The Death of the Bobby Kennedy Coalition

After he addressed the cheering crowd and television cameras, Bobby Kennedy was told that there had been a change in plans. Originally, he was supposed to wade through the crowd and walk to another room below, where he would speak on closed-circuit television. But Fred Dutton, his de facto campaign chairman, thought that the packed and drunken crowd would delay Kennedy’s attempt to speak with print reporters in the adjacent Colonial Room; it would take forever to snake through the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles. So he told Kennedy to take the shortcut instead and leave the way they had come in — through the kitchen corridor and pantry.
The evening of Tuesday, June 4, 1968, had been a glorious one for Bobby Kennedy. By winning the California and South Dakota primaries, Kennedy had taken a major step toward winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. And he had done something else: He had established himself as a new kind of Catholic political leader (though the 42-year-old did not see himself in this way).
Kennedy was different from the Catholics who ran the Democratic Party’s presidential wing. He was not a political boss like John Bailey, the DNC Chairman, or Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the convention’s presumptive kingmaker. He was not a hawk like Louisiana Rep. Hale Boggs, the platform committee chairman. He was not a dull, if respected, figure like New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes, the Credentials Committee chairman.
Kennedy was Catholic and among the Kennedy children, he was recognized as the most devout and pious. He attended Mass every Sunday, and he was the father of ten children, one of whom was not yet born.
He represented a new generation of Catholic leaders. While the Catholic bosses had run the party machinery since 1948, Kennedy and his generational allies seemed destined to run it from 1968, on. He was broadly similar to Robert Casey, the 36-year-old former Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania; Reubin Askew, the 39-year-old future governor of Florida; and Thomas Eagleton, the 39-year-old Missouri Senate candidate.
He sought the support of the bosses and certainly never attacked them, but he didn’t depend on them either. His political constituency was different. After the assassination of his brother, Kennedy grew closer to the Church’s social justice wing. He had become fast friends with César Chávez, the Catholic leader of the United Farmworkers, and his speeches reflected more of a Christian worldview than a nationalist one. “Those who live with us are our brothers,” Kennedy had said after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, an unintentional rejoinder to JFK’s “Ask not” maxim.
Kennedy’s coalition was also different. The Catholic bosses were part of the Roosevelt or New Deal wing — the electoral alliance of white Southerners, Northern Catholics, blacks, intellectuals, and union members (or, as writer Theodore White put it, “the coalition of Southern white-big city-big labor-ethnic minority”). Their coalition presumed that white Southerners, many of whom were leaving the party as a result of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, would remain the Democratic fold.
It was an error Kennedy would not make. He favored a “black-blue” or “have-not” coalition — an electoral alliance that added one new constituency — the young baby boomers — but did not downgrade the interests of two old constituencies, blue-collar workers and Catholics. As journalist David Halbertam, who covered Kennedy in the Indiana primary, sang, “The blacks in Gary love him, the Poles all fill his hall; there are no ethnic problems on the Ruthless Cannonball.”
Kennedy was no saint. He could be hardhearted and Machiavellian. He had also announced his support for legalizing abortion in the cases of rape and to save the life of the mother. (Interestingly enough, his position was not as liberal as that of California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had signed legislation in 1967 to reform the state’s abortion law.)
Catholics were still a key constituency in the Democratic Party, and Kennedy did not intend to alienate them. In 1967, New York state assemblyman Alfred Blumenthal had sponsored a bill to liberalize abortions. After state party leaders got wind of it, they denied Blumenthal a prized spot on a committee. When Kennedy, the acknowledged leader of the New York state Democrats, was asked about the matter, he feigned ignorance.
