By: Sam Zeff and Matt Hodapp
If 2016 is the most tumultuous presidential election year you’ve ever seen that simply means you weren’t alive or paying attention in 1968.
The year was marked by assassinations, a war in Vietnam that went from awful to worse, and bitter fights for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. But the political craziness really took off in March of that year.
President Lyndon Johnson was wildly unpopular, and he was being challenged from the left by Sen. Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota. On March 12, the two battled to a tie in New Hampshire. A week later, Robert F. Kennedy suddenly and unexpectedly entered the race.
Then, LBJ surprised the country during a nationally televised speech.
“With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country,” Johnson said at the very end of his speech. Then he said one of the most quoted sentences ever from an American president: “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
With a sitting president out of the race, the Democratic and Republican fields were wide open. And for a couple of days in mid-March, most political eyes settled on Kansas when Ronald F. Kennedy, the young senator from New York, showed up.
First, a little about why Bobby got into the race and what drove LBJ out. Johnson won in a landslide in 1964, the biggest landslide since Kansas Governor Alf Landon got pasted by FDR in 1936.
In 1964, Johnson had pushed through the most significant civil rights bill since the Civil War, and he was pushing his Great Society package of social reforms: Medicaid, Medicare, and federal funding for education.
As high as Johnson was riding in 1964 and 1965, that’s how low his presidency had sunk by 1968. His approval rating was 35 percent. The last shreds of hope for Vietnam disappeared in late January with the Tet offensive.
Students held hunger strikes in Boston in February, protesting the war. The Black Panther Party was gaining prominence. LBJ was weak but no big name Democrat would step up to run against him. Then Sen. Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota got in the race as the anti-war candidate.
LBJ ran in the New Hampshire primary, getting 49 percent of the vote. But McCarthy shocked everyone and got 43 percent. Johnson knew he was done. Then, in a move that would be inconceivable today, Bobby Kennedy announced on March 16th, just five months before the convention in Chicago, that he was running for president. And two days later RFK lands in one of the lest likely places a brand new presidential candidate could go right out of the gate, Manhattan, Kansas.
It wasn’t a mistake or bad staff work that Bobby started his campaign in Ahearn Field House on the K-State campus. He had already agreed to do a Landon Lecture, the series is venerable now but only a couple of years old in 1968. It was titled “Conflict in Vietnam and at Home.”
He would make a day of it Kansas, addressing a packed Allen Fieldhouse at KU and making a stop at Haskell Indian Institute, as it was known at the time. Kennedy would talk about very serious topics and we’ll get to the politics behind his trip, but who introduced him at K-State is important.
Bobby was introduced by Republican Sen. Jim Pearson. Also on hand was Democratic Gov. Robert Docking. A presidential candidate was in the state and back then, that called for a little bi-partianship.
But most everyone wanted to hear RFK speak about Vietnam. That was the reason he was in the race and LBJ was on his way out. Here’s part of what he had to say at K-State:
“I do not want – as I believe most Americans do not want – to sell out American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a people. But I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong. I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that we are acting as if no other nations existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike. I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that our present course will not bring victory; will not bring peace; will not stop the bloodshed; and will not advance the interests of the United States or the cause of peace in the world. I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: 'They made a desert, and called it peace.'"
Kennedy would make some of the same remarks in Lawrence, where they let kids out of school to attend the speech. But he also talked about other issues, issues that we still hear about today. Here he is in Allen Fieldhouse:
“And if we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who at least confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown but I have seen these other Americans. I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future.
I have seen children in Mississippi here in the United States with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change. I have seen Indians living on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for them future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide.”
If you read or listen to either of Robert Kennedy’s speeches in Kansas on March 18th, 1968, you’ll be struck by how the themes resonate today. But you’ll also be struck by the writing: it’s both clear and scholarly. Sometimes he even sounds like his brother. This is a passage from his K-State speech. It comes pretty early and he’s just starting to talk about Vietnam:
“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live. Now as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient tests.” Kennedy goes go to quote the Greek play, the Antigone of Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride'."
Our theme music is used in this episode is Shy Touches by Nameless Dancers. The other music used in this episode is Slow Motion Strut Version Two by Dexter Britain, and What is Whispered in Your Ear Proclaim It From The Rooftops by James Joshua Otto. Both have been edited.