The Last Campaign

Michael Carlson · Robert Kennedy

John Stewart and Buffy Ford warmed up the crowds for Robert Kennedy as he went on the stump in California. ‘Truly as the sun, truly as the rain,’ Stewart later sang, ‘Truly I believe, that it was the last campaign.’ Kennedy won the state’s Democratic primary, of course; and after making his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on 5 June 1968, he was assassinated.

In 1968 I was still four years away from voting age, but I was one of those young people who fuelled Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to Lyndon Johnson. We thought we heard the beginnings of a voice that would penetrate the political machine that was sending us off to die abroad, and resisting the end of apartheid at home. McCarthy didn't win the New Hampshire primary, but his close second-place finish was enough to prompt Johnson not to seek a second term, and enough to prompt Bobby Kennedy into the race.

We saw Kennedy as a usurper, the young lawyer who had worked for Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy, the ruthless campaign manager and attorney general in his brother's service, the carpetbagger who had ousted the liberal Republican senator Kenneth Keating in New York. We hesitated to believe in his apparent conversion to 'our' politics. McCarthy had been the one with courage, with a crusader's purity of purpose. The analogy to the 2016 primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders isn’t far-fetched. As Stewart sang, 'we were dreamers on the rise.'

Fifty years on, two things are clear. First is that Kennedy's Damascene conversion was real. Martin Luther King's death had shaken him; the two had met that year and Kennedy found himself in agreement with King's broad platform linking Vietnam and social injustice to economic inequality. He'd been vocal in California on behalf of striking farm workers, many of them Mexican; he’d addressed tumultuous crowds in inner city Los Angeles.

Second is that, in terms of delegates, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice-president and heir presumptive, had the Democratic Convention sewn up. But Bobby Kennedy was the one person who might have knit the opposing delegates together, and persuaded them to open the convention to a free vote, because he, not the Hump, had the best chance of defeating Richard Nixon in November. As it turned out, Humphrey nearly did beat Nixon, despite the lukewarm support of the anti-war youth, and, as we know now, despite Nixon’s sabotaging of the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam, the first October surprise.

Bobby's murder eliminated the possibility of something different. The killing is a classic locked-room mystery: there were 77 witnesses; the latest lone assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, did it in the hotel pantry with a .22 calibre pistol. But the open and shut case reopened almost immediately. Sirhan's gun held fewer bullets than evidence suggested were at the crime scene. The bullet that killed Kennedy was fired at point-blank range behind his right ear, but Sirhan was in front of him, with the gun in his right hand. A woman in a polka-dot dress, who had been seen with Sirhan in the hotel bar, was seen again immediately after the shooting, running down an outside stairway, saying 'we killed him' in celebration.

But, as with JFK and MLK, to speculate on what the evidence shows, or to catalogue the disappearance of evidence, is to align oneself with conspiracy theorists. To point to what Peter Dale Scott described as 'deep politics' is to invite ridicule. The similarities between methods and cover-ups in assassinations are mere coincidence; you must accept the fatal influence of violence on politics as just bad luck.

There were riots in the nation's inner cities after King’s assassination; after Bobby's there was the solemn procession of his coffin by train back to Washington. The riots had to wait for the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The powerlessness of the Kennedy and McCarthy delegates inside the convention was amplified in the powerlessness of the protesters outside. They now knew that their leaders could and would be struck down, and that only those with a vested interest believed in coincidence.

This powerlessness was assuaged – though only in part, and too late – by the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, and America's ignominious withdrawal from defeat in Vietnam. But then Reagan came to power and sold America a vision of itself in a fantasy 1950s paradise, and a free-for-all society whose ethos has informed both parties in America (and beyond) for the last forty years. It has even led to a new kind of protest movement, which seems to work for the benefit of those it should be attacking, and whose method is to discredit almost all reality; deep politics has been replaced by the deep state.

What might a Robert Kennedy presidency have brought? We know he was a realistic politician, and we know he would have faced fierce opposition. The Democratic Party was already fragmenting over Civil Rights, and the 'solid South' turning Republican. But we also know, not least from David Talbot's magnificent book Brothers, that Bobby believed Jack's murder was orchestrated, and that a similar fate might await him. It took courage for him simply to run for the presidency. Fifty years later, the legacy of what did not change, and what that stasis led to, remains palpable.