Waiting for Bobby

Jack Germond, who enjoys his reputation as a tough political reporter, becomes the infatuated man in the middle when it comes to Robert F. Kennedy:

What would have happened if Bob Kennedy had survived? My guess is that he would have defeated Nixon [in 1968], whose hands seemed to shake every time a Kennedy was mentioned. And my guess is that the war would have ended sooner and the racial rioting have been less severe.1

It is a form of wishful thinking many people share, one based originally on a claim made the day after the Indiana primary of April 1968 in a column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who said that “while Negro precincts were delivering around 90 percent for Kennedy, he was running 2 to 1 ahead in some Polish precincts” (where George Wallace had been strong in 1964). Thus was born the dream that RFK could have bridged the deep divide between black and white voters in that tempestuous year of Dr. King’s assassination—if only that had not been followed by Kennedy’s own assassination.

The Evans-Novak error became the stuff of many liberals’ dreams in the succeeding years. Jules Witcover wrote in his book on RFK’s 1968 campaign that Kennedy in Indiana won “more than the usual number of blue-collar whites for a Democrat in the [white] backlash neighborhoods.”2 Describing the same primary, David Halberstam claimed that “Poles in Gary came through, 2-to-1, despite the machine.”3 In 1979, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that Kennedy could have been a new Franklin Roosevelt, a president who “carried his nation farther toward reconciliation” because he bridged the gap between “order and dissent.” He quoted several liberals endorsing this view, including Paul Cowan of The Village Voice, who said Kennedy was “the last liberal politician who could communicate with white working class America.”4

This bit of creative political history should have died a quiet death in 1970, when Kennedy’s friendly biographers William vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman took a more careful look at the election results in Indiana. They noted that in Lake County, which contains the industrial city of Gary, Eugene McCarthy carried thirteen of the fourteen cities or townships outside Gary that had gone for Wallace in 1964, and he beat Kennedy 49 percent to 34 percent in seventy of the eighty-one white precincts in Gary itself. In Gary, Kennedy’s vote was almost entirely (90 percent) a black one. The Poles had not come through for him. The coalition never existed. A statewide poll taken three weeks before the primary showed Kennedy beating McCarthy 41 percent to 19, yet the final tally gave only 42 percent for Kennedy, while McCarthy’s vote jumped up to 27 percent, showing that Kennedy’s intense last-minute campaigning had actually driven votes away from him. According to Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman, all the undecided vote had swung to McCarthy, and 49 percent of Democrats in an Indiana poll at election time had expressed negative feelings about Kennedy, 55…

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