THE BLOG
01/07/2008 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, JFK, RFK, Gene McCarthy, and New Hampshire

Last Saturday, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote of Senator Barack Obama: "Even when he fires up a crowd, he doesn't get too hot. He has the cadences that remind you of King but the cool that reminds you of Kennedy -- John, not Robert." Herbert's point is well taken. Especially on television (which is extremely important) Obama projects an easy, cool detachment that is similar to John Kennedy's public style.

But Herbert would have to admit that when it comes to the political context in which Obama is currently operating -- with a bloody, unpopular war abroad and rising poverty at home -- Obama's 2008 campaign has far more in common with Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential bid than it does with any of John Kennedy's races. Also, the outpouring and enthusiasm of young people who are going door to door in New Hampshire in behalf of Obama's candidacy, as well as the élan and spirit of his campaign, looks a lot like the movement Robert Kennedy was harnessing and guiding during his final 85-day presidential campaign.

New Hampshire is an interesting place. Forty years ago, college students and young people who opposed the Vietnam War were out canvassing precincts in the Granite State for Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy who challenged incumbent President Lyndon Johnson as the stop-the-war candidate. The "Clean for Gene" campaign was a new political phenomenon, and the pro-war Johnson forces did all they could to paint it as nothing but a bunch of naive communist sympathizers.

On January 25, 1968, McCarthy had chosen to open his New Hampshire campaign by appearing at the same location John Kennedy had used in launching his 1960 presidential bid. In case anyone missed the symbolism, McCarthy stood next to a bust of President Kennedy, and heaped effusive praise on him. Old photographs of McCarthy with President Kennedy permeated McCarthy campaign literature. The peace candidate's invocation of the memory of JFK shows that in the public mind in early 1968 the late President was still a source of inspiration, and not widely associated with laying the foundations for the Vietnam War.

Two days before the New Hampshire primary, the wire services reported that New York Senator Robert Kennedy had given McCarthy's campaign "a late-hour lift," by indirectly upbraiding the Johnson forces for questioning McCarthy's loyalty. Kennedy denounced the Johnson campaign's radio and newspaper advertisements, which stated that a McCarthy victory would be "greeted with cheers in Hanoi." Other pro-Johnson radio spots attacked "peace-at-any-price fuzzy thinkers who say 'Give up the goal, burn your draft card and surrender.'" (These are similar tactics that the Republicans are currently using to smear critics of the Iraq occupation, branding them "terrorist sympathizers.")

Robert Kennedy told an audience in Des Moines, Iowa that McCarthy was "setting forth his honest views on what is best for our nation, just as President Johnson is carrying out policies which he believes are best for our nation. The motives of neither should be impugned." He then paid McCarthy what was for him a high compliment by comparing the criticisms of the Minnesota senator to similar charges "made in 1960 against President Kennedy."

On March 12, 1968, McCarthy stunned President Johnson and his political advisers in New Hampshire by capturing 42.2 percent of the Democratic vote to Johnson's 49.4 percent. An additional 5,511 Republican write-in votes for McCarthy meant that in the overall tally he trailed the President by a scant 230 votes. Publicly, President Johnson dismissed McCarthy's victory as "insignificant"; "New Hampshire is the only place," he scoffed on election night, "where candidates can claim 20 percent as a landslide, 40 percent as a mandate, and 60 percent as unanimous." Despite his public nonchalance, Johnson ordered his staff to produce a detailed analysis of the New Hampshire vote, paying particular attention to his campaign's mistakes, and to the voting tendencies of Catholics and organized labor.

The youthful volunteers for McCarthy, motivated by their strong desire for peace in Vietnam, proclaimed their candidate's victory a repudiation of the war. However, a well-publicized poll of New Hampshire voters conducted by Lou Harris showed that as many hawks as doves voted for McCarthy. The Harris poll estimated that had the war been the central issue, McCarthy would have received only 22 percent of the vote. New Hampshire's Democratic voters were more anti-Johnson than anti-war. McCarthy's appeal, in Harris's words, was primarily among the "egghead, affluent, suburban vote." In his syndicated column, Harris contrasted McCarthy's relatively limited New Hampshire constituency with Robert Kennedy's broader national strength among lower income groups, although RFK at that time was still not willing to jump into the race.

The RFK people followed events in New Hampshire closely and used the McCarthy campaign as a stalking horse. Four days later, on March 16, 1968, Kennedy announced he was entering the remaining the Democratic primaries.

Today, in New Hampshire, my guess is that Obama is going to win overwhelmingly the independent voters who might be more anti-Bush than they are anti-Iraq occupation. But since all of the GOP presidential candidates have so yoked themselves to fervently supporting Bush's war, the occupation now seems synonymous with the Republican Party.

Democratic candidates who voted in favor of Bush's war resolution in October 2002 should be held accountable. They are damaged goods no matter what they say now because they gave Bush a vote of confidence when they should have been standing up against him. One gets the impression that if the public hadn't already soured on the Iraq occupation both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards would be toeing the John Kerry 2004 line of tactical criticism combined with promised better management of the occupation, which misses the point that the invasion was illegal and illegitimate to begin with. These Democratic candidates who voted for Bush's war now find themselves in the same position that Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey were in 1968. They must defend and support a failed violent military engagement that the American people have already turned the page on.

Obama is maneuvering through a political mine field that is similar to 1968. He is the only front-running Democratic candidate who is not tainted by voting in favor of giving Bush the green light to illegally invade and occupy Iraq. He is also the "Anti-Bush." Obama is the candidate who is the most UNLIKE Bush in every way. And that is very appealing.