Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

Robert F. Kennedy's Indiana Campaign

Posted: Updated:

On May 7, 1968, Democrats in Indiana would go to the polls. A loss for Robert F. Kennedy there, in the first primary he entered, could stop the campaign in its tracks. A notoriously conservative state, Indiana would be a difficult first primary for Kennedy to win. The March 28, 1968 deadline for filing his candidacy forced his hand, however; against the advice of his more cautious advisers, he decided to go before Indiana's Democratic voters. When Theodore Sorensen told him that Indiana would be a gamble, "the whole campaign is a gamble," was the candidate's reply.

Thousands of college students were bused into the state to help with the campaign from Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and as far away as New York and Maryland. They visited hundreds of thousands of homes and participated in "issues canvassing" to try to discern the level of voter discontent with the war and the administration. Seeking out Kennedy supporters would be difficult, one organizing letter warned volunteers; it would require "long bus rides with peanut butter sandwiches and cold floors" and "an occasional door slammed in one's face, scattered curse words, and a lot of walking."

Kennedy's advisers and campaign workers knew they were in for a tough fight in the state. Arthur Schlesinger wrote Kennedy that Indiana was "a middle-class, small-town, suburban state, fearful of challenge, seeking consolation and reassurance." In Schlesinger's view, "Indiana Democrats in the main do not want to be summoned to the barricades and told they have to do great things to meet great crises. What many of them want is what McCarthy will instinctively give them: pleasant, personal and poetic disquisitions on liberty, justice, the American condition, and so on, which will offer a sense of something new and exalting but which will not demand that they confront or take drastic actions." Kennedy's problems in Indiana, therefore, depended "less on content than on style"; Schlesinger advised him to try to "be low-key." This advice appears to have registered with Kennedy. He subsequently began emphasizing his law-enforcement experience as Attorney General and framed the debate on the Vietnam War to highlight its waste of tax dollars and unnecessary American involvement.

To counter the Indiana Democratic organization's control of a substantial party patronage system, the Kennedy campaign turned to the grass roots: rank-and-file Democrats, unionists, community organizers, youth and students, African-Americans, and anti-war activists.

Democratic Governor Roger Branigan, who made the incredulous claim that the Vietnam War was not an issue in the primary, ran as a stand-in for Johnson and Humphrey. Governor Branigan's campaign avoided the war, race, and virtually any other substantive issue facing the nation in favor of playing to Hoosiers' ingrained chauvinism and xenophobia. He portrayed himself as a hometown boy besieged by big-money city slickers and carpetbaggers from the Eastern Establishment. He ignored, wherever possible, the fact that he was himself a Harvard Law School graduate who made several million dollars as a corporate lawyer. Branigan's state party chairman, Gordon St. Angelo, ran an old-style patronage system where some seven thousand state employees were required to tithe 2 percent of their salaries into party coffers producing a tight, dependable political base disciplined against bolting.

Although Indiana's two Senators, Vance Hartke and Birch Bayh, were both dovish Democrats, Kennedy's strident denunciation of the Vietnam War, he was warned, could hurt him in the state. Pro-war sentiment ran high in Indiana, a state strewn with war memorials with Indianapolis the site of the American Legion's national headquarters. A leading Democrat claimed that less than one-fifth of the state's residents wanted the United States to pull out of Vietnam without first attaining a military victory. The Kennedy campaign's strategy would be to attempt to build a coalition among working-class whites and the state's 9 percent African-American population.

The state's two major newspapers, the Indianapolis Star and News were owned by Eugene Pullium, a conservative Republican from Arizona, and were dedicated to stopping a Kennedy victory. Given Branigan's role as the "stop Kennedy" candidate, it is not surprising the Republican newspapers threw their support behind him. The Star went so far as to run a front page story attacking Kennedy for fomenting "racism" following a speech he had given at the Indiana University Medical School where he told the overwhelmingly white student audience that African-Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers to their population.

In the northern part of the state, Lake County, which stretched westward until it blended into greater metropolitan Chicago, provided Kennedy's strongest base. There were large numbers of ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods in the county, which included the cities of Hammond and Mayor Richard Hatcher's Gary. In 1964, Lake County had also included backlash areas where the segregationist George Wallace won 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote. According to one campaign memo, Kennedy student canvassers had produced results that seemed "too good to be true" in Lake County, but they had accurately confirmed that some former Wallace supporters were willing to back Kennedy. However, it was predicted that the Wallace crossover phenomenon would not "bring many votes."

It was in Lake County where the Branigan machine fought the hardest against Kennedy. Democratic officials who were part of the patronage system frightened the first busloads of students who came to work for Kennedy with threatening talk about injunctions against their activities. Kennedy campaign literature "accidentally" and inexplicably disappeared. There was no cooperation from local officials in checking voter registration or other bureaucratic necessities.

