Robert Kennedy and the What if Game

An epic novel’s worth of intrigue and fate, hope and despair, alliance and feud has been telescoped into the life of the Democratic Party since the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was forged at the Los Angeles convention six years ago. Douglas Kiker, New York Herald Tribune White House reporter for two and a half years and now an NBC news correspondent, examines “the tangled relationship between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson,” and predicts how, why, and when the plot will thicken.

by Douglas Kiker

THE singularly most impressive feature about Robert F. Kennedy is that at the age of forty he possesses the casual confidence of a man who knows that one day he is going to be President of the United States. It might not happen in 1968, and it might not happen in 1972 either. But Kennedy knows it is going to happen one day.

Neither is he going to be Vice President in 1968 — at least, he and Lyndon Johnson are each quick to say today that this possibility does not exist. No matter how low the President’s national popularity might dip or how high the Senator’s might soar during the next two years, no matter what intense political needs or popular pressures may arise, no matter what happens, Johnson is not prepared to offer the vice presidency to Kennedy in 1968. Kennedy fully realizes this but doesn’t care, because he would not accept the offer if it were made. This is what the President says, and it is what the Senator says, and at this point there is little reason to doubt either of them.

President Johnson, according to his assistants, believes that his massive 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater and his incumbent position as the Democrat in the White House give him more than ample power to meet any challenge Kennedy could make to his authority. He is as confident as a Black Belt karate expert lounging over a lemonade in a roughand-ready barroom. The President believes Kennedy can neither block his own renomination at the 1968 convention nor dictate the choice of a running mate. And because he gives Kennedy credit for high political intelligence, he assumes the Senator accepts this fact of life too, and has more sense than to try. He is, as he is never hesitant to remind his staff and his country, the President.

Kennedy’s position is equally forthright. He knows his star is rising, and he senses it will be skyhigh, shining brightly, two years from now, but he has not the least intention of leading any sort of party revolt at the next Democratic national convention. He assumes that Johnson will be renominated, and is prepared to support him. He believes that Hubert Humphrey will be renominated without incident as Vice President. He will sit this one out, thank you.

Yet the theories persist and the speculation increases—and with good reason. It is a long time between now and 1968, and circumstance, fate, and necessity often dictate changes of both mind and tactics in politics.

Johnson’s personal popularity is dropping, his consensus appears to be falling apart, and according to most theories, things are going to worsen, not improve, over the next two years. By the spring of 1968, the Vietnam war, rising living costs, and racial unrest in urban areas will be burning issues which, racked together, make a bonfire, and Johnson, the proud owner of a historically huge popular mandate just four years earlier, will be in trouble.

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s popular appeal — and the political power he converts it into — will continue to rise in direct proportion to the decline in Johnson’s fortunes. It is that prospect which has produced the great “What if” game now being played in Washington.

What if poll after poll confirms the late summer Gallup findings that a majority of Democrats really would prefer Kennedy to Johnson? What if delegation after delegation approached Kennedy and offered support? What if there were a genuine rebellion? Would Kennedy be forced to lead it?

What if this situation developed a few months before the convention? Would Kennedy find the opportunity irresistible, accept the risks involved, and become the first Democrat in modern times to mount a serious challenge to the renomination of an incumbent Democratic President?

That is unlikely, but what if he used the power to force Johnson to drop Humphrey from the ticket and replace him with some politically weak caretaker Vice President, thus eliminating Humphrey as opposition in 1972? In late August, a reliable Minnesota poll on 1968 vice presidential preferences showed Kennedy running 2 to 1 ahead of Humphrey in the Vice President’s home state.

What if Johnson concludes that he can win reelection only if he has Kennedy as a running mate? He might not like it, but wouldn’t he quickly swallow his pride and do what he thought was necessary? (Isn’t it apparent by now that some law of opposites has bound the destinies of these two men together, like untended red and white rambling roses hopelessly entangled around the trunk of a tree so that they must grow together?)

