Marking the 40th anniversary of his assassination, Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary by Ray E. Boomhower explores the characters and events of the 1968 Indiana Democratic presidential primary in which Kennedy, who was an underdog, had a decisive victory. Today, the IU Press blog interviewed Boomhower about his latest release:
You were only 9 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, but even at that young age, Kennedy appears to have made an impression on you. Can you tell us more about the inspiration for writing this book?
One of the seminal memories of my
childhood growing up in Mishawaka,
Perhaps my mother remembered the death of another young politician—President John F. Kennedy—and the subsequent shooting of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Perhaps she had watched on television as Ruby rushed up to Oswald as authorities were taking him from police headquarters to the nearby county jail on November 24, 1963. All I know for sure is that my mother reproached me for my remark, noting that Robert Kennedy had been known as a compassionate man who, because of the tragedy in his own family, abhorred such violence and had worked to heal, not harm.
My late mother’s words that day
have stayed with me and, perhaps, were the impetus behind my research and writing
about Kennedy’s famous speech in
Several challenges—negative local press, the formidable opponents of Eugene McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Branigin, and late entry in to the Democratic primary race—faced Kennedy during his 1968 run in
Kennedy realized that entering the
Kennedy also benefited from having the advice of a man—John Bartlow Martin—who knew the state’s history and the character of its people. Martin, who produced one of the best books ever written about the state, Indiana: An Interpretation, played a key role in the campaign and offered Kennedy vital information on every community he visited leading up to primary voting on May 7.
At an outdoor rally in the heart of Indianapolis’s African American community, Kennedy delivered the news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His speech is considered one of the greats in American political history. Describe the impact it had upon the crowd gathered at the rally.
Those who were a part of the crowd that gathered on April 4, 1968, at Seventeenth and Broadway streets, to hear Kennedy, blacks and whites alike, compared what they saw and heard to a religious experience. The candidate had reached out and touched their hearts with his words calling for compassion and understanding in the face of violence and bloodshed. One of the people I interviewed for the book who was at the speech remembered feeling as if the candidate had “laid his hands upon the audience” and healed them, deflating the powerful anger that surged through the packed audience. The crowd, another person recalled, walked away in pain, but with no thoughts of revenge. While countless cities across the country exploded in violence, Indianapolis remained calm.
Some in the media are comparing Obama’s run for presidency to RFK’s. What similarities do you see between the two men’s campaigns? Any key differences?
Both Obama and Kennedy seem to share a certain charisma that has attracted a large a devoted following of people who have never before been involved in politics. Obama’s appeal to young, college-age voters, however, reminds me more of the campaign of the other Democratic candidate in 1968—Eugene McCarthy. Attracted by his McCarthy’s anti-war candidacy and defiance of incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, college students from across the country shaved off their beards, cut their hair, and became “Clean for Gene.” Obama seems to generate the same level of enthusiasm from his young supporters as McCarthy did. Obama also shares McCarthy’s eloquence on the stump. Kennedy always did better interacting with audiences on a one-on-one basis during question and answer sessions, as compared to delivering a set stump speech.
How do you think the course of history might have changed if Robert Kennedy had been elected president?
I always get this question when doing talks on my book to audiences. I always remind people that Kennedy faced a tough fight to even win the Democratic nomination at the Chicago convention in August. While he and McCarthy were battling each other in the various primaries, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had announced his candidacy too late to enter any of the primaries, was traveling around the country picking up sizable blocks of delegates from state party conventions and caucuses. Johnson, no fan of Kennedy, would also have done everything he could to deny his rival the Democratic Party’s top prize. Kennedy’s own staff said the odds were 50-50 that he would capture the nomination from Humphrey.
Still, if Kennedy had won the
nomination and beaten his GOP opponent, Richard Nixon, in the fall, a Kennedy
administration probably would have removed American troops from Vietnam much sooner than did the Nixon administration. Without Nixon as president, of
course, there would have been no Watergate scandal, and perhaps Americans
mistrust and suspicions of politicians in