After the sexual and cultural revolution began in the mid-1960s, secular professionals and college-educated baby boomers were a growing political force. But in 1968 it appeared as if the two constituencies would ally with the Republicans rather than the Democrats. Reagan and Nixon had liberalized or were about to liberalize abortion laws and led a party with ties to Planned Parenthood. Secular liberalism had yet to infect the Democratic Party. {mospagebreak}
To be sure, secular professionals and college-educated baby boomers had made inroads into the Democratic Party. They joined Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign, but did not belong to Kennedy’s coalition. (As McCarthy said, he got the A and B students, while Kennedy got the C students.) In fact, Kennedy had criticized college students. “It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the federal government. But it’s our responsibility, too,” he had told 500 medical students on April 27 at the Indiana University Medical Center, who had complained that taxpayers were footing the bill for too many federal programs. “It’s the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Vietnam. You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam.”
More importantly, Kennedy had defeated McCarthy, not just in California but also in the conservative state of Indiana. He had shown that uniting blacks and blue-collar whites around a common political agenda was possible.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Author Ronald Steel argues that Kennedy won the Indiana primary because of his support among black voters. But this is misleading. Kennedy won Lake County, which George Wallace had carried in 1964, on the strength of his support from white voters; he won 17 of 25 rural Southern counties; and he cleaned up among the Irish and Slavs. Another writer, the great Samuel Lubell, found that Kennedy fared equally well among blue-collar whites in the Nebraska primary. After interviewing voters in Omaha, Lubell concluded that Kennedy, partly because of his position that corporations should try to hire blacks, “had swept not only the Negro wards but had also carried the racially sensitive low-income white workers who come in from rural areas to settle in east Omaha.” Meanwhile, Kennedy had lost the college towns of Bloomington and Evansville.
Yet Kennedy believed that his coalition represented the future of the Democratic Party. While millions of white Southerners were leaving, millions of Northern Catholics and blue-collar workers were staying put. Asked by author Jack Newfield to reflect on the meaning of his victory, Kennedy answered, “That I have a chance, just a chance, to organize a new coalition of Negroes, and working-class white people, against the union and party Establishments.”
After his triumphs in the South Dakota and California primaries, Kennedy had shown the strength of his have-not, or black-blue, coalition. In his speech to the crowd at the Ambassador, he expressed the hope that he could “engage in a dialogue, or a debate I hope, between the Vice President and myself on what direction we want to go in the United States.”
He never got the chance.
When he finished his speech a little past midnight, he spoke briefly with his security chief and then ambled to the kitchen. While he greeted the kitchen staff, 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian angered by Kennedy’s support of Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, stepped forward. He stretched out his black .22 revolver and fired four shots at Kennedy, one of which struck behind his right ear.
Kennedy slid to the gray concrete floor, mortally wounded and bleeding horribly. Amid the screams and chaos, a young kitchen aide named Juan Romero knelt at Kennedy’s side. He took a set of rosary beads from his shirt pocket, placed it in the dying man’s hand, and prayed.
Others in the crowd stopped and did the same. Here is how journalist Jules Witcover — just a few yards in front of Kennedy — described one such scene:
At the edge of a large, ornate pool of water in the lobby, just to the right of the cashier’s window, a woman balanced herself and dangled a set of rosary beads over her head. ‘Kneel down and pray, kneel down and pray, say your rosary,’ she implored the crowd. Immediately, twenty or more persons knelt around the pool. One man holding a drink and a cigarette placed both down on the red and black carpet and knelt.
While some in the crowd said the rosary, Ethel Kennedy climbed into the ambulance along with Fred Dutton (who would later move the party away from what Bobby tried to create). Ethel made sure her husband received absolution and Last Rites before he slipped away at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Mark Stricherz


Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

  • David L Alexander

    I heard that more than once growing up. Now I know why.

  • Mary

    I must comment on the radically different security of those days. I cut a high school class to attend a speech Bobby gave at Rutgers University school of law in Newark, NJ. When he exited his car I took hold of his hand and walked down a long block to the hall where he gave the address holding his hand.
    When he exited, his car was there, unattended, and I was the one to open the door and let him get in. This was only a year after his brother was killed.
    The next time I was close to him was after a six hour wait to pass by his casket in St. Patrick’s.
    Nothing in the U.S. body politic would have been the same had he lived.
    BTW, The eleventh child, not the tenth, was born after RFK died.

  • Deal Hudson

    Mark, this is a fascinating take on the “might-have-been” of American politics. McCarthy was the self-proclaimed “Catholic” candidate, but was really the product of the post-Vatican II Catholic left.

  • Teri Bohlinger

    I was a small child during the Bobby Kennedy campaign. I had no idea how complex and convoluted the politics of that time and the now contradictory stands that so many politians, both Dem and Republican,took. It gives me pause.
    It really makes me wonder how both parties have reversed platforms since then and then reorganized to today’s platforms.

    No wonder there is so much confusion today regarding obligatory vs prudential judgements and political party affiliation for Catholics in finding a candidate, especially when the voter knows the historic platforms supported.

    I had no idea about Reagan’s history. My first election was Reagan in 1980. I was sick of the military wimp, Carter, over Iran and the Cold War along with his 20% interest rates. Then I was voting to strengthen defense and the economy. No wonder we got Justices Stevens and O’Connor under Reagan. I’m glad he got one right. Wasn’t Scalia a Reagan appointee?

    Today I am virtually a one issue, Life, voter. The rest flows from that one inalienable right to fight for. I may disagree on prudential issues I work to change the things I disagree with but “inalienable” means just that. I want leaders that know, believe, protect, promote and defend that.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Thank you for this. I had for a long time a poor opinion of Robert Kennedy. Your article has changed my mind.

  • John J. Simmins

    “At the edge of a large, ornate pool of water in the lobby, just to the right of the cashier’s window, a woman balanced herself and dangled a set of rosary beads over her head. ‘Kneel down and pray, kneel down and pray, say your rosary,’ she implored the crowd.”

    If that were today, Elliot Spitzer would kick her in the throat.

  • Tom Hamel

    I was 13 when JFK died, 18 when Bobby was killed. For me, the JFK death was scary, but at 18 I’d read Bobby’s To Seek a Newer World. His death really affected me–it seemed like all hope was gone for improvement by political action. I soon afterwards read Muggeridge’s Jesus Rediscovered, I saw that Jesus was the answer, He was all that was left! It’s good to know that Bobby placed his faith in Jesus too, however imperfectly.

    Bobby seemed very, very, sincere and unafraid to upset the status quo. Can you imagine a politician looking for votes today saying what he said to the medical students. More of us should be doing this–speak the truth without regard for the consequences!

    Again, Bobby had his flaws, big ones apparently, but I think his experiences were turning him into a very unusual leader. It’s not inconceivable that his sometimes unorthodox understandings of Catholic teaching might have fallen to his search for truth in time.

    I don’t think we’ll see anyone of this caliber and potential again for quite a while. Who’s closest for me? I’d vote for Huckabee if I didn’t live above the 49th.


  • Nick

    I was 23 at the time and looking forward to casting my first vote for President. (Four years earlier, though I desperately wanted to register my vote against Barry Goldwater, nineteen-year olds were still barred from voting.) But RFK was not my choice. It’s difficult to articulate my reasons, because I liked the fact that Bobby was actually making the case for a blue-black-red- [he went to Indian reservations!]-brown coalition. Still, the whole “messianistic” tone to his cause bothered me and I felt much more comfortable backing Hubert Humphrey. In short, Kennedy’s Catholicism was a non-issue for me. I don’t doubt that Kennedy, like Obama, would have prevailed. The secular messianism of the Obama campaign is an unwelcome reminder to me of 1968.

    The mention of the young busboy Juan Romero, who knelt beside the fallen Kennedy in the kitchen, brings back memory of an absolutely terrific human interest article on him that appeared in the NY Times at the time. It’s definitely worth a re-read.

  • Cathy Walters

    Thank you for being on-line and providing a place for civil discussion and thoughtful coverage of events. I was 10 when Robert Kennedy died, and his politics first made me aware of the best of the Catholic faith and Church. I am glad we live in a country where the faith of candidates is less and less an impediment to their success, and I thank all of your readers who support mutual awareness and friendship between those of all faiths.CDW

  • Fritz

    At 21 years old, I attended three speeches by Kennedy in 1968 in Nebraska via the campaign train from east to west, ending in California and his assassination. I saw him at Creighton in Omaha, at Wayne State College, and at the Univ. of Nebraska in Lincoln. I agree completely that security was lax. I said to my friend at the time that it would be easy to assassinate him–we ourselves could have done so at hand-shaking range. There was no protection.

    All my life I remember his quote that “…some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

    Long live Bobby Kennedy’s memory.