Power  /  Argument

How Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassination Derailed American Politics

The idealistic presidential candidate was on the verge of seizing control of the 1968 race just as Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet struck.

53 years later, the question still haunts: While Bobby never was the king, could he have been? Research I did for my biography of this iconic Kennedy convinces me the answer is a resounding yes.

That evidence begins with what Bobby really meant that night when he uttered “on to Chicago.” Journalists and most everyone else assumed he was referring to that summer’s Democratic Convention in the Windy City, but this last progressive icon was a master political maestro, and he wasn’t about to wait until August. What he actually was signaling is that he intended to stop in Chicago on his way from Los Angeles back East, and to meet quietly with Mayor Richard J. Daley, who’d help Jack Kennedy win the White House eight years before. “I would say there was a 70 percent chance he was going to endorse him,” says Bill Daley, son of the legendary mayor and chief of staff to President Obama, who was privy to and told me about the planned rendezvous. “Then the momentum would have shifted to where other people like my dad who were still left would have been hard pressed not to go there.”

Bobby knew that Humphrey was counting not on primary voters but on kingmakers like Daley to anoint him the nominee. I think RFK was right about the way to upend the vice president’s plans and nail down the nomination for himself. Daley would woo other Democratic leaders into the Kennedy camp, justifying the move by pointing to Bobby’s wide margin over Humphrey among actual voters. The party would then unite behind a Kennedy-Humphrey ticket much as it had four years before behind former adversaries JFK and LBJ. And the Chicago convention would have had none of the angry left-wing riots that ended up dooming Humphrey’s campaign and leading to a bitter third-party bid by George Wallace, who captured 13.5 percent of the vote in an election where Nixon edged Humphrey by just 0.7 percent.

That’s not history’s conventional version of what would have come next, but it is the read of crucial insiders from back then. “Had Bobby lived,” said Humphrey, “I think there’d have been a Democrat in the White House.” And on that night of the California primary, Nixon told his family, “It sure looks like we’ll be going against Bobby.” Nixon knew that it was Bobby even more than Jack, who’d orchestrated the Kennedy win over him in 1960, and that nobody was better situated than Bobby to answer Nixon and Wallace on fighting crime and restitching the social safety net into a trampoline.