Hoosier Showdown 1968 and 2008

05/01/2008 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A senator whose antiwar eloquence appealed to young voters faced off against a senator with a famous name seeking to restore a dynasty. In 1968, Indiana and its unique political heritage stood at the center of American politics. On May 7, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York won the Indiana Democratic presidential primary with 42 percent. It was RFK's first primary victory and his third-last before he was assassinated in Los Angeles in June. Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota finished third behind Gov. Roger Branigin. The governor ran as a "favorite son" stand-in for President Lyndon B. Johnson and, when LBJ quit presidential politics, for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

The Hoosier state, noted for static, culturally conservative politics, was an odd place for the liberal McCarthy-Kennedy showdown. Today, why Barack Obama designated the banks of the Wabash as must-win turf is puzzling. Obama did so on April 11, in the halcyon days before the Jeremiah Wright soap opera resumed. "Sen. Clinton is more favored in Pennsylvania, and I'm a little more favored in North Carolina," Obama said, "so I think Indiana may end up being the tiebreaker. We want to work very hard in Indiana." He'd better, since he rhetorically surrendered his advantage in the only contest that counts. Why is a lead of 150 delegates a tie?

Perhaps the Illinois senator was confident because "I benefit partly from coming from an adjoining state." Gary, on Lake Michigan, has a large black population, as does Indianapolis. The rest resembles a flatter Pennsylvania with a history of hostility to blacks and liberals. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan thrived among Hoosiers. In the 1950s, Sen. William Ezra Jenner was a diehard defender of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism. In 1968, the independent presidential candidacy of George C. Wallace won more than 11 percent of the state's voters.

But Indiana is indeed diverse, as one would expect from the state of Hoagy Carmichael and John Mellencamp, Lew Wallace and Larry Bird, Theodore Dreiser and Kurt Vonnegut, David Letterman and Michael Jackson. In 1968, Gene McCarthy, a poet with strong opinions on poetry, stared in dismay at his campaign headquarters, the Claypool Hotel's James Whitcomb Riley Room. "They call him the poet, you know," McCarthy marveled, "Not a poet, but the poet." Riley's most notable verse salutes the time "when the frost is on the punkin."

Every other November in Indiana, until lately, the punkin produced a Republican victory. LBJ in 1964 was the last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election. In 2004, George W. Bush easily carried seven of the state's nine congressional districts. But in 2006, Democrats picked up three House seats, one surrounding South Bend and two along the Ohio River. Universities and research have replaced manufacturing in the state's economy. The last Studebaker rolled off the production line in 1963.

Indiana is heavily suburban because of Indianapolis and Chicago. Candidates need to fly to reach the suburbs of Louisville. In 1968, flying to New Albany in an ancient bucket, lightning storms caused Kennedy's campaign plane to shake, rattle and roll. RFK stood up, lurched to the back of the plane and smilingly said to reporters, "You know, if this thing doesn't make it, you fellows are going to be in the small print tomorrow."

As a late entry into the race, Kennedy was a happy warrior when he was denouncing LBJ, but Johnson's departure frustrated him. Kennedy had been saying nice or neutral things about McCarthy, whom he considered "a vain man." Now he had to be nice to someone he disliked even more, Johnson. Kennedy's defining moment came on the night of April 4, when he climbed aboard a car roof in Indianapolis to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to a stunned inner-city audience. His compassion and ability to connect helped the city avoid riots. Kennedy later carried the black vote in the state but did not, despite later myths, do as well among working-class whites.

Bobby chose humor to counteract McCarthy's wit and anti-Kennedy sentiment reflected in homemade signs at his rallies. In Bedford, one placard said "Mophead, go home." In Seymour, another said, "He's Ho Chi Minh and Hitler." Kennedy asked the signholder, "Don't you think it's a little difficult to be both?" In Jeffersonville, he enjoyed addressing hecklers: "You mean it isn't unanimous? You mean I have to go back and tell my children that I got only 92 percent of the vote in Clark County? I've got seven sons and they believe in me. Can't you see that little boy with a tear on his cheek: 'Why were the 8 percent so mean, daddy?"

Hoosier Democrats tend to cluster. In 2004, when President Bush trounced John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts senator carried only four counties, but one of them was Marion, home to Indianapolis and one-third of his statewide total.

Democrats don't cluster in Huntington County, where Bush won with 75 percent. At its heart stands the Dan Quayle Center and the U.S. Vice Presidential Museum, honoring Quayle and four other Hoosiers who served as "second to one." I toured the handsome granite building, a former Christian Science church, after visiting, in nearby Peru, the birthplace of Bush's fellow Yalie, Cole Porter. Northeast Indiana is truly diverse.

Schuyler Colfax, Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fairbanks and Thomas Marshall became vice presidents because Indiana was a "swing state" in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 21st, it might be again. Richard Nixon ran unopposed in the 1968 Republican primary, winning 100 percent. The candlelight in the sycamores did not gleam as brightly for him in November, when he won with just over 50 percent. In 2008, John McCain is ahead in most Indiana matchups, but nowhere near Bush's 2004 margin of 60 percent.