How Bobby Kennedy Won the '68 Indiana Primary

He swept into Indiana with a lean and hungry look—a Kennedy in search of a convincing candidacy. For four punishing weeks, he crisscrossed thousands of miles of Hoosier heartland, offering his person to the rolling mobs of teeny-boppers—and a new, toned down rhetoric to the inscrutable voters. He brought his mother and his brother, his wife, a sister-in-law, even his Irish cocker spaniel, Freckles. The campaign cost him a cracked front tooth, countless cufflinks and perhaps upward of $1 million. And when the votes were counted in the Democratic primary last week, Indiana was grudging in its rewards. But Robert F. Kennedy did what he had to do in his first major test as a Presidential candidate: he finished first.
By the standards of John F. Kennedy's 1960 West Virginia triumph, Bobby Kennedy's performance in Indiana fell short of a breakthrough, but it was a victory, none the less. Facing off against Eugene McCarthy and Gov. Roger Branigin, Indiana's favorite son, Kennedy led the field with 42 percent of thhe vote in a record turnout of Democrats. Branigin was second with 31 percent, and McCarthy trailed with 27 percent.

Bridging the gap: The way Kennedy won was more significant than the cols statistics—and gave the first real dimension to the shadowy profile of Bobby the campaigner. In a painful era of racial polarization in the U.S., he managed to bridge the chasm separating the gut elements of the traditional Democratic coalition. He swept the Negro vote while at the same time piling up big leads among backlashy white workingmen—the same group that whistled Dixie for Alabama's George Wallace in the primary four years ago. Kennedy's patchwork plurality was a textbook example of the old familiar Democratic ethnic politics pioneered by Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, then polished by John Kennedy himself. Bobby's visceral appeal to black Americans was also confirmed last week in Washington D.C. (now two-thirds Negro), where Kennedy's slate trounced two slates pledged to Hubert H. Humphrey—giving him 23 convention votes in addition to the 50-odd he picked up in Indiana.

In Indiana, old pro Branigin was willing to read the handwriting on the tally sheets. "I got whipped," he amiably admitted, "I got taken to the woodshed." But McCarthy, with his eye on this weeks Nebraska primary against Kennedy and the later tests in Oregon (May 28) and in California and South Dakota (June 24) argued that his 27 percent of the Indiana vote—more than the predictions had allotted— was actually his "most significant achievement." McCarthyites maintained that had Branigin not been in the race, their man would have won. But NEWSWEEK's primary-eve poll indicated that Kennedy would have trounced McCarthy 61 to 39 percent in a two-way race. Still, the actual results were ambiguous enough to deny Bobby the bandwagon momentum he sought against Humphrey and to keep McCarthy alive to fight another day.

NEWSWEEK's first Indiana primary poll cast doubt that Kennedy was ever the underdog that he so vociferously professed himself to be. Unquestionably the terrain did not look promising at the outset. Unlike some Midwesterners, Hoosiers are almost pugnaciously proud of their insularity. They brag of their xenophobia—especially their mistrust of mop-topped, moneyed Eastern liberals who can't help calling the place Indianer. The state assiduously waves the flag (the American Legion maintains its national headquarters in Indianapolis) and has, in the past, shown a virulent anti-Catholic streak. Hoosiers support—or at least tolerate—one of the last of the old-fashioned Democratic Party machines, and in Indianapolis they get their guidance from two of America's most mossbacked newspapers, Eugene Pulliam's morning Star and evening News. And while some of Indianapolis's frame slums look as dilapidated as West Virginia's, Governor Branigan's penny-pinching is celebrated as fiscal virtue incarnate.

