to secure re-nomination on the first ballot. Nevertheless, Kennedy had succeeded—if only fleetingly—in assembling the outlines of the coalition that Barack Obama would later forge in 2008.


America’s fundamental demography has changed markedly since 1968 and 1980. We’re a more diverse country, not only by measures of race and ethnicity, but by sexuality, family composition and lifestyle. Working-class voters have for some time shifted gradually to the GOP, just as college-educated white suburbanites—particularly, women—have made the opposite migration to the Democratic Party.

Yet on the week of the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, many pundits have found it tempting to locate in his last campaign the Democratic Party’s map out of the wilderness. That would be a mistake. The examples are instructive on a limited basis, but in both cases, context and contingency mattered.

Context: Bobby Kennedy ran for president at the high-water mark of white backlash, in a year when America seemed at war with itself. It’s possible that no candidate—even one so apparently hard-wired for the challenge—could have bridged racial and class divides. (Another candidate, Richard Nixon, knew how to profit from them.)

Contingency: Without a prolonged hostage crisis, Ted Kennedy might not have gained sufficient traction in the late primaries.

Context: Ted Kennedy ran for president in a transitional decade, when millions of Americans swung wildly between left and right. It was an era when women could be found at both feminist marches and anti-abortion rallies; union members could demand economic collectivism one day, and angrily oppose school busing the next. On Election Day, some 27 percent of Ted Kennedy’s primary supporters cast their votes for Ronald Reagan, including a self-identified white-ethnic liberal from Queens, who told a reporter shortly before the general election: “Carter’s a disaster. I think what the country really needs is a father figure, so I’m voting for Ronald Reagan.” In so fluid an environment, Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could profit.

Contingency: What if RFK had lived and had taken the nomination from Humphrey? Ultimately, the 1968 election results were painfully close, with Nixon taking 43.4 percent of the popular vote to 42.7 percent for Humphrey and 13.5 percent for George Wallace. It’s not impossible to believe that he might have shaved off enough points from Wallace among white-ethnic and blue-collar workers in key East Coast and Midwestern states to win the race.

History can and should inform our present. But it doesn’t operate by timeless rules. Democrats should study the examples of 1968 and 1980, but they should also recognize that the country and its citizenry have changed a lot since then. Robert Kennedy in his final years had indeed transformed himself into a rare and noble voice for America’s forgotten communities. He preached a vital message of reconciliation and appealed to people’s better nature. There’s much to admire, and even venerate, in that legacy. But it’s not necessarily a template for the Democratic Party’s campaign strategy in 2018 and beyond.

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