In presidential politics, Calvin Coolidge is unique in choosing not to run. Any fool knows that a sitting President, if he wants it, can have his party's nomination for a second term. These truths are self-evident, and all evidence shows that Lyndon Johnson is not only sitting but running. Any incumbent President can make his will felt upon his party's state and city political structures, and Mr. Johnson is exceptionally adept at this kind of manipulation.
Take the traditional largesse in the rivers and harbors bill. The doubtless apocryphal story of Mr. Johnson's remark to Senator Church during the Vietnam debate is illustrative: "How many dams can Bill Fulbright get you?" Moreover, ancient forms of dispensing federal funds have been supplemented by defense contracts under a military budget whose dollar total has reached that of World War II, by space agency installations, by accelerated federal throughway schedules, and more.
There's always something a President can do for you: "I thought you wanted that judgeship for your law partner"; "there's an ambassadorial vacancy coming up in Europe"; "members of the President's Club get special treatment at convention-time." (Maybe at other times as well.)
Then too, the party that controls the White House tends to go on the inactive list. Under Lyndon Johnson, the languishing at National Committee headquarters is unprecedented. The masterly inactivity of the de jure chairman John Bailey has been supplemented by the departure of the de facto chairman Clifford Carter. When the Democrats are the out-party, unity in diversity is acceptable at the National Committee; the chairman is relatively friendly to stalwarts of varying views and ambitions, various predilections for candidates. But officials and members of the in-party are all for one, or better be, and the vainer the President, the more so. Only the very strong-willed or the hopelessly romantic will buck their leader, if he wishes to lead them again—unless they begin to fear that he will lead to disaster, whereas another could lead them, however bloody the battle, to victory.
It is not only politically costly for a party member to establish a position different from that of the President, it is technically difficult. For when the President wants headlines, he makes them, and his headlines blanket everyone else's. The timing of last February's Honolulu conference on Vietnam may have been a fortuitous or a calculated blanketing of the Fulbright hearings on the war; in any case it was effective.
So it's foolish to talk about Robert Kennedy in '68. Though the President's popularity has suffered a sharp decline, voters still prefer him over any currently visible Republican opponent. The convention should be just one vast hurrah. And if, in the interval, Vietnam should take a turn for the better, the hurrah will have real heart in it. A decision by Kennedy to take on the President (a decision he would have to make next year) would hit the party like a hurricane, splinter it, the wreckage of bitterness would be lying about for years. Nevertheless—assuming that the war in Vietnam is dragging on—is it unthinkable? If all is going reasonably well, of course, it is. Why then would any man wish to challenge LBJ? Why commit suicide?
But just for a moment, consider the evidence against the self-evident. While recent polls show Robert Kennedy doing less well than the President against likely Republican candidates—paired against Nixon, he runs a dead heat almost identical with his brother's—Democrats nationwide would rather have him as their candidate. Would the delegates at a convention? What leads a convention to nominate a man for President?
First, popular appeal. In this, RFK has an advantage: his is growing, LBJ's has dropped drastically. In early January, 1965, 71 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll approved the way the President was handling his job; as of last month, 48 percent thought so. Other polls suggest that this is a reaction to a person, not to a party. Thus in Montana, 83 percent of respondents in the John Kraft poll as of two weeks ago said Senator Mike Mansfield is doing a good job, whereas only 78 percent thought so a year ago; but confidence in the President had declined, from 65 to 53 percent. (White House official opinion about the accuracy of polls is said to have fallen at about the same rate; the hip pocket is now empty of clippings.) Louis Harris, taking an "in-depth look" at public opinion reported on September 25 that 39 percent of all voters prefer Kennedy—57 percent LBJ—as the Democratic candidate two years hence. The same poll showed 47 percent of the Democrats polled would rather have RFK in control of their party (41 percent were for LBJ). This support was highly concentrated in certain groups and areas. "The results," Harris comments, "dramatically point up the fact that Robert Kennedy's popularity is rooted in the more traditional havens of Democratic support." For instance, in a hypothetical race against Nixon, Kennedy is the choice of 95 percent of Negroes polled.
RFK's appeal shows not only in polls but in the streets. On his recent beatling through the Middle West—including Minnesota—the crowds were reported as wildly enthusiastic. Such enthusiasm can be dismissed as Bobby-Sox-For-Bobby (the same point made about his brother in '60). Still, the number of potential new voters who will have come of voting age between November 1964 and November 1968 is calculated at just over 12.5 million. With telling effect, Kennedy describes his meetings with young people in Africa and of his telling them that they have more in common with American youth than either has with the older generation. In Georgia and Kentucky voting begins at 18, in Alaska at 19 and Hawaii at 20. The advertisements in any slick magazine show how the perennial accent on youth has been strengthened by the census announcement that more than half of the entire population is now under 25, and in opinion polls it is those over 50 who are most numerous in support of the President. Moreover, 1.5 million of the new voters are nonwhite, and Negro Democratic preference is now running heavily for Kennedy as against LBJ 72 to 23 percent, again according to Harris).
Primaries and Publicity
More reliable than population trends or the inchoate support of crowds along a parade route—though only somewhat reliable—is the response of qualified voters as expressed through state primaries. John Kennedy showed primary victories can be close to decisive—witness the highly improbable result in West Virginia that put Hubert Humphrey out of the race—and Bobby was his manager. A prominent Democratic official in Wisconsin said recently, privately, that Kennedy today would win against Johnson in a primary contest held in his state.