What if the offer were made to Kennedy? It is good politics now for him to proclaim a lack of interest in the job, but Dallas proves that the vice presidency is too valuable an office to refuse. In addition, because he would serve during Johnson’s final term and because of his own independent power base, he could be his own man practically from the beginning. So wouldn’t he gamble on the odds, much as Johnson did in 1960?

THE tangled relationship between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson is always thorny, but it blossoms into fresh new controversy every presidential election year. What happened in Los Angeles in 1960 no longer matters. What matters now is what Johnson believes to have happened, and it is his conviction that Kennedy acted impudently and without authority in an attempt to keep him off the ticket. Neither will he ever quite forget those subsequent lean days as John F. Kennedy’s Vice President when — as one White House source politely puts it today — “Bobby was not as considerate of him as his brother was.”

Kennedy will not discuss the events of that famous night in Los Angeles. But recent remarks of his and published accounts sympathetic to him convey two strong, consistent suggestions: that Robert Kennedy was his brother’s utterly faithful lieutenant and never would have undertaken such a mission except upon command, and that Johnson knows only one of two persons could have been responsible and wants him not to be John Kennedy. On the other hand, Robert Kennedy is now quick to praise Johnson’s performance as Vice President.

Everyone assumes today that Kennedy was anxious to be Johnson’s running mate in 1964, but Kennedy says nobody has ever asked him if this truly was the case. The fact is, he says, that the only decision he ever made was that he wanted to consider such an offer; he would have accepted only if adequate “compensation,” in the form of a guarantee of assignment to meaningful duty, had been offered. Does he now believe that Johnson’s refusal to consider the possibility constituted a lucky break for him, one which might equal the break politicians have concluded his brother got when he tried but failed to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956? It is easy to say yes, considering the present state of his political fortunes.

It is inaccurate to say merely that Johnson did not want Kennedy as his running mate in 1964 — his feelings were more emphatic than that: it was the very last thing in the world he wanted, and he considered Kennedy’s interest in the office a direct challenge to his position as both leader of the party and President of the republic.

Today, people close to the President insist this fear of challenge no longer exists as a reason why he will never pick Kennedy. Instead, they suggest that “you have to consider what the reaction of the public would be to such a purely political maneuver.” But so pious a consideration has not deterred Johnson before. More credibly, they say he would not enjoy four years in office “with the country under the impression that Bobby won it for him.”

Johnson is “a realist who is aware of the dynamics of politics,” these White House men say, and he realizes that a Kennedy-Humphrey nomination fight in 1972 is shaping up. He believes that his selection of Humphrey in 1964 “put him pretty much on an even par with Bobby.” But “the rest is up to Hubert.”

The delicate impression conveyed by this is that Johnson would be willing to keep out of the nomination wars in 1972 if Kennedy will mind his manners in 1968. This impression is strengthened by evidence that Johnson has recently begun making friendly overtures to Kennedy.

When the Senator returned from his trip to South Africa this summer, the President invited him to the White House, asked for and received a personal report on the visit, and subsequently instructed aides to describe the get-together as “an informative and affable meeting.”

Johnson has a healthy respect for Kennedy’s political courage, it is said; he appreciates Kennedy’s position, and if their roles were reversed, he would not act much differently. He approves when White House aides such as Bill Moyers, Joseph Califano, and Cliff Alexander accept invitations to dine with the Kennedys at Hickory Hill. “Don’t let people around Bobby and me stir up trouble between us,” he is quoted as saying not long ago. He has remarked on other occasions that there are Republicans who “would like to destroy the Democratic Party by promoting an Armageddon between Kennedy and me.”

