Over the last week, there have been numerous salutations of the late Attorney General and New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy who was assassinated after having won the California Primary in May 1968.
The tragic assassination, coupled with the horrific murder of his brother in Dallas five years earlier has left no shortage of historians and public policy wonks wondering “What if RFK had lived? Would he have won the nomination? Would he have been able to beat Nixon? What kind of President would he have been?”
These are all interesting and valid questions but it presupposes that the Democrats had no Progressive Champion carrying the banner for them in 1968 and that cannot be further from the truth.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, “The Happy Warrior” who as a Mayor of Minneapolis and Senator from Minnesota first (before JFK, RFK, and Johnson) championed an accelerated pace to strong civil rights legislation, the Peace Corp, a nuclear test ban treaty, and Medicare. He was the progressive champion people needed for the times and even today, most do not acknowledge that as they have fallen in love with the mythos that embodies the Kennedy clan.
It was Mayor Humphrey’s, not JFK or RFK or LBJ, impassioned speech for Civil Rights at the 1948 Democratic Convention where he called “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” that would split the party, starting the eventual stampede of most Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. But by building on President Truman’s civil rights initiatives like the Desegregation of the Armed Services, Humphrey helped the process where he as Senate Majority Whip and Vice President would help President Johnson achieve the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of the 1960’s.
It was Senator Humphrey that first subscribed and worked for the Truman ideals of National Health Insurance (later Medicare and Medicaid) and Federal Aid to Schools. It was also he that called for what would become the Peace Corp and a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty before President Kennedy embraced it.
It was Vice President Humphrey in 1965 who, before Robert Kennedy, privately counseled President Johnson to not get bogged down in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Johnson did not heed Humphrey’s advice and consigned him to the political wilderness for almost a year until Humphrey promised not to interfere in Vietnam Policy.
It was that forced tethering to Vietnam that handicapped the “Happy Warrior,” an original sponsor of progressive legislation that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson took credit for, in his quest for the Presidency in 1968 against Richard Nixon. Humphrey also had to deal with one of the Pre Trumps in United States History, George Wallace, a demagogue who camouflaged his racist vitriol in appealing to union blue-collar white worker resentments (sound familiar) in the Rust Belt and South to abandon the Democratic Party for his independent bid.
It was not until Humphrey, in a televised speech in Salt Lake during the campaign and with nothing to lose, publicly broke with Johnson on stopping the bombing to induce the North Vietnamese to negotiate a peace, started to surge in the polls. President Johnson later reported progress in the peace negotiations that were stymied by pro Nixon South Vietnamese forces that, wanting Nixon to win, sabotaged the talks (later it was proven Nixon, wanting to win the election at any cost, committed a treasonous act by authorizing the sabotage).
The election in 1968 was very close. Only about 500,000 votes separated the victorious “New” Richard Nixon from the consistently people’s champion Hubert Humphrey. In his memoirs, Humphrey recounted that analysts felt that he would have won if the voting had started eight hours later on Election Day.
Humphrey would return to the Senate in 1971 and try again for the Democratic Nomination in 1972 only to be beaten back by Senator George McGovern, the candidate for the insurgent New Left. Later being diagnosed with cancer, Humphrey decided not running in 1976 and died two years later.
What would have happened if, the analysts were correct, and Humphrey would have won if the election started eight hours later? Nothing is for certain and this is all speculative but Vietnam may have ended earlier. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty Programs which Nixon himself funded and expanded by signing legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency, Pell Grants, and Food Stamps, would probably been constructed along more progressive lines. The expansion of Medicare to include everyone would probably have been a domestic priority. The recognition of mainland Communist China and Détente with the Russians, started in the Johnson Administration, would probably have taken some form as well like in the Nixon Administration (which returning Senator Humphrey supported when it happened).
It is perfectly understandable to wonder what would have happened if Robert Kennedy had not been gunned down. But people should realize that they had a chance to elect a Progressive Champion and they did not. It is a choice Americans were faced with in the 2000 and 2016 elections and although the mainstream Progressive Candidates both won the popular vote, enough American Citizens were again swayed by the false promises of the Republican Candidate to enable them to achieve Electoral College victories (one with the aid of the Supreme Court).
With Richard Nixon, we were plagued by Watergate. With George W. Bush, we became entangled in endless wars and the economy crashed. The first year and a half of Donald Trump feels like four.
Voters need to remember to examine the record, vision, and totality of the candidate rather than falling for fake platitudes and false promises. If they had done that in 1968 or even 2000 or 2016, we would not need to ask the question “What if RFK had lived?”
Humphrey, Hubert Education of a Public Man: My Life in Politics Doubleday, 1976