Elections | Economy

Robert F. Kennedy: The Legacy Of The 1968 Campaign

OPB | June 5, 2008 1:53 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:15 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By April Baer

This year's exuberant political season has left many Oregonians remembering another year when the buzzword was “change”.   In 1968, Oregon was in play for the Democratic presidential nomination, and one of the key players was Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

That campaign, and Kennedy's death, just days after his last Oregon visit, shook politics to the core. April Baer reports on how RFK's legacy plays out in Oregon today.


It's almost impossible not to make the comparison. A hot presidential race, a costly foreign war, and an American electorate painfully divided. This year, the ghost of 1968 just won't go away.

Robert F. KennedyCrowd cheering: “We want Bobby! We want Bobby!…”

This speech, recorded just days after Robert F. Kennedy finished campaigning in Oregon, hints at some of the issues that made him so magnetic to some Democrats at the time.

Robert F. Kennedy: “What we are going to do in the rural areas of our country, what we're going to do for those who still suffer within the United States from hunger, what we're going to do around the rest of the globe, and whether we're going to continue the policies that have been so unsuccessful, in Vietnam of American troops and American marines carrying the major burden of that conflict,. I do not want to, and I think we should move in a different direction.”

Kennedy's words haven't stopped inspiring people like Steve Novick. Novick is a Democratic activist who made a run for his party's Senate nomination this year. He lost, but the race was close enough that people are still walking up to shake his hand.

Passerby: “Steve!”

Steve Novick: “Hi!”

Passerby: “Congratulations on your effort.”

Steve Novick:  Thank you! What's your name?”

Passerby: “I'm Tim.”

Steve Novick: “Thanks a lot!…”

Novick started his career on Bobby Kennedy's turf, doing environmental law for the government.

Steve Novick: “When I joined the Justice Department, there was this bust of Robert Kennedy in the courtyard.”

Novick still goes back to DC every year to mark Kennedy's birthday with his old colleagues. He was just a kid in '68, but later was deeply moved by Kennedy's environmental conscience—and his observations on American values.

Steve Novick: “He said 'We tend to look at the Gross National Product as an indicator of how we're doing as a society, but the Gross National Product counts locks on our doors and windows and guns and knives…. but it doesn't count the health of our children, the qual of their education or the joy of our play. It counts everything except that which makes life worth living. It tells everything about America, except why we should be proud to be Americans.' “

Kennedy's populist message wasn't enough to win the Oregon primary in 1968.

Senator Eugene McCarthy's support among students and other young voters won out. But if anything, Kennedy's impression was deepened by his assassination so soon after the Oregon primary.

That year Betty Roberts — who would later become the first woman on the Oregon Supreme Court — was campaigning for state Senate — and for Bobby Kennedy.

Betty Roberts: “I was propped up in bed with a little black and white tv over on the dresser with rabbit ears, just watching the California election returns, and then I saw it on television.  It was more than shocking, you didn't want to believe it. You just said, 'No, this is TV, this is not real life'. ”

Just a few days prior, she had met Kennedy and watched him deliver a speech in Portland.

The next few months, Roberts remembers as very difficult. As a delegate to the National Convention that summer in Chicago, she had a front row seat for the fractious politics that left the party in shreds.

As to whether Kennedy could have marshaled enough support to stave off that notorious fracas, Roberts says she's not sure.

Over time, Bobby Kennedy's posthumous reputation has become synonymous with progressive politics. But it's worth remembering that he wasn't perceived as a vanguard figure until relatively late in his career.

His family connections placed him squarely in the mainstream of the East Coast establishment.

Political Scientist Jim Moore teaches at  Pacific University. He says Kennedy offered a well known name and a known political agenda.

Jim Moore: “The supporters of Bobby Kennedy were hard core union people, they were the people who traditionally turned out to vote all the time. McCarthy was the one who was getting all the college students.”

Moore sees several by-products from the '68 campaign. It was a coming of age for a generation of powerful Oregon Democrats, like Vera Katz and Earl Blumenaur.

Eugene McCarthy's magnetizing effect on young people led to election law changes, giving 18 year olds the right to vote. And the messy flap over the Democratic nomination galvanized leaders to change the nomination process.

Surely, they reasoned, with more proportional representation, and superdelegates, the process would run more smoothly.

Finally, the '68 may also have been one of the last years when candidates like Bobby Kennedy could speak so freely to voters, unrestrained by a 24-hour news cycle.

Steve Novick: “Nobody says what he said.”

Again, Steve Novick.

Steve Novick: “If you compare what Robert Kennedy said about the Vietnam War to what candidates today say about this war. Robert Kennedy went out and said that this war was in part my fault. He says I was involved in the decisions that led to this war.”

Robert Kennedy, former U.S. attorney general, Senator from New York, died on this day forty years ago.

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