In the days leading up to the voting, the polling stations were sometimes shuffled from site to site in an attempt to disrupt the teams of amateurs who were getting the vote out for Kennedy. The campaign therefore assigned people to monitor every polling booth in the state starting at 4:30 in the morning on the day of the election. A Kennedy canvassing survey in Indianapolis and several other cities had also revealed a well-organized Republican crossover vote for Eugene McCarthy. The Kennedy campaign carefully watched the polls "so that the challenge procedure" could be "geared up if the number of crossovers mounts."

Kennedy spent the early days of the Indiana campaign with motorcades and speaking engagements in the populated urban zones and then shifted his attention to the rural areas and small towns. To tackle the problem of Hoosiers' instinctive conservatism, the campaign deployed the most traditional of tactics: the whistle-stop train tour. Two weeks before the election the candidate embarked through rural Indiana on a six-car train, called the "Wabash Canon Ball," filled with staffers and press people. Kennedy used the whistle stop tour to compete in rural and small-town Indiana against Branigan, the "native son" candidate, who had focused much of his attention outside the cities.

The success of the Kennedy campaign depended upon whites and blacks working closely together, but there were a few incidents of racial tension. Two African-American Kennedy workers from the University of Illinois complained that some local campaign volunteers were "demonstrating poor judgment and an absolute lack of tact" for trying to segregate canvassers by race. They wrote Kennedy that eight blacks were kept waiting for hours at a campaign headquarters and were told "they could not pass out information because their presence might 'offend' some of the 'good people of Whiting,'" a white suburb. Kennedy promptly offered his "sincere apologies for the embarrassment and the inconvenience." He regarded the incident as "inexcusable" reflecting "very poor judgment on the part of the person responsible." "Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. I am grateful for your past efforts, and I hope I may continue to merit your support," he wrote. Walter Sheridan, one of Kennedy's key advance people working with African-American communities, recruited two relatively militant black leaders, Ben Bell and "Snooky" Hendricks, to tap into support from organizers of a "Black Youth for Freedom" rally in Indianapolis scheduled for Saturday, April 27.

Kennedy spent the last day of the campaign in a nine-hour motorcade through northern Indiana's cities. When the chain of cars reached the Gary city line, he was joined by Tony Zale, the former middleweight boxing champion from Gary who was a hero to Eastern European immigrants who worked in the steel mills, and by Richard Hatcher, Gary's thirty-four year old African-American Mayor. They climbed into Kennedy's open car and stood on either side of him for an hour while the car slowly pushed through the clogged streets. The three of them, standing on the back seat of the convertible, clung to each other's waists and seemed to symbolize the kind of alliance that Kennedy was attempting to forge. It was a testimony to the Senator's ability to bring together working-class whites and African-Americans in a city often plagued by violent racial strife.

The campaign saturated the foreign language press in Gary, Hammond, South Bend, and Chicago, running 116 foreign language radio spots which focused primarily on people of Polish, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, and Spanish descent. The campaign also ran a 250-line advertisement in dozens of small foreign language newspapers and in two weeklies aimed at African-American and Jewish readerships.

In nearby Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley could not ignore the display of bi-racial support Kennedy received in the cities of Gary, Hammond, and other parts of Lake County. Kennedy had campaigned heavily and successfully in the Polish-American working class districts of South Bend and Mayor Daley was made well aware of Kennedy's popularity in the Polish wards of Chicago. Kennedy was greatly admired in the Polish-American community for the perception of standing up to the communist authorities on his well-publicized 1964 trip to Poland. He also had the assistance of Jacqueline Kennedy's brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, whose resistance to the Communist government of Poland made him a very popular figure. This kind of demonstration of support was precisely what Kennedy wanted Mayor Daley to see. (Today, I suppose we would call Daley a "super-duper superdelegate.")

The campaign planned "maximum get out the vote activities in the concentrated areas across the state." These activities would focus on where Kennedy's "greatest strength lies among blue collar workers, Negroes, some ethnic groups, some Catholic elements, etc." Larry O'Brien drew up the blueprint for getting out the vote. He had devised a series of common-sense efforts, such as receptions where volunteers could meet Robert or Edward Kennedy, to energize the nearly fifteen thousand block captains in the last days of the campaign. These block captains were responsible for making sure that likely Kennedy supporters made it to the polls.

On May 6, 1968, the day before the primary, five minutes before the courts closed at 5:00 p.m., the American Legion secured an injunction against Kennedy, his campaign committee, Time-Life broadcasting Inc., and the campaign's advertising firm. The injunction was designed to stop a half-hour television spot, which featured a 49-second clip of Kennedy speaking before an audience of American Legionnaires who were wearing their American Legion hats with emblems and insignias clearly displayed. The film had been prepared so it could be broadcast on the evening before the election and had not been shown before. A Republican judge granted the injunction on the grounds that the campaign had illegally used the insignia of the American Legion for political purposes.

