My Reaction to the 1968 Democratic Primary Debate

This debate took place before the California Primary between Eugene McCarthy and Robert F Kennedy. I scoured the internet on and off for months to find footage of this, since both men are among my political heroes. Eventually I did find two different audio recordings but the video has yet to be recovered. (I know it’s out there since there’s a brief snippet on YouTube.)

I don’t have a whole lot to say since it’s a shorter debate and most of it is about the nitty-gritty details of how to end the Vietnam war, which as someone not living through it, the details are all Greek to me. For the most part, they both agree on the issue–McCarthy and Kennedy were anti-war candidates who wanted to get out ASAP. Where they differed is in specifics, and I don’t have enough knowledge on this subject to say whose specific plan is better.

“I love my country but I love it in justice.” ~RFK. This is my favorite quote from the debate, and one of many great lines from Bobby Kennedy. He had a real talent for mixing both eloquence and bluntness that I think is something of a lost art these days. Most so-called liberals since the ’70s tend to talk a big talk, dodge questions, and pander to everyone while pleasing no one (except the rich.) Bobby Kennedy was one of the last Democrats who didn’t apologize for his liberal views. My favorite zinger in all of politics is when he was speaking in front of a group of wealthy white collar, white skinned professionals and was asked “where’s the money for your programs going to come from?” and he responded point blank “From you” without sugar-coating it or missing a beat.

I do think McCarthy’s answer on discontent and riots was better than Kennedy’s, but I can see why Kennedy won with the audience. McCarthy pointed out that as long as there is inequality, injustice, and the people are being suppressed, there will be uprisings at home. This is both true and speaks to a higher calling, an awareness of the systemic issues in America, that shows me his heart was in the right place. Kennedy pointed to his experience as Attorney General and putting down riots at the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi. McCarthy’s answer indicates he cares more about helping the oppressed as opposed to forcibly silencing them. Kennedy’s would play better for the masses who wanted law and order. To go further into that, I think Kennedy’s talking points about decentralizing the Federal government would have also played better to America at large and the right-wing. I wish I could have heard more about this detail though, because that seems to run contradictory to RFK’s support of integration.

That said, RFK really wins me over talking about reforming tax loopholes. This is another issue we’ve put off for far too long. McCarthy concurs and goes into a bit more detail on it which I’ll have to look into further.

In their closing arguments, RFK emphasizes his experience in the executive branch. McCarthy emphasizes his experience on all the congressional committees he’s sat on. I think McCarthy inadvertently answers why he lost this debate and the progressive wing to Kennedy in the primary–by his own admission, he got no publicity for all the good he did, while RFK was a beloved household name with infinite goodwill due to what happened to his brother. It makes me sad for Eugene, who truly was and is overlooked and underappreciated. It took a lot of guts for him to primary a sitting President from his own party–that kind of thing almost never happens, and never succeeds. Kennedy came in only after it was clear Johnson would step down, and then stole Eugene’s thunder and momentum. From what I understand, to this day McCarthy holds a grudge over it. It’s maybe bad form to say this after the man’s death but it probably would have been better for all of us if RFK never jumped into the race. He wouldn’t have been shot and without that splitting of the progressive vote, Eugene may have secure the nomination.

Overall this is a pretty boring debate, similar to Estes Kefauver vs Adlai Stevenson 12 years earlier. The Kennedy vs Humphrey debate in between was interesting because of the difference in both men’s styles and effectiveness of oration. But in this case, there’s no real obvious winner in that regard, and we can’t judge their posture or the conviction in their faces because there’s no surviving video. Even the moderator says, about 40 minutes in “well, it seems Senator Kennedy and Senator McCarthy agree on everything.” Right after he says that though, Kennedy shares an amusing anecdote about the William Henry Harrison presidency wherein the entire cabinet voted on the executive decisions, with the President himself merely the first among equals. RFK claims that he suggested this with his brother, who ignored the idea. McCarthy and the moderator laugh it off too. I think it’s an interesting concept to moderate executive power and the inevitable flaws of a lone person’s judgement. Maybe this particular suggestion not the best way to counteract these problems, but certainly it’s something to keep in mind when debating constitutional reforms.

I’m still glad I listened to this–there’s so little surviving examples of RFK’s oration, let alone McCarthy who has all but vanished into thin air. Both of these men were the precursors to McGovern’s platform and grassroots candidacy the very next cycle, and beyond that they were great candidates in their own right. Either one would have made a wonderful President and we would be in a far better place today if they had been elected. The usurpation of the nomination by Humphrey was a travesty and a prelude to the ultimate downfall of the Democratic Party.

It goes without saying, the murder of Kennedy is one of the worst things that has ever happened to America both on a personal level and a political one. A Kennedy/McGovern or McGovern/Kennedy ticket in ’68 or ’72 is still my political dream team. I think it’s likely RFK would have asked George to be VP if he lived, and it’s a fact that McGovern would have asked Bobby. Unlike Ted, who turned it down in ’72 for fear of assassination and for personal ambition, there’s no doubt in my mind RFK would have said yes. The two were personal friends as well as political allies, and unlike his brother I think Bobby valued country and ideals over ambition or pleasing the party bosses. RFK even called McGovern “the most honorable man in the Senate” and they came from different regions of the country, for good measure.

1 Comment

  1. Another good example of political; analysis. I liked your speculation at the end, what if RFK had not been killed? Would he have won the nomination and beat Nixon? What a change in US history. As you pointed out the quote of I love my country in justice, was a great one. I myself like it much better than his brothers famous “Ask Not” gout Real patriots don’t just cheer on their country regardless of right or wrong, they seek justice and to make their country do right. This was a historical debate. That brought back memories of the Vietnam war era. Thanks for brining it back into the light.


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