Estes Kefauver, trying this route, proved that you can win most of the battles and lose the war. Primaries are not, by themselves, enough. But an RFK candidacy would produce substantial delegate support in several weighty states—New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, most of northern New England. He might win the primary in California where there is very lively interest in RFK among the liberal rank and file. He is certain to pick up some votes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, the mountain states, and perhaps Michigan—but none in Texas. The real clincher is support among those who go, or decide who goes, to the convention. Kennedy currently receives from 250-300 speaking invitations a week. He has over recent months been credited with active support of candidates well up in the power structures of a number of states.
Why shouldn't Kennedy play it safe until '72, retaining his independence (no Hubert Humphrey role for him!), avoiding a head-on collision with the leader of his party? Mr. Johnson's current unpopularity is humiliating but by no means exceptional—ask Harry Truman. Robert Kennedy is, after all, only 41—there's plenty of time. There seemed to be plenty of time for his brother too (JFK was 41 when he made the decision to go after the nomination). A politician must peak his efforts at the right moment.
Robert Kennedy's desire to be like his brother is consuming—and the largest single reason given for supporting him in today's polls is the conviction that he would be like his brother in office. His recent speeches give every evidence of his awareness that his greatest asset is the Kennedy myth. But myths fade—the number of people who remember with emotion the haunting timbre of FDR's voice is rapidly diminishing. At news of the assassination, at home and abroad, strong men wept; JFK was their symbol of youth and peace. The goodwill lingers, and on RFK's spectacularly successful African trip he picked up where his brother left off.
For a different constituency, the Jackie Kennedy myth is no less compelling. Lloyd Shearer, writing in the Sunday Washington Post Parade magazine of August 28, reports that "in the long history of the magazine publishing business there has been no female to equal her as a cover girl, a sales gimmick, an enduring editorial attraction." He quotes one publisher as saying: "The women won't give her up. For a fast minute a little while ago, we thought we might have a potential substitute in the Johnson girls, Lynda and Luci. Well, I let one of them share the cover with Jackie, and our sales slipped 5 percent." The memory of elegance in the White House is alive in the mass dreamworld of feminine America, whether still in high school or already installed as a homemaker. The Johnsons offer us beautification, the Kennedys gave us style. Robert and Ethel Kennedy need this image, for the fairy-tale-princess role in which Jackie succeeded Princess Grace is not Ethel's specialty, and Bobby's appearance has in it less of Camelot than of Donnybrook.
The myth is by no means RFK's only asset. He is a contemporary operator in his own right. A recent report by senators on the sizes of their staffs from April to June 30 showed his to be the largest—80 at one time or another, paid out of government funds. They included summer interns who eager-beavered around his office until they had to go back to school, where their experiences will lose nothing in the telling. Like his brother's, his staff members are bright in the brain, and deft with the hatchet arm. In addition to them, the senator is plugged into a loose network of intellectuals, a few still in government, most in universities.
Just Enough Ahead
Kennedy and his advisers have the job of finding techniques to establish a position different from that of Johnson, yet not so different as to remove RFK from the center of his party. Richard Goodwin's call in September for a No Wider War Committee is a sample of a potentially useful technique. Like all good middle-of-the- road techniques it invites the largest possible participation: members need only be opposed to escalation; those who believe the US has a valid purpose in South Vietnam and those who picket against all involvement are equally welcome. And the other issue such a committee raises, the credibility of an Administration that seemed bent on avoiding a land war in Asia and by now has over 300,000 men in South Vietnam without benefit of congressional recognition that this is a war, is as impeccable as being for motherhood and against sin.
The statements of Mr. Goodwin and the senator regarding the committee could hardly have been better calculated to bring RFK into just the right relationship with its work—the senator said he had not read Mr. Goodwin's speech, and Mr. Goodwin said he had not shown it to him though they had had a general discussion of its contents. This leaves the committee, as a body of free citizens, in a position to force a pace a little faster than the senator might publicly like to advocate. In view of the numbers, ability and strategic current private locations of alumni of the John F. Kennedy Administration, this technique could have application in other fields. It is working in New York, where the senator has grabbed the reform banner, but without alienating the regulars.
If the war gives RFK the kind of negative issue that attracts the "agin" vote, the shame of the cities gives him a positive rallying point for minorities and low-income voters who hold the big-city balance. RFK's opening shot in his war against the slums and urban decay came this summer in the hearings of the subcommittee on executive reorganization, chaired by Kennedy's good friend, Mr. Ribicoff (D, Conn.). Those hearings will be resumed in January. The more domestic poverty and urban redevelopment programs are cut back to hold the inflationary line while military budgets balloon, the more continued movement to the suburbs leaves city centers derelict, the more this positive issue gains visibility.
A choice of whom to support, the President or the senator, would cause a serious split in organized labor, a segment of the Democratic Party without whose adherence nomination is difficult. Neither man raises enthusiasm in union executive suites, though rank and filers are more likely to go for Kennedy. The McClellan Committee hearings are unforgotten among union chiefs (and not just James Hoffa), and the senator's term as attorney general also left scars. AFL-CIO president George Meany would probably stick with the President, because of Vietnam and crusades against communism in general. UAW's Walter Reuther, on the other hand, might be drawn by an imaginatively stated Kennedy program for the big cities.
Among liberals in general, the RFK image has undergone major change this year: many who once deplored him as rough and ruthless, a carpetbagger in New York and hatchet man for a tribal incursion into national politics now voice gratitude. Yet politics loves a winner, and images are reversible. Given a break in the war situation, 1968 would be LBJ all the way. Without it, the future is less self-evident.
This article originally ran in the October 15, 1966, issue of the magazine.