Fifty years ago, the nation endured spasms rarely matched in U.S. history. Massive antiwar protests, race riots and political assassinations appeared, to many Americans, to be tearing the country apart.
And yet, even within the deeply polarized society of 1968, political rivals came together in moments of tragedy. They set aside political differences, grieved with the families and honored the lives and achievements of the fallen. Despite the divisions, political leaders rose above the rancor in ways that it appears they cannot today.
On June 5, 1968, cameras caught the “light crack of the gun” and then showed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) “lying on the floor, a pool of blood under his head,” recalled Lady Bird Johnson, then the first lady. A day later, Kennedy would be dead.
For the second time in five years, President Lyndon B. Johnson faced a major crisis involving a member of America’s royal family.
In response, he employed lessons learned after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — comforting the country while pushing reforms to honor Robert Kennedy. The crisis put his vast political talents fully on display. While certain segments of society despised Johnson by that point in his presidency, he nonetheless provided a model of presidential leadership, putting humanity and humility before his personal reputation.
To do that, Johnson overcame the deep and long-standing animosity between himself and Robert Kennedy, a bitter rivalry that dated to 1960. Kennedy had opposed his brother’s selection of Johnson as his vice president, referring to Johnson and Lady Bird as “Mr. and Mrs. Cornpone.” In return, Johnson kept files on his political rival and derisively called him “Sonny Boy” in public (and worse in private). While they occasionally worked together, neither liked the other, and the distance widened after Kennedy increasingly spoke out on Vietnam.
The extent of their shared distrust became clear only a few months before Kennedy’s assassination. Soon after Johnson withdrew from the presidential race on March 31, Kennedy visited the White House to ascertain Johnson’s intentions as to whom he would support in the upcoming primaries. Afterward, Johnson requested the tapes of the meeting. But aides reported that they were blank: Kennedy had secretly used a scrambler to prevent any recording. The mutual suspicions never died.
But when the assassin’s bullet struck, Johnson rose to the occasion. A close aide, Joe Califano, noted: “Since he was well aware of his own psychological baggage, in no situation did Lyndon Johnson try harder to do the right thing — for the country, the Kennedy family . . . than in the hours and days following the shooting of Robert Kennedy.”
Immediately, Johnson offered condolences to the family, telling Ted Kennedy, Robert’s younger brother: “Our thoughts are with you . . . [as we] see every picture of this dreadful time. . . . Please know that our prayers are with you.”
Johnson’s aid went beyond words. He helped the family with logistics by dispatching a plane to ferry three of Kennedy’s children to Los Angeles. The White House worked diligently to find a way around restrictions for burial in Arlington Cemetery so that Kennedy could be buried next to his brother. The administration also planned the transportation of the body to New York City, along with family members, and ultimately to the capital.
Johnson consoled the nation by praising Kennedy on television, emphasizing how the fallen senator and candidate “affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all.”
While Kennedy loyalists may have dismissed the message as lacking sincerity, those closest to Johnson watched a man genuinely pained by the tragedy. It was clear at the funeral that the president and first lady attended at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Trailing the president, an aide observed that it was “a difficult entrance; the church was uneasily tense.” Kennedy loyalists felt that Robert Kennedy’s death resulted from an illness in America, and “they blamed LBJ for making society sick.”
Johnson knew that, but he “knelt beside another Kennedy through a solemn requiem mass this morning reflecting on the family tragedy that had also become his own,” an observer noted. As the service ended, the president and first lady passed in front of the family seated in the front row opposite where they sat. Both expressed their sympathy to Ethel, Kennedy’s widow.
“You have been so kind,” she told Johnson.
When he returned to Washington, the president uncharacteristically made no phone calls nor held any meetings for hours — unusual for Johnson, who was ordinarily in constant motion. He waited on the arrival of the train from New York carrying Kennedy’s body. When it arrived, Johnson patiently sat in the line of limousines waiting to head toward Arlington National Cemetery. According to Califano, the president insisted that no one “impose his office on the Kennedy family.”
During the ride, tears streamed down his cheeks as he reflected on the tragedy endured by Rose Kennedy, the mother of John and Robert. He said, “That woman has suffered more than anyone I know.”
While at Arlington, Johnson and the first lady recited the Lord’s Prayer and knelt on damp artificial grass with Ethel, rising and offering their heartfelt condolences to her before leaving the cemetery in silence. As the car departed Arlington Cemetery, Califano observed, “Throughout the entire ride back, the President uncharacteristically did not say a word.”
Johnson’s efforts to honor Robert Kennedy did not stop with the burial. He pushed gun control legislation, including gun registrations, licensing for owners and limits on mail-order purchases, measures Kennedy supported. However, the National Rifle Association proved more powerful than the lame duck president, sharply curtailing the new regulations.
In the end, Johnson put aside his personal animosity toward his most bitter political rival to focus on the family and its loss. He showed compassion, even though it had rarely been reciprocated. It was a remarkable display of humanity in a difficult time.
Today, a president and his political rival are coming to the same crossroads. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grapples with his terminal illness, Donald Trump faces a choice: to show compassion and empathy toward a political rival, or to continue his often loathsome behavior toward McCain. So far, he and his administration, as well as their surrogates, have chosen the latter, including an aide questioning why McCain’s position mattered on a nomination because “he’s dying anyway.”
Trump may well continue down that path; so far it has cost him nothing in terms of support. Johnson had no real political reasons to take the high road. His political career was already over. But he understood that the presidency was a high office with a higher calling, that the president has a duty to model humanity and compassion, to heal the nation in times of suffering rather than make the suffering worse. Trump faces a choice now, one that may not determine the fate of his presidency but that will determine the legacy he leaves behind.