Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Flashback: In TV Debate, Bobby Flashes Harsh White Race Card in Debate as McCarthy Flubs Chance for Knockout. Hubert Favors Kennedy Over McCarthy. And Kennedy is Murdered in Los Angeles.


[More than 50 years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Bobby the Vietnam Conservative in TV Debate.

Those liberals who have canonized Bobby Kennedy, saying he “grew” from pro-Joe McCarthy as minority counsel on a Senate committee where Reds were being pursued to statesman…born-afresh liberal after the death of his brothers…gently pass over his last TV debate. There he so desperately wanted to win the California primary in order to become the Democratic nominee that he raised the specter of Gene McCarthy encouraging blacks to move into white suburban areas—citing a McCarthy public housing proposal that, Kennedy said, would prompt mass movement of “Negroes” (as they were then called) to all white areas.

“It was a dishonorable, racist demagogic attack to inflame the suburbs,” said Eller. He was right. And the attack succeeded. Robert Kennedy proved that there was nothing he would sacrifice for victory. It is intriguing that the Kennedy family courtier and court historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. avoided any definitive mention of the assault.

Eller was right: McCarthy had spent the final hour before the program joking, reciting poetry and drinking with Robert Lowell, with all his disadvantages, enthralled that he was with America’s premier poet; a now temporarily liquid-dissipated Blair Clark, Mary McGrory of “The Washington Star” and Shana Alexander of “Life.” The new national campaign director, Tom Finney, saw him entering the studio all smiles and worried he had lost his edge: Lowell clearly had been a distraction as had The Little Sisters of the Media. Bobby had been in the studio much earlier and looked grim, his once tousled hair combed.

The ABC news panel of interrogators consisted of the moderator, Frank Reynolds, the network’s political editor, Bill Lawrence (a former “New York Timesman”) and its congressional correspondent, Bob Clark. They settled on the order of questions by flipping a coin: the first question went to McCarthy—“If in fact you were president, what would you do at this time that President Johnson is not doing in order to bring peace to Vietnam?”

McCarthy: “One is a de-escalation of the war. And secondly, a recognition that we have to have a new government in South Vietnam. I am not particularly concerned whether it is called a coalition or fusion or a new government of some kind. And we have to recognize that that government would include the National Liberation Front…”

Kennedy: “I would pursue the negotiations in Paris. At the same time I would make it quite clear that we would expect Saigon…would begin their own negotiations with the National Liberation Front.”

Then Kennedy added: “I would be opposed to what I understand Sen. McCarthy’s position is—of forcing a coalition on the government of Saigon, a coalition with the Communists, even before we begin negotiations.”

Whoa. McCarthy never said that. It was a touch of the old thumb-in-the-eye soft on communism style that liberals are supposed to hate—but far more was to come later in the debate to swing conservative Orange county.

Then Clark asked this of McCarthy: “[Your committee’s earlier statements seem to say in the form of an ad that even though Sen. Kennedy] has been a war critic for the past three years he should be ruled out as president because of his participation in that decision in the Kennedy administration. Is that what you mean?”

McCarthy: “I don’t think we said it should be ruled out as all, Bob. He has said that he would take some responsibility for it. The question is, how much responsibility?...”

Kennedy had been boiling while listening to this. Now he came through with a good thrust.

“[The ad] also said that I intervened in the Dominican Republic…I wasn’t even in the government at the time! [To McCarthy] Now how did they get that?

McCarthy: “Well, I think that what they did, I had--.”

Kennedy: “I wasn’t even in the government at that time.”

McCarthy: “Well, you weren’t out very long.”

Kennedy: “But I--.”

McCarthy: “I don’t want to fault you on that.”

Kennedy: “And then it ran again today.”

McCarthy: “We stopped it—it may have run in two papers but I don’t think it ran twice.”

Kennedy: “I saw it again this morning. I wasn’t involved in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t even in the government and I criticize this.”

McCarthy: “What I said was that this was a process, what was involved in our going into Cuba, involved in our going into the Dominican Republic and also into Vietnam and that I wanted to talk about the process. In any case, I had not seen the ad. When I saw it, I said `Stop it’ and they stopped it as soon as they could.”

Kennedy: “I appreciate that.”

Now a McCarthy counter thrust:

“Which is not quite what happened to the voting record of McCarthy which was distributed across the country and is being mailed out in this state right now.”

Reynolds to Kennedy: “Would you like to respond to that?”

Kennedy: “I don’t know to what he is referring.”

McCarthy: “I have it in my pocket.”

It was a handbill that said correctly McCarthy had opposed a bill to outlaw the poll tax but failed to mention (as earlier covered by this series) that he had done so at the request of Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach who had said that the poll tax was on the way to being invalidated by the Supreme Court and the legislation would interfere with the upcoming decision “so please hold off” which McCarthy did. Kennedy had no reply.

Kennedy Charges McCarthy Wants to Send 10,000 Blacks to the Orange County Suburbs.

This led to the topic of how to cure poverty in the ghettoes. Kennedy talked about his proposal in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York city which was a Kennedy espoused public-private sector pilot program to rebuild the ghettos and to improve conditions there.

This was the differentiation which was a key one in the 1960s—whether to concentrate on the “ghetto”—or “gild them” as their opponents said—or to encourage the poor to move out of them and into the suburbs. McCarthy now goes into the latter argument, feeling probably that Kennedy’s liberalism would prevent him from exploiting it by appealing to suburban white racism.

