I mentioned before that 1968 was my first dose of politics. Back then, Wyoming was a purple state and presidential candidates campaigned in the Cowboy State. For me, it was mostly about the symbols of politics like the campaign buttons and bumper stickers. My mission that year was to collect a bumper sticker and button from each of the candidates. Since then I’ve managed to scrounge buttons for Democratic and Republican nominees starting in 1900.
The country was in quite a bit of turmoil – the Vietnam War was in full swing and talk about civil unrest, it was nothing like it is today. Cops bashing anti-war rioters with billy clubs, manhandling blacks protesting racial inequality. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 – one of LBJ’s lasting legacies – and Voting Rights Act in 1965. Mainstream America was having some trouble adapting – like when the SCOTUS made gender identification a protected class.
The country was totally out of control and LBJ decided not to run for re-election, it brought every yahoo out of the woodwork, just like today.
George Wallace of Alabama was the renegade, straight talker – sort of like Donald Trump. Wallace was an avowed racist – segregationist. The former Alabama governor and his running mate Curtis “Iron Pants” Lemay got the attention of much of the south. Seems he, like Goldwater, wanted to actually nuke Vietnam. Wallace drew enough support to turn the election to Nixon’s favor.
My Carey Jr. High School pal, Mike Whitehead, was big into Democratic politics mostly because of his parents. His mom, Janet Whitehead was Laramie County Clerk and his dad, Ed, was a state legislator. It must have been in early May because we were still in school, but a few months earlier, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for president. At that time, he was the carpet bagging senator for New York. He moved there, much like Hilary Clinton did, glad handed around upstate and won. He was the US Attorney under his brother, Jack, and LBJ.
Anyway, he made a campaign whistle stop in Cheyenne. Mike and I decided to go see him. We taped six pieces of poster board together and stapled it onto a couple sticks of lathe. I don’t remember what was scrawled on the sign with Magic Marker – which was new back in those days. I was the cartoonist for the school paper, The Tumbleweed, and drew a pretty good caricature of RFK on the bottom of the sign.
We rolled it up and hauled it on foot from Cole Addition to the Pavillion in Frontier Park. I came to realize that this is what old fashioned politics was about, The place was packed with supporters and the curious. He was there with members of his family, wife Ethel and maybe some of his kids. I don’t think he even said anything, He was like a rock star. Afterward, the senator noticed our sign. He came over and shook our hands and autographed a “join now” campaign card I picked up at the door, which I still have.
There was a reception for Senator Kennedy and his entourage at the Hitching Post after the rally. Mr. Whitehead was there and later emerged with some “real” autographs that he gave us. I was amazed that he remembered. I also learned at that event how accessible politicians can be at any level of government, I didn’t realize it then, but this was my first taste of federalism which has stuck with me to this day, not to mention my fascination with autographs.
I didn’t learn until later, that this was the first stop on a long train trip through Nebraska which ended in Omaha just before the Nebraska primary in mid-May. Having won the California primary, Nebraska was a key state for him and he won it.
Three weeks later, my clock radio turned on early in the morning to a live broadcast from Los Angeles about Robert Kennedy’s murder. He was shot at close range by a bad guy named Sirhan Sirhan.
I was shocked.
What would America be like today had RFK lived? After winning California and Nebraska, I’m pretty sure he would have been elected president. It’s impossible to say what kind of legacy Bobby would have left, but I imagine the war would have ended earlier, Watergate for sure wouldn’t have happened.
I wonder if Bobby would have made deals with the commies like Nixon did. Of course, his trip to China was designed to draw fire from his Watergate battle at home.
In 1968, the Republicans tore themselves apart, much like what is happening now. With his populist message, Kennedy was drawing huge crowds where ever he stopped, much like Bernie Sanders today. Our not-so-charismatic vice president Hubert Humphrey stepped up trying to fill the void Kennedy left. South Dakota senator George McGovern tried to pick up the pieces, too. In the end, Nixon and Agnew would defeat Humphrey and Muskie – a senator from Maine by 500,000 votes, largely because of George Wallace’s Stand up for America third party run.
… and then there was campaign ’72. That’s a story for another day and about Hastings College “Legislators and Lobbyist” class field trip out to Nixon’s inauguration with Debbie Hemmingsen Bills, Karen Doerr and fearless leader Denny Storer, et al.
If RFK was inaugurated, I probably wouldn’t have been tear gassed at an anti-war demonstration.
In the 2016 election cycle the Republicans want to take us back to the Reagan years and the Democrats want to relive the FDR administration. I just hope whoever gets picked just tries to move forward. via Barbara May