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Patching Up the Democrats

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (Vince Mcnamee - Twp)
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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Forty years ago tonight, I was one of a number of very young staffers on Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign crammed into a Los Angeles hotel room, where we watched on television as Robert Kennedy, a few miles down Wilshire Boulevard at the Ambassador Hotel, claimed victory in the California primary. A few minutes later, the networks reported that Kennedy had been shot. The rest of the evening was a mix of anxiety, nausea, tears, misgivings and despair.

The dynamic between the two campaigns was nothing if not complicated. Throughout 1967, anti-Vietnam War activists in the Democratic Party, led by Allard Lowenstein, had implored Kennedy to challenge Lyndon Johnson's reelection bid. Kennedy consistently demurred, and, improbably, McCarthy -- cool, skeptical, nobody's idea of a crusader -- stepped up to carry the antiwar banner. Only after McCarthy shocked the political world by almost beating Johnson in New Hampshire did Kennedy enter the race.

The hard-core McCarthyites viewed Kennedy's entry as the rankest opportunism. It soon became clear, though, that Kennedy attracted supporters who were quite distinct from McCarthy's. He won overwhelming backing from African Americans and Latinos. His candidacy resonated among working-class whites as well, even though the country was being pulled apart by massive urban riots. It was even possible that the political bosses, such as Chicago's Richard Daley, who still controlled the Democratic Party (primaries that year were few and far between), might throw their support to Kennedy rather than to Hubert Humphrey. McCarthy, by contrast, wasn't likely to receive any support from the Democrats' old guard.

On matters of policy, there were really no significant differences between Kennedy and McCarthy. Both sought to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam; both were solid liberals on domestic and economic issues. But each campaign had about it the shock of the new. Each activated constituencies that had never before been so important within Democratic ranks: upscale professionals and students for McCarthy, blacks and Latinos for Kennedy. Both candidates inspired intense commitment from their supporters, and in each campaign there was a palpable feeling of making history, of upending the party's traditional order in a year when traditional orders were crumbling everywhere you looked.

A number of prominent McCarthy supporters had gone over to Kennedy when he entered the race. Some were simply loyal to the House of Kennedy; some understood that Kennedy was the tribune of a progressive coalition that was broader than McCarthy's ever could be; some understood that McCarthy would at some point have to defer to Kennedy if the antiwar forces were to unify and prevail at that summer's Democratic convention in Chicago. McCarthy himself had planned to stand down and back Kennedy if Kennedy won California and began racking up establishment endorsements.

But when two distinct political groups, each convinced that it brings something new and historic to its party and its nation, campaign against each other, bringing them together is no easy task, even when no policy matters divide them. As the California primary approached, some of my friends on the McCarthy campaign quietly acknowledged harboring increasingly pro-Kennedy sentiments. Yet most of us, despite our unspoken misgivings about McCarthy's staying in the race, were so entrenched in our loyalties and enmities that going over to Kennedy seemed beyond the pale.

Then Kennedy was killed. And there was no one to go over to, no one who could lead the antiwar forces to victory in Chicago or the general election. McCarthy did not drop out, and those in the Kennedy column who couldn't stand him persuaded George McGovern to be a last-minute candidate simply to show the flag in Chicago. Four years later, the McCarthy people and the Kennedy people of '68 came together to be the core of McGovern's successful campaign for the nomination. By then, though, Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam War still raged, and the onetime Gene and Bobby loyalists had to think for a moment to recall what it was that had once so divided them.

I tell this tale, of course, not merely to remind us that the better world of which Robert Kennedy so movingly spoke died aborning 40 years ago in Los Angeles. I also tell it because I see a dynamic similar to that between the Kennedy and McCarthy campaigns in the relationship between Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's equally historic campaigns, and because today's Democrats have been given a chance -- as they were not in 1968 -- to come together and make the kinds of changes they have only dreamed of over the past four decades. You would think -- well, hope -- that after 40 years, this time they'd get it right.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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