National News

How Robert Kennedy’s Assassination Changed American Politics

Posted June 1, 2018 5:09 p.m. EDT

Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president in the grand Senate Caucus Room on March 16, 1968, declaring that the United States, mired in war and riven by racism, ought to “stand for hope instead of despair.”

Eighty-one days later, he celebrated victory in California’s Democratic primary with an ebullient speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and walked off the stage into a pantry, where he was assassinated in front of news cameras and screaming supporters.

In a year that seemed determined to shake Americans’ confidence in the foundations of their society, Kennedy’s death at 1:44 a.m. Pacific time on June 6, 25 hours after he was shot, was one of the biggest inflection points. Sirhan Sirhan’s bullets not only demolished the hope for a savior candidate who would unite a party so fractured that its incumbent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to seek re-election. Coming just two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they also fueled a general sense — not entirely unfamiliar today — that the nation had gone mad; that the normal rules and constants of politics could no longer be counted on.

Fifty years is ample time for romanticized narratives to develop, and so they have. Kennedy’s rougher edges have often been sanded, and the volatility of the 1968 campaign has been glossed over, creating an alternative history in which electoral victory was inevitable and his promises certain to be kept, if only he had left the ballroom by a different door.

Certainly, there is no denying that history would have been different if Kennedy had survived to win in November, and especially if he had managed to fulfill a campaign pledge to quickly wind down the Vietnam War.

“If he gets to be president, then there’s no Nixon,” said Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school who worked as a legislative assistant to Kennedy. “I know this as much as anybody could know, because he was gone, but he had every intention of ending the war right away."

“And of course then there’s no Watergate,” he added.

This is the rosiest version of what could have been: plausible, but unprovable. Perhaps the better question is not what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated — inherently speculative — but what did happen because he was.

His death had a powerful and immediate effect on the U.S. political psyche, intensified by its proximity to King’s. Why, many people asked, should they continue to pursue change peacefully, through the ballot box and nonviolent protest, when two of the biggest evangelists of that approach had been gunned down?

Over the course of five years, starting with the killing of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, assassins had “robbed the country of three of its most prominent and promising leaders, leaders who represented change,” said Ross Baker, a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University. “I think the most immediate reaction was despair and a sense that perhaps the democratic experiment was in the process of failing.”

The despair was particularly acute among African-Americans, many of whom had put their faith in Kennedy after losing King.

“On the part of African-Americans, there was a sense that if any white politician was in their corner, it was Robert Kennedy,” Baker said. In fact, in the hours after King’s assassination, it was Kennedy who broke the news to a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis and, speaking emotionally and without notes, had urged them not to turn to violence in response.

In the days that followed, riots erupted in Washington, in Chicago, in Detroit and Baltimore — but not in Indianapolis.

Nearly half a century later, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who marched with King and campaigned with Kennedy, sobbed in an interview for Dawn Porter’s documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President” as he recalled the loss that followed.

“I think I cried all the way from L.A. to Atlanta,” Lewis said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘What is happening in America?’ To lose Martin Luther King Jr. and two months later Bobby.” He apologized, burying his face in his hand. “It was too much.”

Spring turned to summer, and a seething nation boiled over. In July, the police and black snipers engaged in a firefight in Cleveland. In August, fearing unrest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the government deployed National Guard troops with license to “shoot to kill.”

As the party nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an emblem of the status quo, for president, chaos reigned outside the convention center. In the streets of Chicago, the police and National Guard battled protesters with tear gas and clubs.

Thurston Clarke, author of “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America,” said a direct line could be drawn between Kennedy’s assassination and the social breakdown of August 1968. “What happened at the Democratic convention, which was terribly wounding for years to come — I can’t believe there would have been that kind of protest and that kind of violence if Kennedy had been the presumptive or actual nominee,” he said.

As one segment of a disillusioned populace turned to violence, another retreated from politics altogether.

Kennedy’s death “really did persuade many people to seek private solutions, to retreat, to achieve a kind of personal redemption, and that had a very, very long-lasting effect on American life,” Baker said, pointing to the Back to the Land movement and cult phenomena like Jonestown. “People just turned away from the public square and said that any kind of national reconciliation and progress was hopeless through the political process.”

Voter turnout in 1968 was only slightly lower than in previous elections: 60.7 percent of the voting-age population that year, compared with 61.4 percent in 1964 and 62.8 percent in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. But moving forward, it fell off a cliff, into the mid- and low 50s, and didn’t rebound for decades.

When Clarke was promoting his book in 2008, he said, he spoke with many readers who told him that Kennedy’s death “still haunted them.”

“I heard again and again that they felt the loss of Bobby Kennedy more keenly even than the loss of John F. Kennedy,” Clarke said. “That they felt the country would have been even more different had Robert Kennedy been president than if John F. Kennedy had lived.”