With Robert Kennedy Jr., it’s like father, like son

Published 12:38 pm Friday, August 25, 2023

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In 1968, the incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson seemed a shoo-in as the Democratic candidate for president. Even with falling approval ratings, he was strong enough to keep a tight grip on his party – or so he thought.
As formidable as Johnson was, there was one name he could not compete against: Kennedy. When Robert F. Kennedy, brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, threw his hat into the ring late in the race, Johnson knew his days were numbered and withdrew from the election. That was the last time an incumbent president was not nominated for a second term.
Now 56 years later, the incumbent, Democratic President Joe Biden looks to be “a sure thing” for his party’s nomination. But could history repeat itself? Could the Kennedy name once again prove strong enough to shake things up within the Democratic Party?
1968 was one of America’s most turbulent years. President Johnson had claimed America was winning the Vietnam War, yet the year began with the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s largest offensive action to date. At home, the Vietnam protest movement was at its height and most of the anger was aimed at Johnson. Protesters felt Johnson had lied to them about the war. And while he had successfully passed two major Civil Rights bills and created Medicare and Medicaid, the war overshadowed Johnson’s accomplishments and his approval ratings plummeted.
Even with low numbers, Johnson, who had become president with the death of JFK and soundly won the Electoral College vote 486-52 in his 1964 reelection, seemed a sure thing in ’68. The one name that could disrupt Johnson’s plan: Robert F. Kennedy Sr.
In a time of mayhem, the Kennedy name resonated with voters who still felt the loss of JFK. Surely to Johnson’s relief, not wanting to divide the party, Kennedy announced “under no foreseeable circumstances” would he run for president. The case seemed closed; Johnson would win the nomination.
However, with Kennedy’s announcement, another anti-war Democratic senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, entered the race. McCarthy seemed a long shot, so it shocked the political world when he won the first primary in New Hampshire.
Now, with the realization that Johnson was beatable, Kennedy changed his mind and decided to enter the race.
While the two had been rivals for some time, Kennedy cited Johnson’s continued support of the war as the main reason for his decision to run. Kennedy hoped to consolidate the anti-war movement in the party.
Seeing the writing on the wall, with Kennedy’s entrance in the election, Johnson pulled out of the race. Johnson’s VP, Herbert Humphrey, entered the race as the pro-Vietnam candidate.
The three candidates – McCarthy, Kennedy, and Humphrey – went on to each win several primaries until Kennedy was assassinated after a victory speech in California. After Kennedy’s death, McCarthy suspended his campaign allowing Humphrey to win. Humphrey went on to lose to Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon.
Jumping forward 56 years, again the Democrats have an incumbent president running for a second term. Like the last time, the sitting president’s approval rating is low, and he is presiding over a divided party — not to mention a nation once again in turmoil. When Biden announced he would seek reelection, it seemed as though no other viable Democratic politicians would challenge him. Yet, just like Johnson in ‘68, one name could be the incumbent president’s downfall: Kennedy.
While not a politician, 69-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer living in California, has thrown his hat in the Democratic ring.
Kennedy is a long shot. Once a media darling as an environmental warrior, Kennedy distanced himself from the Democratic Party when he spoke out against the COVID-19 vaccination, has argued since around 2005 that other types of vaccinations cause autism, and promoted other conspiracy theories.
His actions have brought condemnation from Democrats as well as family members, but he has received some support from Republicans. He has been removed from several social media platforms which he calls censorship and is one of the reasons why he chose to run.
While most are not seeing Kennedy as a threat – some of his theories are really out there – it would be unwise to count out anyone with the last name Kennedy, a name that still resonates with the American public. Because if there is American royalty in his country it is the Kennedys. And any connection to John F. Kennedy reminds us of a perceived better time in our country.
Now, one thing might give Robert F. Kennedy Jr. a leg up, and that is if New Hampshire is able to keep their place as the first primary state. Biden is trying to push South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire. But New Hampshire is a wild card and could easily give Kennedy the nod.
It is highly unlikely that Kennedy can get enough votes to win the nomination. But if he were to win New Hampshire first it could expose many of Biden’s weaknesses. And just like in ’68, it could open the door to other contenders vying for the Democratic prize.
For many older generation of voters – a generation that votes more than any other – they revere both John and Bobby Kennedy. Those two men who gave their lives for public service. Even Republican voters who might have voted against the Kennedys at the time now look back at Camelot fondly.
While RFK Jr. has a major uphill climb to dethrone Biden, he may be the one candidate who can.
(Dr. James W. Finck was raised in the shadows of history in the great state of Virginia.
For five years, Finck taught at the University of Texas-Pan American before accepting his current position as American Historian at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in 2011. At a small liberal arts institution, Finck considers himself a generalist in history, but his specialties are the Civil War and American Politics.)

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