It is well-established that John F. Kennedy’s victory in the West Virginia Democratic primary (sixty years ago today) was vital to his becoming president. Without a strong showing in an overwhelmingly Protestant state, his campaign may very well have sunk under the weight of the candidate’s Roman Catholicism. By tackling the religion issue head-on — he framed it as an issue of tolerance — JFK helped assure Protestants that he would serve the American people, not the Pope.
But the victory was also a classic case of Kennedy cynicism. Not only did the glamorous family deploy their money, their friend Frank Sinatra, and themselves to West Virginia, they also spread the rumor that JFK’s main opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was a draft dodger. In speeches and in flyers provided by Robert F. Kennedy, supporter Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. said of the senator from Minnesota, “I don’t know where he was in World War II” (see page 209 of Hubert Humphrey: A Biography, by Carl Solberg). While the charge was completely unfair — Humphrey had tried to enlist but was prevented for health reasons — it placed just enough doubt about his patriotism in just enough minds. Roosevelt was later so ashamed of what he had done he wrote to Humphrey to apologize.
While the Kennedys are remembered as liberal heroes, Humphrey was far more consistent in his liberalism throughout his career. He made his name as a dogged supporter of civil rights, economic security, and a humanitarian foreign policy. JFK had quite a few liberal inclinations, but also a conservative side, as seen in his initially hawkish approach to the Cold War and his frequently lukewarm support for civil rights. RFK, until his brother’s assassination, was even less consistently liberal, though of course his top priority was always serving as his brother’s attack dog.
But whatever his role, RFK was a Catholic moralist. Chroniclers of his life frequently attest that, of all the Kennedy brothers, he was the most devout. And he was arguably the most ruthless, as if his faith convinced him he was doing the Lord’s work and could justify any harshness. Working for Joe McCarthy, a fellow Irish Catholic on whom many Kennedy constituents looked favorably, he fought in the red-baiting crusade as fiercely as anyone. He tackled Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia. And while J. Edgar Hoover usually gets the blame for the FBI tapping Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone, the Kennedys had their own reasons for doing so — fear that some of King’s aides might be Soviet agents.
Then, as a senator from New York, a man thoroughly changed by losing his brother and his place at the center of power so suddenly, he embraced a new strand of Catholic moralism — the Second Vatican Council side, the sixties side, the side of social justice and activism and, if not making love, at least not making war. He shed his mixed attitude toward civil rights and became a full-throated defender. He advocated not only for more spending to alleviate poverty, but for giving poor people more control over the public services in their communities. And in his last year, he became an ally of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, embracing their Catholic-inspired strike for dignity and better working conditions. This is the side of RFK liberals love, why they mourn his assassination while he ran for president himself.
But was he right to run? Is that the kind of president America needed in 1968? Perhaps, with the country falling apart, in no small part thanks to moral crusades left and right, the country needed a stabilizer, not a preacher. Maybe RFK should have stood back and, once Lyndon B. Johnson bowed out of the race, supported the man he had helped undermine eight years earlier, Hubert Humphrey.
There is something galling about RFK, having helped to unfairly paint Humphrey as unpatriotic in one election, striking an aggressive moral tone while running against him eight years later. Despite being tainted by his association with Johnson as his vice president, Humphrey had hardly become a cynic. His towing the administration line on the Vietnam War came only after he had voiced skepticism about the war early on — unlike RFK — and been browbeaten by Johnson into silence. He remained a champion of liberal causes, and sought to advance them from within the White House. While RFK should be given his due for taking up causes like civil rights and poverty, he could probably have better advanced them in 1968 by endorsing Humphrey, not by going on a moral rampage. But he was too much of a moralist for that.
JFK’s rampant adultery was not the only indication that Catholicism was not an overwhelming moral influence on him. He was never doctrinaire, and was willing to part company with the church on political issues. But the faith was not irrelevant to his mindset. His Catholicism was of a practical kind. It influenced the liberal beliefs he espoused and the moves he made in that direction, and his support for organized labor, but also the need to confront communism in the world. It also gave him a strong sense of history, of the centuries- and millennia-old forces politicians must work with and against.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. explains this quite well. Even granting Schlesinger’s decades-long membership in the Kennedy Family Fan Club, his book about the administration, A Thousand Days, is a useful source for some insight. At a time when Catholic moralizing was largely of a dogmatic, socially conservative variety, JFK showed no fondness for that form of it. But neither was he enthusiastic about Senator Eugene McCarthy’s attempts to make the faith more relevant and accessible, to emphasize its progressive potential. When officials in the Vatican worried his faith played too small a role in his politics, he remarked, “Now I understand why Henry VIII set up his own church.”
Although his New Frontier campaign took bold stances on confronting problems at home and abroad, JFK had become more skeptical of federal power by his last year in office, both in the military and the social realm. The Cuban missile crisis profoundly changed his thinking about the Cold War, leading him to set up the “red phone” hotline to Moscow, and to negotiate a treaty with the Soviets limiting nuclear testing. Meanwhile, though he pushed more strongly for civil rights and began to pay more attention to poverty, he was less confident in the federal government’s ability to affect sweeping change at home. Perhaps this skepticism was a good thing. We had moralists throughout the country in the 1960s, many of whom were doing good things for America. We did not need one in the White House.
Not all speculation about what might have been is created equal. It is very easy to get carried away in wondering how JFK might have governed had he not been murdered. Jeff Greenfield did a tremendous service in 2013 with his book, If Kennedy Lived. He has a thoroughly plausible scenario in which JFK survives the shooting: instead of stopping, the rain that fell in Dallas that morning continues, and thus the bubble top stays on the limousine, making it much harder for Lee Harvey Oswald to hit his target. Kennedy defeats Barry Goldwater in 1964, though he does not come anywhere close to Johnson’s real-life landslide.
Greenfield credits Goldwater’s bellicose rhetoric with Kennedy clinching victory. And certainly, talking about lobbing missiles at the Kremlin helped balance out the white backlash to school and housing integration that was already underway (in the North as well as the South) during the Kennedy administration. But labor and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin spotted something else — the need to give skeptical whites a stake in progress at home — writing in the journal Commentary in February 1965:
“I do not believe that the Johnson landslide proved the ‘white backlash’ to be a myth. It proved, rather, that economic interests are more fundamental than prejudice: the backlashers decided that loss of social security was, after all, too high a price to pay for a slap at the Negro. This lesson was a valuable first step in re-educating such people, and it must be kept alive, for the civil rights movement will be advanced only to the degree that social and economic welfare gets to be inextricably entangled with civil rights.”
Greenfield touches on this when his JFK, while thanking his aides on election night 1964, reminds them that they still live in an essentially conservative country — as indicated by the erosion of Democratic support in working class white communities they witness that night. While RFK is often described as the only candidate who could have united working class white, black and Hispanic voters, there is reason to believe his working class white support has been exaggerated. Had RFK not run, and thus not been murdered, and instead supported Humphrey, Humphrey could have beaten Richard Nixon and George Wallace. RFK might even have become vice president (though it is difficult to imagine any Kennedy brother being content playing second fiddle to a non-Kennedy). RFK himself, however, would probably not have gotten elected. He was too much of a saint for that.
As easy as it is to fall under the sway of saints and prophets, politics generally requires a different sort of person, especially in polarized times. Just as the Manichean Bernie Sanders was not the candidate Democrats needed this year, so Robert F. Kennedy, with his view of politics as a kind of religious battleground, was not the candidate Democrats needed fifty-two years ago. A more pragmatic person, like John F. Kennedy, makes a better leader, even if that person is less morally inspiring.