What If Bobby Kennedy Had Become President?

It is one of history's great "what ifs." What if Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated 40 years ago and gone on to become president of the United States? It's safe to say that his presidency would have followed a different course from that of Richard Nixon. And it may just be that American politics would not be endlessly refighting the 1960s. Kennedy was a less polarizing figure than Nixon, who exploited the divisions that have now hardened into Red States and Blue States. But Kennedy himself was a complex and mercurial figure, so all we can really do is speculate. It's an intriguing guessing game—if one does not get too dreamy about the mythology of RFK.

One reality check to start: it is far from a sure bet that RFK would have been nominated, and if nominated, elected. Kennedy was winning most of the primaries at the time of his death in June 1968, but under the old rules the bosses still controlled the Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's vice president and Kennedy's real rival for the nomination (not Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the poet-politician who was fading in the stretch), was the favorite of the bosses. Kennedy was regarded as too "hot" and too radical by the big city and Big Labor chieftains. RFK was counting on Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to turn the tide, but Daley was not a sure bet (despite some romantic and unconfirmed reporting that Daley promised his support in a phone call to Bobby just before Kennedy was killed). And RFK would have faced a formidable foe in Richard Nixon in November. The New Nixon was an expert at divide and conquer, and he was building a Silent Majority of white middle-class Americans fearful of rioting blacks and hippie college radicals.

Kennedy was riding a wave of change, trying to put together a coalition of haves and have-nots who wanted to end the war in Vietnam and tackle the problems of race and poverty. Had he won he might have found it difficult to get out of Vietnam. Never one to quit, Kennedy might have listened to close advisers, like Averell Harriman, who cautioned him against "cutting and running" and preferred a negotiated peace. But as Harriman himself discovered at the Paris peace talks, negotiating with the North Vietnamese was not easy. RFK, who could be impatient, might well have pulled the plug on the South Vietnamese government before too long, in large part because he wanted to turn America's energies and resources to renewal at home. Even so, withdrawing a half million men from Vietnam would have taken a couple of years. (Click here to read more on RFK).

Kennedy was serious about tackling racism and poverty. He was ahead of his political party and his time in his sensitivity to individual pride and initiative. He did not like cash handouts, preferring to create jobs to bestow the dignity of work on the unemployed. He understood the importance of local initiative. It's likely that RFK would have tried to create massive jobs programs. But in Congress he would have run head on into the power of organized labor (still strong back then). Big labor did not like to create low-paying jobs for unskilled workers, thereby diminishing the power of union workers. Kennedy would have been required to face down the barons and their friends in Congress, while fighting off a newly revitalized conservative movement. He might have been able to seize a middle ground between the Old Left and New Right, but his political skills would have had to be great indeed.

RFK was a skilled pol—the Kennedy machine was no slouch at the art of getting elected. Kennedy showed a willingness to do What It Takes, even if that meant using some of his father Joe's tricks of playing fast and loose with campaign cash. (The Kennedys understood the art of "walking-around money," as Hubert Humphrey learned during the 1960 West Virginia primary.) The question is whether, in his impatience for results, Kennedy would have somehow abused power. History suggests he would have been tempted. RFK was willing to at least condone, if not order, CIA dirty tricks as his brother's surrogate chief of the spy agency's botched Get Castro operation in the early '60s. (Nixon was always bitter that the Kennedys never got caught.)

The real test of a presidency is how the chief executive responds in crisis. It is worth examining RFK's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis—the moment when the United States and the Soviet Union went to the brink. The Kennedys had the ability to learn from their mistakes. President Kennedy had been careless in authorizing the Bay of Pigs, too trusting of the swashbucklers at the CIA who preposterously thought their ragtag army of a thousand Cuban exiles could overthrow Castro. This time, when CIA spy planes discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962, the president put together an extraordinary deliberative body, known as the "ExCom," composed of hawks and doves, present and former high government officials. He left it to his brother Bob to run the deliberations. (RFK often hung back, pacing around the room, but "there was never any question who was in charge," recalled JFK's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy.) RFK himself started off as a hawk, wanting to bomb and invade Cuba, but his moral sense rebelled: he realized that the world would see an American attack as a Pearl Harbor. Then RFK's shrewd mind came alive, and he helped negotiate a behind-the-scenes way for the Soviets to remove their missiles while saving face—allowing both sides to back down from the precipice of war. RFK was able to listen to contrary advice—indeed, to seek it out, a quality notably missing from some leaders, including George W. Bush. He was at once passionate and detached, a rare combination but essential in a leader.

He also had the ability to inspire. His charisma came not from any personal grandeur—indeed, his hands shook and his voice was sometimes thin and reedy when he spoke. Yet he was able to convey a genuineness and sense of empathy unusual in a politician. These qualities were on ample display on the night of April 4, 1968, when Kennedy heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. On a cold, windswept stage (a flatbed truck in the Indianapolis ghetto) he told his audience about King's murder. Speaking without a prepared text, Kennedy reached into his own heart. He asked the crowd for "an effort to understand, compassion and love." Then he said:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote, "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

The weeping, silent listeners had probably never heard of Aeschylus, but they understood what he meant. Kennedy finished:

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

In the week that followed, there was rioting in more than 100 U.S. cities. But the inner city of Indianapolis was quiet.

(To hear Kennedy's Indianapolis speech, go here.)

Thomas is the author of "Robert Kennedy: His Life," published by Simon & Schuster.