Kennedy, himself a member of the American Legion, was taken aback by the court's action. At 10:00 p.m., on the eve of the election, he and his lawyers managed to secure a special hearing of the Indiana State Supreme Court and, after some argument, succeeded in getting the injunction lifted, but it was too late to use the ad. Kennedy issued a press release saying that the members of Post Number 34 of the American Legion "gave permission in writing to appear in a political broadcast on my behalf. Presidents, Governors and thousands of political candidates have appeared before Legion meetings, as candidates, wearing their Legion caps proudly," Kennedy said. "I do not know what motives inspired this unusual legal action, but whatever they may be, I am hopeful its final disposition will not impair the free expression by American veterans of their questions on public issues and their concern for their country."

Despite the obstructionism of the state Democratic organization, the American Legion, (and the open hostility of the Pullium newspapers), Kennedy won the Indiana primary. He got 328,118 of the 776,513 Democratic votes cast, or 42.3 percent. Branigan got 238,700, or 30.7 percent, and McCarthy received 209,695, or 27 percent. A precinct breakdown showed that roughly 9 out of 10 African Americans who voted in the primary cast their votes for Kennedy, and that he attracted more than the expected number of blue-collar whites, even in neighborhoods considered sites of "backlash."

Kennedy won because white blue-collar workers and African-Americans registered and voted for him in large numbers. One of Larry O'Brien's early estimates found that one African-American district in Gary gave Branigan 16, McCarthy 52, and Kennedy 697 votes. Kennedy carried nine of the eleven congressional districts and all the major cities EXCEPT BLOOMINGTON AND EVANSVILLE. He won 17 of the 25 rural southern counties. He carried the 7 backlash counties that George Wallace had won in 1964. He only lost 2 counties in which he campaigned personally in the last two weeks. Although the Indiana results did not confirm the emergence of a broad new coalition, they pointed the way toward bridging the racial divide even in a conservative state with a strong, organized, and hostile right wing.

Kennedy had secured control of 63 Democratic delegate votes, (at least on the first ballot) at the Democratic National Convention. In Washington, D.C., the Democratic primary was held the same day as Indiana's, and Kennedy beat the slates backing Humphrey by 62.5 percent to 37.5 percent. He picked up another 23 convention votes from the District of Columbia. The head of Kennedy's slate, Reverend Channing Phillips and his running mate Mrs. Flaxie Pinkett, became D.C. Democratic National Committee members; the District's Kennedy delegation also included the well-known black militant Colin Carew.

In a single day, Kennedy captured 86 delegate votes and the campaign had been put in motion. To Kennedy's chagrin, some of the major newspapers and television networks interpreted his primary victories in Indiana and D.C. as unimpressive and relatively meaningless. Eugene McCarthy, with whom CBS forced Kennedy to share a split-screen interview the night of the election, reinforced these sentiments in the news media by saying it didn't really matter much who came in first, second, or third. (Even forty years ago the news media had deep-seated reactionary tendencies.)

Seeing the difficulties ahead, Kennedy's friend, Anthony Lewis, who was then the chief London correspondent for the New York Times, wrote him after the Indiana victory: "You gave me a hard night. I see very little relief for you in the indefinite future," he wrote in a hand written note. "Perhaps now, as Indiana starts things rolling, you can give the public one thing I think it is lonesome for. That is hope. The United States used to have two very strong characteristics as a nation -- optimism and generosity. That is, we thought we could lick any problem if we put our minds to it, and we certainly were more generous than any other country in the history of the world. Lately it seems to me that we have not only turned in on ourselves in a selfish, ungenerous way -- I am thinking of the protectionist sentiment, as well as personal greed -- but also have dangerously lost our confidence. I still think we have resources and the intelligence and the will to solve our own problems and contribute to the world if we would return to our natural decency and optimism and stop being so sour. An end to the war in Vietnam is of course essential as a first step to permit that revival of faith. But perhaps it is time for you to begin looking beyond that."

After the Democratic vote in Indiana and the District of Columbia, Kennedy had established himself as a viable challenger for the Democratic nomination. But whether or not he could successfully lead a polarized nation, as Lewis pointed out, would depend on his ability to end the Vietnam War and move the country beyond the crises of 1968.

On the evening of his victory in Indiana, Kennedy had a casual conversation with a group of friends and journalists, including David Halberstam and Jack Newfield. "I like Indiana," he said. "The people here were fair to me. They gave me a chance. They listened to me. I could see this face, way in back in the crowd, and he was listening, really listening to me. The people here are not so neurotic and hypocritical as in Washington or New York. They're more direct. I like rural people, who work hard with their hands. There is something healthy about them. . . . I loved the faces here in Indiana, on the farmers, on the steelworkers, on the black kids."

(Copyright, Joseph A. Palermo, 1998; 2008)

Register To Vote