Local Touch: Outlander Kennedy met the Hoosiers on their own terms—and showed them a campaign that for sheer energy, expense and excitement is not likely to be matched until the next Kennedy stumps Indiana. He played to their local pride—riding the Wabash Cannonball, visiting Lincoln's boyhood home, making an earnest pilgrimage to the fussy Victorian manse of poet James Whitcomb Riley (where he discreetly exited just as the kindly little gray-haired lady curator was about to show him "one of the first indoor bathroom facilities installed in Indiana"). Later, he was able to exploit his experience to show the voters that he not only cared enough to come to Indiana, but had paid more respect to its shrines than had many of the citizenry. "How many of you have visited Lincoln's home?" he would ask from the stump. "How many have ridden the Wabash Cannonball? I'll bet I'm the only Hoosier here who has."

His manner was invariably self-deprecatory. Ruthless? He waited like a hunched schoolboy to be introduced on the platforms and hinterland courthouse steps. And when he spoke, it was always tentatively, modestly and with deadpan jokes that turned on himself. He liked to tell the crowds that he had encountered a mother superior at a previous stop. "She said she had been praying to St. Jude for me." He'd relate. "I thanked her—then asked somebody who St. Jude was. (Pause.) And then I learned that he is the patron saint of lost causes. (Bugs Bunny grin from RFK, guffaws from the crowd.) In Fort Wayne, in the homestretch of the campaign, he asked a sidewalk rally whether the city was going to vote for him. Otherwise, he said he and Ethel and their ten children would hhave to go on welfare. "It'll be less expensive just to send us to the White House," he went on. "We'll arrange it so that all ten kids* won't be there at once, and we won't need to expand the place. I'll send some of them away to school, and I'll make one of them Attorney General."

Iconography: The light touch was only one element in the Kennedy strategy. Far more than his sense of humor, he relied on the use of his body as a pop icon to be paraded through the streets on the rear deck of a convertible, up for grabs by the faithful. And grab and claw and scratch and squeal they did—especially the young, black and white. He seemed neither gratified nor frightened by their atavistic fervor; no Rocky-style "Hiya fellas" escaped his pinched lips; his hand was a limp mackerel in their grasp. In the midst of the maelstrom, he seemed curiously dissociated from the emotions he could unleash, leaving the crowds little of himself but the cufflinks they snatched and the autographs he mechanically scribbled.

The mobs had a will of their own—and it could be dangerous. Children were sometimes trampled in the crush, women fainted, men lost their tempers, Kennedy often seemed a prayer away from being dismembered. (Even dogs were in danger; since he brought his motorcade to a screeching halt in Washington after a little girl's mongrel was hit.) In Monument Circle at Indianapolis, a lunchtime crowd of 5,000 swirled up in seconds, surrounding Kennedy in a mass of dancing placards and thrusting elbows. At a Mexican American high school rally in Hammond, teenagers rushed the platform when he finished speaking, overturning the rostrum. In tiny Mishawaka, the crowd hurled him against the side of his car, chipping his left front tooth (which was soon recapped) and splitting his lip. Adults often left such scenes grumbling bitterly ("The worst thing I ever saw," complained a matron escaping the crush in Hammond), but the young people loved it and campaigner Kennedy made sure they had their fill.

Yearnings: Kennedy's rhetoric proved much less electric than his presence. Gone in Indiana, along with the shaggy mane that had become his trademark, was the strident quality of some of his campaign speeches. Well aware that the Negro vote was his alone, he concentrated on reassuring white Hoosiers that he was a reasonable, responsible man and not the mouthpiece of black-power-mongers or New Left nihilists. As always, he was at his best before small groups and in question-and-answer sessions with students. His tactic was to identify himself with the yearnings of the great centrist majority for both domestic tranquility and social justice. In the process, he sounded to some like a reconditioned Barry Goldwater plugging for "law and order," "jobs not welfare" and hymning the praises of the private sector and local initiative in contrast to the ineptitude of the burgeoning Federal bureaucracy.

