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

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

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