As we approach the 50th anniversary of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination on June 6, you might read, see or hear a lot of things about the man, his campaign and the politics of 1968.
But there’s one thing you probably won’t hear: Barring a miracle, Kennedy was not going to be elected president in 1968.
You’re likely to hear and read just the opposite. It’s become an accepted part of the lore: RFK had the Democratic nomination “wrapped up.” It was “within his grasp.” He was “on the verge” of winning the nomination and the General Election, before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
I can’t tell you how many politicians, pundits, historians and rank-and-file citizens say it: RFK was a shoo-in to become president, and his assassination changed history.
The facts say otherwise.
Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary, the last primary of the 1968 primary season. He’d won several primaries that spring, and he campaigned before raucous crowds, passionate in their opposition to the Vietnam War and their support of civil rights, social justice and the fight against poverty.
Millions admired this man. If you’re one of them, more power to you.
But while Kennedy was winning primaries, someone else was winning delegates.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race late, only after President Lyndon Johnson withdrew in late March. Humphrey didn’t take the plunge until after many of the primaries (including New Hampshire) had already taken place. He couldn’t organize and compete in primaries, given his late start. He didn’t need to.
In those days, most states picked their convention delegates in other ways, like caucuses and state conventions. Officeholders — like governors, mayors and members of Congress — played a bigger role than they do today.
It was Humphrey, not Kennedy, winning them over. It was Humphrey, not Kennedy, winning the non-primary states, and piling up delegates by the hundreds.
By early June of 1968, Humphrey had a commanding lead. Read contemporary accounts of the nomination fight. At the time, U.S. News & World Report wrote that HHH practically had the nomination wrapped up —even before Kennedy’s death.
Some who concede all this complain that this is the boss system at work. Like it or not, Humphrey and his allies used the system as it existed at the time — a system that had existed for generations.
Don’t view 1968 through the lens of today. The rules were different then. Humphrey played by those rules and was the almost-certain nominee because of it.
Anyone who can make a cogent argument that Kennedy was destined to win the 1968 Democratic nomination, have at it.
The problem is, I almost never hear or read those kinds of arguments. No one feels the need to make them. No supporting evidence is offered. The idea that RFK would have been nominated is just accepted as a given.
Am I nitpicking over something that isn’t really that important, 50 years after the fact? Maybe.
But this problem goes beyond a question about the 1968 presidential election. It’s about the tendency toward the lazy acceptance of a perception that’s wrong, simply because it’s been accepted by everyone else. It’s about the “conventional wisdom.” It’s about believing something but being unable to explain why you believe it.
This RFK myth is just one example of why we all need to occasionally wipe the slate clean, start from scratch and do the research all over again — with fresh eyes and an open mind.
We all need to ask, from time to time: Why do I think the things I think?
Toby Gibbs of Lexington is a community columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.