But the difference between the "conservative" new Kennedy and the "radical" old Bobby was more a matter of nuance and emphasis than of substance. In truth, the antecedents of many of the positions he espoused in Indiana lay in speeches, newsletters and his book. "To seek a Newer World," produced before he became a declared candidate for the presidency. With its stress on local control and the involvement of the business sector in the ghettos, Kennedy's stand reflected many of the elements of a new political posture increasingly in fashion among intellectuals—a revisionist liberalism that shares a superficial kinship with the old conservatism.
Activism: The similarities understandably raised some eyebrows in the hinterland. "The answers of the '40s, the '50s, even the 1960s are not necessarily the answers for the 1970s," Kennedy insisted to his audiences. But wasn't he really mouthing a conservative position? "No," Kennedy shook his head, "I'm saying something has to be done."

Indeed, he said so much had to be done during his Indiana campaign that he also won something of a reputation among the locals as an insatiable gloom merchant. Even as he down-played Vietnam (although he always mentioned the issue), he filled his speeches with the grim topography of poverty and pain: Indian teen-agers committing suicide on their reservations, unemployed Kentucky miners training for new jobs that don't exist, black youngsters starving in the Mississippi Delta. "We are responsible," he sermonized to a group of ministers in suburban Indianpolis, "all of us are responsible that these conditions continue to exist … The poor are getting more and more poor, more and more desperate, more and more hopeless ..." and, as often as not, he would end his talks not with a ringing call to the Kennedy colors, but with a bleak paraphrase from Camus: "Perhaps we can not prevent this world from being a world in which children suffer. But we can reduce the number of suffering children. And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?"

Do It Yourself: Whether Kennedy's oratory won him any votes—or kept him from losing others—is hard to assess. On his name alone, he should have been good for at least a third of the Indiana vote; and his speeches may well have gone over the heads of his black and white working-class admirers. Leaving nothing to chance, RFK's entourage backed up the candidate with the kind of organizational support only a Kennedy can command. The operation literally started from scratch six weeks before primary day when the first Kennedy agent, a graying 39-year-old Massachusetts lawyer named Gerard Doherty, landed in Indianapolis. With the Branigin machine and Indiana labor (except for the United Auto Workers) arrayed against him, Doherty had to do it himself—first accumulating 5,500 signatures to get RFK's name on the ballot, then using those initial supporters to build a statewide volunteer network that ultimately numbered 14,000 participants.

The bigger names in the Kennedy camp came in on cue. Brother Teddy lent staffers and his own expertise as over-all director of the campaign. Former Postmaster General Larry O'Brien chipped in a memo on canvassing techniques. Hoosier-bred John Bartlow Martin, 52, the journalist and former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was recruited to give the candidate a homegrown gloss. Crack advance men like Jerry Bruno and Dick Tuck fanned out around the state and did their work to perfection: everywhere RFK went, the crowds were primed with papier–mâché Kennedy boaters, Kennedy buttons and Kennedy grins. Population patterns were scrutinized to make sure the candidate went where the votes were. And wherever he stumped in Indiana, he could count on the sage counsel of bland, unflappable Fred Dutton, 44, a California-reared New Frontiersman who serves, among other things, as liason between the "kiddie corps" of young speechwriters and the older Irish Mafiosi.

Fringe Benefits: Close attention was paid to many of the fringes that usually come unraveled in a conventional campaign. One unit concerned itself solely with churning out canned news stories and features for the provincial Indiana press (much of it, Kennedy staffers happily reported, printed verbatim). When a half hour TV biography of the candidate came up stale, experts redid it almost overnight. Paid telephone canvassers were enlisted to augment the 4,000 student volunteers who beat the bushes. When Bobby traveled (and he visited more than 40 cities and towns) it was strictly first class—aboard a chartered Boeing 727 (equipped with a foldaway bed) or a jet-prop Electra (equipped with three pert stewardesses and a well-stocked galley).