Why all this sudden neighborliness? The best explanation is that Johnson, searching for ways to patch up his unraveling consensus, is alarmed by the growing extent to which liberal Democrats are shifting their loyalty to Kennedy even while a Democrat is in the White House, and has concluded something must be done about it. By establishing somewhat friendlier public relations with Kennedy, he might be able to continue to command the nominal allegiance of Kennedy’s growing partisan army. White House aides report that Kennedy has told them he believes “basically the President is doing a good job, although he has some policy differences, of course.” If the leader thinks this way, shouldn’t his followers feel it their duty to agree?

Kennedy grins. He receives five thousand letters and three hundred speaking invitations every week. Kennedy shrugs and says, believe it or not — it’s up to you — he just doesn’t think about the next six years. He agrees with a melancholy nod when it is suggested that he is a fatalist. “I just think there’s one time around, and you don’t know when it’s going to end, so it’s better to do what you can that’s productive now,” Kennedy says. “Kennedy is a fatalist, but one who won’t let anything interfere with his fate,” a White House assistant suggests. “Yes, I think that’s right,” Kennedy says softly, after long silence for thought, with a faraway look in his eye.

IN ms determination to free his fate, he employs a sizable battalion of men for a senator: thirty-nine full-time workers — thirty in his New York senatorial offices in Washington, seven in New York City, and two in Syracuse — seven part-time workers, and twenty-two college interns every summer. Part of the payroll comes from personal funds.

As yet he has around him no Ted Sorensen, no Kenny O’Donnell, no Larry O’Brien. He confers frequently with some of the men who served on his brother’s White House staff, including Sorensen, who is now a New York lawyer, writer Richard Goodwin, and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. They are close, but not really intimate.

There is a growing company of “idea men” to whom he often turns for policy advice. They include Washington lawyer William Rogers, a former AID administrator; psychiatrist Leonard Duhl, an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development; banker David Rockefeller; former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric; General Maxwell Taylor; and Richard Boone, a former Poverty Corps official who now heads a private antipoverty program sponsored by the United Automobile Workers.

From the colleges and universities, he has drawn advice from, among others, John Fischer and Robert Dentler of Columbia Teachers, Lee Rainwater of St. Louis’ Washington University, Scott Campbell, Fred Burke, and Robert Stephens of Syracuse, Eugene McCarthy and Frank van Dyke of the Columbia School of Public Health, Kalman Silvert of Dartmouth, Richard Neustadt and Raymond Vernon of Harvard, and Leslie Rubin of Howard.

“We have as many people as we think we need,” his office manager, Joseph Dolan, says matter-offactly. As the Democratic senator from New York, Kennedy serves one of the largest, most diverse and demanding constituencies in the nation, and he needs a big staff. Even acknowledging this, however, there remains something of a baronial atmosphere about his operation; there are people aplenty, and still more where those came from if they are needed.

Kennedy says he enjoys serving in the Senate “under the present circumstances.” Yet the Senate really does not consider him — as it is beginning to consider his younger brother, Edward — one of its own. “He’s not really a senator. He’sjust boarding here,” one powerful Southern member says.

He has friends in the Senate—Joseph Tydings of Maryland, Birch Bayh of Indiana, George McGovern of South Dakota, Henry Jackson of Washington, and his brother. But his closest friends probably remain his old Justice Department buddies, men who helped him deal with civil rights crises in the South and chase James Hoffa down: Washington lawyer Louis Oberdorfer, IBM general counsel Burke Marshall, Los Angeles Times national editor Edward Guthman, Nashville Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler.

Yes, he has friends. In fact, at forty, Robert Kennedy has everything: He has money. He has youth. He has a power base. He has vast political experience for a man of his years. He has his brother’s name, and the older he gets, the more he resembles him — or is that fancy moving forward to capture the mind as memory slowly retreats? He has ambition (“Bobby, I appreciate your desire to lead this country,” Johnson once said sarcastically to him). He has a sense of duty. He has great intelligence. There is nothing he does not have except the presidency, and he even has the inner knowledge that this inevitably will be his too.