McCarthy: “…I would say we have to get into the suburbs, too, with this kind of housing because some of the jobs are in the city and some jobs are being built there—but most of the employment is now in the belt line outside of the cities and I don’t think we ought to perpetuate the ghetto if we can help it, even by putting better homes there for them or low-cost houses..,.”

But Kennedy was quick to snatch the opportunity for suburban discord and capitalize on the massive anti-integration discontent in mostly white Orange county. .

Kennedy: “I am all in favor of moving people out of the ghettos…You say you are going to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange county. The people who graduate from high school which are only three out of ten of the people—or of children who go to these schools, only three out of ten who graduate from high school and the ones who graduate from high school hav[ing] the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. So to take them out of where 40 percent don’t have any jobs at all—that is what you are talking about. If you are talking about one hundred people, that is one thing. But if you are talking about hitting this problem in a major way—to take these people out, put them in the suburbs where they can’t afford the housing, where their children can’t keep up with the schools and where they don’t have the skills for the jobs, it is just going to be catastrophic.” Italics mine.

That was a strong dose of George Wallace anti-integration populism. McCarthy had never mentioned sending 10,000 blacks anywhere to the suburbs least of all Orange county.

And in failing to raise any response to this, McCarthy flubbed—badly. It was the lingering effect of the Robert Lowell factor earlier. He told me later he had not listened or paid attention to the import of what Kennedy was saying—not that he shrank from confrontation. His answer, vague and uncertain, was: “There are an estimated 250,000 jobs available but there aren’t people within reach. I didn’t want to raise—I thought that you really—when this question was first raised, this is was not your clear position of concentrating that much on the ghettos.”

That Kennedy statement—and McCarthy’s neglect to respond to it with vigor—decided the California primary. It was as if George Wallace had entered the contest with respect to Orange county on Kennedy’s side. At the end of the program, Finney struck his hand down on a piano bench in the studio and groaned, “Flubbed it! Blew i! Threw it away! How do you elect a guy like that?” As for McCarthy, he joined a few friends and Lowell at a posh San Francisco restaurant and growled, “I don’t want to talk about politics. I want to talk about Dante’s 6th Canto.” He said this because he had realized he had flubbed it badly.

However even with Kennedy’s brutal overture to white racism, the voter was closer than CBS had projected---Kennedy’s final count being 46.3% and McCarthy’s 41.8% with the Humphrey slate headed by California attorney general Tom Lynch 11.9%. Not long ago I read a portion of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s journal that had to do with that era. Not a glimmer of recognition of what Bobby did to win the primary—not a glimmer. Schlesinger had historical gifts but was nothing more than a foppish courtier for the Kennedys. A little more than a year later when Ted Kennedy met his Waterloo at Chappaquiddick all Schlesinger could write was of his remorse for Ted—not a word of concern for the life of Mary Jo Kopechne whose life was taken by the accident. Only how sad it was that a dynasty would threaten to be derailed by the accident. How ghastly it is that Schlesinger who had real literary and historical gifts had become nothing more than a Kennedy groupie.

Why Hubert Wanted Bobby to Win

Two days before the debate I had been in Washington on Quaker Oats business and talked to an aide who was very close to Vice President Humphrey. I asked: where does Hubert stand on this battle? Whom would he prefer to win in the contest between McCarthy and Kennedy? The clear answer—which I had often verified with others earlier—Bobby Kennedy. “Two reasons,” Hubert was quoted as saying. “The way the convention delegates are chosen now—and the hatred many party leaders have for him—Bobby cannot get the nomination. Second, if he loses at the convention, Bobby will come out for me. Gene will be the same bitter hard loser he has been. Bobby and I may even run together, who knows? But Gene? I know him. He will never come around and he will destroy me and the Democratic party rather than conciliate.”

Right he was. McCarthy had no more sensibility for the country and what would happen to it if we threw in our cards so carelessly on Vietnam as to invalidate our position vis-à-vis communism than he had for his once patron and senatorial colleague as well as his own party that nurtured him.

That cold uncompassionate nature, that icy reserve, dominated everything.

Bobby’s Murder.

When the results were final, Kennedy prepared to go down to meet the crowd at the Los Angeles Ambassador hotel. As he pulled up his necktie he said he intended to “chase Hubert’s ass all over the country.” Nobody imagined there would be any accommodation with McCarthy. The bitterness was too keen for that on McCarthy’s part. Then the news came to Kennedy that he had swept South Dakota’s primary held that same night. He went down to the Embassy Room a few minutes after midnight and spoke to the Ambassador hotel crowd, concluding: “So my thanks to all of you and it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

Then he stepped down from the dais to walk through a kitchen passage to give a press conference in a smaller room adjoining. In the passage one Sirhan Sirhan was waiting with a preposterously tiny gun—a .22 (experts said one needed at least a .38 to kill a man effectively. Sirhan fired eight shots. In all four other people were hit by the shots he fired, all recovered. Kennedy had one superficial shoulder wound and one very critical wound—the bullet which entered the right mastoid bone on the right ear and had gone to the mid-line of the skull where it was lodged in his brain. Had the small bullet that entered Kennedy’s head gone only one centimeter more to the rear he would have lived.

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