All of it cost money, plenty of money. Kennedy modestly estimated that the Indiana effort had cost between $550,000 and $600,000, but others speculated that the actual accounting might be double that. If Bobby was a trifle sensitive on the point, mother Rose Kennedy, who campaigned in Indiana for him, was blunt about it. "It's part of this campaign business. If you have money—you spend it to win. And the more you can afford, the more you'll spend. The Rockefellers are like us—we both have lots of money to spend on our campaigns."

Finally, all the effort and expense came down to the political moment of truth: getting out the vote. The Kennedy legions bore down, especially in the black wards of Gary and Hammond and Indianapolis. Sound trucks cruised the slums blaring a last word from the candidate: "Go to the polls as early as possible. Indiana can choose the next President of the United States. I ask your help. This is Robert Kennedy." In Indianapolis's Seventh Ward, college students ferried voters to the polls and deployed baby-sitters while high-school youths rang doorbells of Negro homes unreachable by phone. The technique worked in Indianapolis and in Gary, where a Branigin man surveyed the ghetto and glumly reported: "Everything that moves is voting."

Still Plugging: Even after the returns were in, the Kennedy apparat kept plugging. Aglow in his "lucky" election night pink shirt and chomping on a cigar, Pierre Salinger turned out a fact sheet for the press. The message, if newsmen hadn't noticed: Kennedy won nine of Indiana's eleven Congressional districts, 56 of its 92 counties, carried Indianapolis, Gary, Hammond, South Bend, Kokomo, Muncie, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute and East Chicago, captured Branigins home county, city and precinct and swept the counties he whistle stopped on the Wabash Cannonball. Even so, Bobby was somewhat less than Euphoric as he thanked his supporters at headquarters in Indianapolis. Later, he mused: "Senator McCarthy says its just another step in a series of steps, and this isn't a defeat [for him]. Well … I don't know whether people think it's so good to be second or third. That's not the way I was brought up. I was always taught that it was much better to win. I learned that when I was about 2." Long after midnight, he ended his long day over dinner at the Indianapolis airport with two young collegiate McCarthy workers, trying to convince them that his own cause was just.

Thought the Indiana arithmetic placed McCarthy last in the race, he remained first in the hearts of his admirers. His election-night reception in the Riley room of Indianapolis's gloomy Claypool Hotel was a love-in unmatched even in Wisconsin, where the Minnesota senator had pulled 57 percent of the vote. "I didn't come here to dismiss the troops," McCarthy intoned, and the drafty rafters rang with affirmation. "We've tested the enemy now and wwe know his techniques … we know his weaknesses." The crowd cheered his every word, but beneath the hoopla there was an edge of sadness. "God is on our side," said a 23 year-old McCarthy worker. "We should have done better."

Flaws: McCarthy's managers (and the candidate himself no doubt) had to agree. And they were painfully aware of their own weaknesses, too. Their Indiana postmortem found flaws aplenty. McCarthy's scheduling was so amateurish that, by the senator's estimate, he wasted 80 percent of his time talking to too few people in too many out-of-the-way places. Despite eleventh-hour saturation booking, McCarthy's TV campaigning, heretofore his best showcase, never displayed him to his greatest advantage. He still drew student canvassers (7,000 to 8,000 on the last weekend alone), but somehow they proved less effective among the inhospitable Hoosiers than in earlier primaries.

More to the point, Lyndon Johnson's abdication and the approaching peace talks robbed McCarthy of his prime issues. Kennedy, of course, had the same problem. But Bobby had the cash and the dash to overcome them. McCarthy reverted to a relatively bland patch for his "new politics" and bald assertions that he was simply the best man. The approach did not exactly set the grassroots afire. Toward the end, hoping perhaps that the tide was turning his way, he began to speak of Indiana as if the Wabash were the Rubicon. "As far as I'm concerned," he said in Vincennes, "as Indiana goes, I think that's the way the Democratic Party will go in Chicago." But even before Indiana went to Kennedy, McCarthy backtracked on that, and afterward he pronounced the results inconclusive.