But he seems to stand amid all this like some troubled young man in white flannels, gazing at the grounds of his vast inherited estate, vaguely troubled and not knowing why. It seems to give him no sense of excitement, no real challenge, and it may be something which he feels deep within is not rightfully his own. He is his brother’s heir.

He is heir to the Kennedy glamour; Johnson is the nation’s first public figure, but Kennedy is its first public male celebrity.

He is heir to the tragedy of Dallas, to the fact that the American people feel guilt over John F. Kennedy’s death and must make retribution for it.

He is heir to what is apparently an unlimited treasure of public goodwill; the American people will forgive him anything. His national image, at this point, is golden and unassailable.

He is heir to a political party being administered in trust for the moment, consisting of a network of senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, state and county chairmen, and vast hordes of volunteer workers, many of whom came to power with his brother and wait now to serve him.

He is heir to the nation’s young, over twentythree million of whom will come of voting age between now and 1972. He is heir to the very aura and mystique which surround such political riches, for there are few in the Johnson Administration today who would deliberately offend a possible future President. He is heir to all of this, but it doesn’t seem to give him much satisfaction. He is heir to the White House, and he plans to claim it one day, but he appears to be able to wait for it.

It is this sublime confidence, this coolness, this disdain (many others have called it arrogance), that is most striking about the man. The political estate he has come into might not give him vast happiness and satisfaction, but — to the manner born — he has assumed ownership of it with assurance and deft control. That it belongs to him is a fact he takes for granted. He truly does want to be President, and he is moving toward it. His more partisan aides will argue for hours that all he has done is to vote and speak his convictions, and that all the rest of this business is just an accident. That he seems always there to fill any political vacuum created by Johnson or Humphrey is sheer coincidence, they maintain, because the move initially was motivated by conviction. Yet he would have taken the vice presidency in 1964; that seems clear; and whatever he does in 1968 will be motivated by his own self-interest, not Johnson’s, and certainly not Humphrey’s.

The four years in between are being used to establish his credentials beyond doubt as a liberal Democrat and an internationalist. He is traveling abroad frequently. He urges the adoption of a nuclear nonproliferation treaty. He defends foreign aid when both the Congress and the White House forsake it. He urges that social and economic rehabilitation in South Vietnam be given more emphasis. He urges a massive crash program of federal aid to American Negroes. He complains when antipoverty funds are cut. He is staking himself out a position just to the left of Johnson, yet he is moving carefully and with special caution not to be identified as the leader of any anti-Johnson movement. There is reason to believe that he mistakenly assumed that he was only just ahead of— not opposed to — the Administration’s policy when he suggested earlier this year that the Viet Cong must be included as active participants in any negotiated settlement. When he learned this wasn’t the case, he changed course quickly. Nor can it be proved that he has as yet made any attempt to organize a national pro-Kennedy movement.

So he is not so much plotting against the king as he is plotting and planning for that day ahead when the throne is vacated and the Democratic clan must choose a new chieftain. And in the meanwhile, and at Humphrey’s expense, he is taking over, one by one, these remote provinces of the party’s empire left unguarded by Johnson in his preoccupation with Vietnam and other problems close at hand.

If the fate that Robert Kennedy protects so well is leading him to the White House, the probability is that he will approach it in 1972, not in 1968, and the possibility is that the last major interference may come not from Hubert Humphrey but once again from his old antagonist, Lyndon Johnson.

Humphrey tells friends that only one of his concerns has priority during his first vice presidential term — “pleasing the man across the street.” But given renomination, he readily says that he will have to move slowly away from the President’s side and re-establish his own independent political identity. He will have faithfully served Johnson for a long time, and political courtesy would demand that Johnson pay the debt by supporting him for the presidency.

Johnson’s political wars will be ended then. There will be no more campaigns to wage, no more consensus to maintain. He will only have to cash in what political chips he has saved, play them all at the convention, and then go back to Texas. He would dearly love to make that trip home after winning the final victory from Robert Kennedy.