Reflections on RFK, and a brush with history

We’ve seen and read a lot about the 2016 US presidential campaign, and most of it is dispiriting.  My mind has wandered back recently to 1968 where serious issues were tackled by serious candidates in both parties.  Campaigns attacked the issues of 1968 head-on with passion and eloquence.  Like today, it was a campaign no one could have predicted months before and it is a campaign I have revisited many times thanks to my family’s own fleeting connection to RFK during the Oregon primary.

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This autographed campaign poster adorns my office wall, as it did my father’s. Signed by RFK at the Portland Zoo, May 24, 1968. Also signed by Astronaut John Glenn (faded ballpoint).

Senator Robert F. Kennedy sat on the sidelines in late 1967 and early 1968, unwilling to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination.   As the Vietnam war deepened during LBJ’s presidency, so did RFK’s opposition but he did not want to be the object of polarization by taking on a sitting president with whom there was mutual enmity.  Instead, Senator Eugene McCarthy (Minnesota) took on the mantle of the anti-war movement and challenged LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, finishing second but succeeding in exposing the President’s vulnerability.  McCarthy was one of those Democrats who caught fire on college campuses and with righteous liberals, like Bernie Sanders.

With a  split in the party now wide open, RFK decided to join the race, launching a frenetic, relentless campaign that would last 82 days.

Within weeks of RFK’s campaign launch, LBJ shocked the nation by announcing he would not stand for re-election.  From March 31st on, RFK was locked in battle with two Minnesotans – the insurgent McCarthy and the establishment choice Vice-President Hubert Humphrey – for delegates to the 1968 Democratic convention to be held in Chicago.

Attacked for his opportunism by McCarthy, and resented by President Johnson and the incumbent Democratic Party establishment, RFK had a difficult path.  He was 42-years old and seen as ruthless and ambitious.  He brought the powerful Kennedy machine, the emotional punch of his brother’s unfulfilled presidency, but most importantly, he brought a fervent passion that matched the temper of the times.

His campaign was launched on the fly.  It did not have a corporate headquarters in Brooklyn or Chicago like the major campaigns of today.  Rather, it was launched out of a cannon, heading to states where primaries were being held and where he still had time to get on the ballot.

Some of the initial events were in Kansas, hardly what we would think of today as fertile Democratic soil, yet 15,000 students jammed the field house at Kansas State University to hear him speak about Vietnam, race, and poverty.  He spoke, he took questions, there were hecklers, there was give and take. He was greeted by throngs at airports and parking lots by people with handmade signs.  He went out of his way to speak on Indian reservations – it was a priority for him, even if it defied conventional political calculus.  His campaign was followed by teams of print reporters following his utterances.  The reporters would know when to board the campaign train or bus as almost every campaign speech closed with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Then, as the campaign turned into April, surprise struck again.  On April 4th, Reverend Martin Luther King was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.  It so happened that RFK was heading toward a rally in Indianapolis where about 1,000 were gathered, mostly from the black community.  When he mounted the platform, he realized that they had not yet heard the news – no text messages or Facebook posts announced the news in those days.  In what was one of his greatest moments he addressed the crowd, without notes, preaching against hatred, lawlessness, and violence, instead pleading for love, wisdom, and compassion.  He spoke about the loss of Rev. King and speaking of the loss of his own brother by an assassin’s bullet.  He quoted Greek philosophers.  This was a man with considerable reach, to draw upon the words in the most volatile of moments.  The video below is riveting.

Indiana was pivotal for RFK.  It was not a natural constituency for his campaign.  The Governor ran as a ‘favourite son’ candidate and had been the proxy for LBJ.  He was backed by the major newspapers which ran negative Kennedy stories incessantly.  McCarthy was also on the ballot and had his constituency of anti-war Democrats and college students.  RFK stitched together a coalition of working-class whites and the black community, while tailoring his message to resonate with Indiana’s inherent conservative values.  By the end of the Indiana campaign, the Kennedy motorcade would slowly drive through towns waving to crowds on the side of the road.  His body-man would spend the entire day kneeling on the convertible’s back seat holding Kennedy while he leaned forth to shake hands.  The campaign threaded the needle and the primary was won.  Where JFK had settled on West Virginia as the narrative bedrock for his successful campaign, Indiana took on that role for RFK.