Taking it all in on the run was Vice President-in-waiting Hubert Horatio Humphrey, who spent the week working on his separate, non-primary road to the nomination. Practicing his "politics of joy," Humphrey flitted from Chicago to New York to Atlantic City and on to Denver and Omaha, drumming up support at union conventions, ethnic celebrations and a fat-cat luncheon at Manhattan's 21. On a single day, Humphrey preached civil rights to Chicago Poles, courted Mayor Richard Daley, dropped his "viva!" into a reception for Pedro Casals and told an enthusiastic Jewish audience at an Israeli bond affair: "I have a bar mitzvah coming up in August—the big one will be in November—and I invite you all to be present."

Hubertismo seemed a winning enough way—even at the Atlantic City convention of the Kennedy-leaning United Auto workers, where neither Humphrey nor RFK precisely wowed the delegates, but where HHH nevertheless won the applause-meter derby with his upbeat oration. At this stage of the delegate counting, the Vice President was clearly in the lead for the nomination. But Humphrey's men kept peeking nervously over their shoulders. Some, in fact, had it that Kennedy's agents were strewing money and threats around the political landscape in an effort to buy or bully Humphrey delegates into line.

Survival: Humphrey, for the moment, had the smoother route. His heir-apparent role spared him the burden that fell on both Kennedy and McCarthy: proving themselves so attractive to the voters that the party's power brokers cannot deny them the nomination. Although both survived, neither proved his case in Indiana. So they slogged on to Nebraska where, with Lyndon Johnson locked on the ballot and a Humphrey write –in drive a-borning, pre-primary soundings indicated that the results might be blurrier than in Indiana.

Thus, the crucial test almost certainly will come on the West Coast, in the Oregon and California primaries. Disoriented as they were in Indiana and Nebraska, the McCarthy legions are firmly entrenched on the coast. In Oregon, McCarthy already has 23 campaign offices (to McCarthy's 10) and his workers are attempting a telephone canvass of every last one of the state's 500,000-plus Democrats. "We talk to them and rate them 1,2,3,4 or 5," said a McCarthy campaigner. "If they're McCarthy supporters, we rate them 1 or 2. If they're hopeless, it's 5. But if they're undecided, we rate them 3 or 4 and our people go back in a few days to hit them a second time." In California, the freeways are abloom with McCarthy bumper stickers, "Eugene" discotheques have opened in Beverly Hills and San Francisco and the public opinion polls show the Minnesotan eating into a Kennedy lead that once seemed insurmountable.

Westward Ho: Bobby's campaign on the coast, by contrast, seems surprisingly slow in getting off the ground. Oregon's ballot, like Nebraska's, will carry President Johnson's name and write-in space for Humphrey. And the current betting is that Kennedy, at best, will have to settle for a plurality in Oregon rather than a majority. California's Democracy is more fractious than ever, with ambitious Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh trying to run the whole Kennedy show over the grumblings of the party's liberal amateurs. Feelings got so unhinged a while ago that Unruh and his crowd boycotted a fund-raising cocktail party thrown by the Pierrre Salingers. The result: only 92 other guests materialized and the fete flopped. Accordingly, Bobby dispatched brother-in-law Steve Smith and longtime confidant John Seigenthaler, editor if the Tenesseean, to get the California campaign moving again.

All Kennedy's horses and all Kennedy's men undoubtedly will be able to put his pre-primary West Coast operations together again. But the first requirement of his go-for-broke strategy is that he not only win each primary, but that he win big. Indiana's 42 percent brought none of the pros from pivotal big states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois into his corner.

In a year of radically shifting fortunes, Kennedy had chosen to play the politics of popularity. It was a game of high risks— even for a family that had never lost an election. Could Bobby keep on winning? And even if he did, could he translate his primary triumphs into a convention steamroller irresistible enough to flatten Humphrey? In Indiana, he had made his start. But as Kennedy himself said last week: "It's a long time until August."