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Saturday, May 24, 2008

1964, 1968, 2008

Hillary Clinton's almost unbelievable reference to the assassination of Robert Kennedy 40 years ago has perhaps made this post less relevant than it might have been, but I have been planning it for some time, and the topic is unlikely to go away any time soon. The issue at hand is not whether Barack Obama will be nominated--that is obvious--but whether the rift between him and his rival will be "healed" by her accession to the Vice Presidency. In my opinion such a move is absolutely out of the question, and the reason, ironically, also relates to Robert Kennedy. Barack Obama can no more choose Hillary Clinton as Vice President than Lyndon Johnson could have chosen RFK in 1964--and for the same reasons.

Robert Kennedy in the wake of his brother's assassination was devastated with grief--grief compounded, as we now know, by guilt over the possibility that the assassination might have had something to do with his own crusades either against Castro or against organized crime. (The Road to Dallas shows that those concerns were well founded indeed.) That was understandable enough. Less understandable or forgivable, however, was his attitude toward the new President. He and Lyndon Johnson had always hated each other, and it was his cooler, more logical older brother Jack who had understood in 1960 that Johnson's presence on the ticket might spell the difference between victory and defeat in the election, as indeed it probably did. That only made RFK, who had run his brother's campaign, only that much more resentful. Now his brother was dead, killed in Johnson's own state, and his own power base was gone. As Arthur Schlesinger's journal revealed years ago, he simply could not accept this. He wanted to keep the Kennedy influence as strong as possible within the Johnson Administration. He actually sent family friend Bill Walton to Moscow to talk to his own former Soviet contact, Georgi Bolshakov, and tell him that although Johnson would probably fail to continue the positive trend in Soviet-American relations, RFK would probably return to the White House in 1968. He apparently allowed a family friend, Paul Corbin, to start a write-in campaign on his behalf in the 1964 New Hampshire primary, incurring LBJ's justified wrath. He resented those like McGeorge Bundy who went to work for LBJ as loyally as they had for Kennedy (even though no staffer, as I found out in American Tragedy, was more affected by Kennedy's death than Bundy.) And privately he insisted that Johnson both needed him to win and owed him the nomination. In researching that book I listened to every available LBJ phone conversation from November 1963 through July 1964, and I recall only one conversation with RFK. Kennedy's voice was as cold as ice.

Whatever one's opinion of Lyndon Johnson--and to me his Presidency will always be one more piece of evidence that the Vice-Presidency is the weak spot of the American Constitution, despite some great achievements--one cannot help but sympathize with his anger and respect his calculations. Although RFK still referred to him as "Johnson" and to his late brother as "the President," Bundy was right. The United States has only one President at a time. To have chosen Robert Kennedy would have divided the loyalties of all the key cabinet members, such as Robert McNamara, whom Johnson had decided to keep. It would have given the whole enormous Kennedy entourage access the deepest councils of the Adminstration, and made RFK the automatic heir apparent whenver LBJ should step down. It was a choice that he simply could not make, and in July, he publicly pulled the plug by announcing, after a private meeting with RFK, that no cabinet member would be chosen as Vice President.

Exactly the same calculations apply this year for Barack Obama. In choosing Hillary he would be holding out his hand not only to her, but also to all the Clinton veterans and acolytes who counted on her to return them to power as well. He would not, to put it bluntly, be master in his own Administration. He would be much better advised to choose one of the Governors who supported her, like Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania--or perhaps one of his other defeated rivals like Chris Dodd or Joe Biden (John Edwards, in my opinion, has had his chance.) He might well offer Clinton the next opening on the Supreme Court, a post in which I think she would do well. But the chance that she could be Vice President is nil, all the more so after her appalling remark.

I must say, too, that this election has odd echoes of 1968, this time with Hillary Clinton in the role of Hubert Humphrey and Barack Obama as a combination of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. It was one of the ironies of that campaign that Hubert Humphrey, the one-time radical firebrand judged too liberal to be nominated, had by the spring of 1968 become the candidate of the establishment, and even of the South. Indeed, in those days--when primaries still chose only a minority of delegates--most observers gave RFK little chance of overcoming this advantage. In the same way, Hillary Clinton, a symbol in the 1990s of left-wing liberalism, has sustained her campaign thanks to the support of socially conservative working-class voters, southern whites, foreign policy conservatives, and, above all, the elderly, while Obama runs strongest among the educated elite and, above all, among younger voters.
And last but not least, Hillary with respect to Michigan and Florida is trying to pull the same kind of disgraceful trick that Humphrey tried against George McGovern in 1972, when he argued that California's traditional winner-take-all rules should be scrapped in mid-election. I had the opportunity to ask George McGovern about that a little over a year ago, and he replied, not unkindly, "Well, Hubert had always been desperate to be President. That was his last chance."

Obama had a few bad weeks in April, but he has obviously rallied now, showing a critical characteristic of leadership--the ability to remain calm under pressure. My birthday is exactly two weeks away, and I am hoping that Hillary will give me a real present by stepping out before then. I don't see how she can possibly last out next month. The latter stages of her candidacy have been embarrassing, but that in turn rebounds to Obama's advantage. I recently had an interesting argument with a foreign student at the War College who could not believe that he could be elected. It aroused my patriotism, and I am looking forward to reminding this gentleman of that argument in November.


Anonymous said...

Interesting analogy, David. I think you rather skate over the importance, in retrospect, of JFK taking LBJ as his running mate. It turned out to have been a crucial offer (even if JFK never expected LBJ to accept, but felt he must make the offer par politesse). As you point out, were Obama to offer Hillary the V-Pship it would incur conflicts of loyalty - but you have to set them against the advantages. And JFK, in death, exerted an extraordinary posthumous influence and hold, which Bill Clinton doesn't...

Anonymous said...

This is off-topic, but Le Monde reports that George W. Bush met with Israeli generals on his recent trip to Jerusalem to convince them to attack Lebanon _again_ in an attempt to wipe out Hezbollah...

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