The campaign ultimately led to Oregon, a key primary state voting May 28th, one week before the massive California primary.  Back in 1968, with fewer primary states, the California primary was extremely important, unlike today when the presidential primaries are essentially wrapped up by June.

The Kennedy campaign struggled in Oregon.  It did not generate the passion and enthusiasm seen in other places.  Crowds were polite and calm.  Things were a little too good in Oregon to be ruffled by the anxiety and anger seething in other places in America.  Senator McCarthy had traction and RFK was having difficulty keeping pace.

This is where the McDonald family from Haney, BC enters the picture.  My father, Peter, organized (or rather, schemed) a family vacation down to Portland to coincide with the Oregon primary.  The McDonald family (my parents, three sisters, and brother) crossed paths with the Kennedy family at the Portland Zoo on May 25, 1968.

I have heard the stories many times over the years from my parents and my older siblings. Their recollections provide an innocent glimpse into presidential campaigning in stark contrast to the events that unfolded a week later.

My siblings have remarked that the zoo wasn’t very busy that day and access to RFK was fairly easy – security was present, but not intrusive.  There were handshakes and photos while the Kennedy family walked about the zoo.  My sister Julia recalls that RFK said to her, “Is this your autograph book little girl?”  She responded, “Yes.  We live in Canada, but if we lived in the United States, my Dad would vote for you.” Family lore also suggests that my brother, Ian, was kissed on the forehead by RFK.  Here are some McDonald family photos:

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Ethel Kennedy in foreground, RFK chatting with voters (Julia McDonald scrapbook collection)

Not only was the Kennedy family campaigning, so was famous astronaut John Glenn.  Glenn, who died this week at age 95, signed autographs and urged support for Kennedy.  My sisters remember him as a class act.

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My father collected my sisters together to meet Glenn.  He asked where they were from and when hearing they were from Canada, my sister Julia recalls that he said he enjoyed hunting in Canada.  Julia says that my mother’s recollection is that he told them to
study Science but attributes that to motherly-spin.

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A great UPI photo of the Kennedy’s framed by a cooperative elephant. Michigan scholar Paul Lee notes that RFK has a rose pinned to his lapel, in honour of Portland – the “City of roses”

At some point, Kennedy was on the move toward the train that runs through the zoo.  My father managed to get alongside him while they were on a staircase heading in that direction.  Here is my dad, 35 years old, and having spent the 1960s as a very active volunteer for the Liberal Party.  He was switched-on to politics, big time.  He avidly followed the campaigns of Stevenson-Eisenhower, Nixon-JFK, Pearson-Diefenbaker, and was a delegate to the Convention that elected Pierre Trudeau.  He managed campaigns, served as municipal councillor, and would soon be a provincial candidate.  Add to that the atmosphere of upheaval in the US with the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King a month earlier, and the rising voice of Baby Boomer student protest… What a moment!

So, here he was, Pete from Haney, on the stairwell with RFK.   Family folklore advises me that the following happened.

Peter: “Senator Kennedy, I’m a big fan of yours… I’m from Canada”.

RFK: “Who the F8#k caahhhhhs”.

That may not be verbatim, but it’s close.  RFK could be a little impatient.

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RFK in front row with John Glenn and Ethel Kennedy

Despite this terse brush off (well, it can be argued my Dad was in the way of actual Oregon voters),  RFK and his family continued to the train with the McDonald family, undeterred, in hot pursuit.  My family boarded the same zoo train as the Kennedy’s.  As the train went around a bend, Ethel leaned out and looked backwards and waved to may family’s car near the back of the train.  My sister Sara, then 11 years old, said “It felt like she was waving at us and we waved back.  It was a big deal!”  As the train slowly made its way around the zoo, it was about to collide with another force – the McCarthy campaign.

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Senator Eugene McCarthy

Senator McCarthy came to the zoo looking to challenge RFK to a debate.  McCarthy was leading in the primary and had RFK on the defensive.  As the train came to a stop, nervous Kennedy aides briefed their candidate that McCarthy was on the prowl and seeking a confrontation.  An alert family member heard RFK say, “Let’s get the F*#k out of here”.  My mother, Helen, recollects that the Kennedys literally disappeared in a cloud of dust, bodies everywhere sprinting to their motorcade.  Sister Sara remembers Kennedy supporter Rafer Johnson, a US Olympian, scooping up Ethel and running with her in his arms to the motorcade and “threw her (as in really threw her)” into the car.

McCarthy missed Kennedy but jumped on the media bus, which was still parked at the curb, and took full advantage of the hasty departure by holding court with the national press.  McCarthy went on to defeat Kennedy in the Oregon primary on May 28, 1968.

The McDonald family, no doubt exhilarated by this brush with fame and power, finished up its brief Oregon vacation and headed north up the I-5 back to sleepy Haney.  A week later, they awoke to the news that Robert Kennedy had been slain in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after triumphing in the June 4th California primary.  My mother recalls my then 7-year old sister, Sylvia, saying, “But how can he be dead when he was so alive?”

Six months after the assassination, Ethel Kennedy gave birth to her daughter Rory, on December 12th, 1968.  My mother gave birth to me the next day on December 13th.  Born hours apart, worlds apart, but connected for a few brief moments on the campaign trail at the Portland Zoo.

Unlike me, Rory did not have the privilege of knowing a father.  And America will never know what could have become of the unfulfilled promise of Robert F. Kennedy, president or otherwise.

** UPDATE ** 

Since writing my blog post, I had the honour of receiving correspondence from Paul Lee, a scholar based in Highland Park, Michigan.  Paul writes that he is working on a book on Bobby Kennedy’s “remarkable relationship” with non-“white” peoples.  In his words, he is making the “critical interpretation of archival/historical photos, videos and sound recordings” a major part of his research.

He kindly forwarded additional information from that day at the Portland Zoo, including a 41-second black and white video and the UPI photo shown above.  The video includes the visit from Senator McCarthy.

Paul brought to my attention that it was US Olympian Rafer Johnson who scooped up Ethel and carried her to the motorcade to evade Senator McCarthy.  Our family recollection was that it was Rosey Grier, but I have corrected the record above thanks to Paul’s research.

I have been asked about the curt exchange between RFK and my father.  This was considered out of character.  However, having known my mother for 48 years, I am pretty certain that she has the straight goods on this one.  It seems Bobby was just having a bad day… it happens!

Thanks to Paul for his contributions.  He has various RFK videos posted on his YouTube channel.

News Coverage (thanks to Paul Lee):

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The Aftermath:

Old newspapers from June 1968: the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province, and Life Magazine:

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Kennedy campaign brochure:

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More Background:

Video: Kennedy and Glenn on the hustings in Oregon with a voiceover of one of Kennedy’s famous speeches during the campaign:

There are many excellent books about the 1968 campaign.

Two books focus solely on the Kennedy campaign.  Witcover details the behind-the-scenes action leading up to, and taking place throughout the Kennedy campaign.  Clarke captures the passion and excitement of the campaign trail.

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Theodore H. White defined presidential campaign reporting and his 1968 edition covers both parties in detail.

This 1960 edition is viewed as one of the most important political books of the 20th century.

 

 

 

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Joe McGinnis wrote this seminal work on how Nixon adapted modern advertising techniques to shape his candidacy.  Nixon’s comeback after losing in 1960 and losing again in the 1962 California gubernatorial race was well-planned.

The key person behind Nixon’s strategy? Roger Ailes, late of Fox News.  Thanks to Dick Drew, former owner of CKAY Radio in Duncan, BC, for recommending this book to me.

 

Julia’s scrapbook:

And finally, the full Julia McDonald scrapbook view.  The giraffe gets a lot of attention:

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