In 1968 the Kennedy family essentially blackballed a brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who was very close to being chosen as Hubert Humphrey's running mate. In doing so, they may have accidentally thrown the election to Richard Nixon

On November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey for the presidency of the United States by less than one percentage point of the popular vote (43.42 to 42.72)—slightly more than half a million of the 73 million votes cast nationwide. George Wallace, running as an independent, received 10 million votes, or 13.52 percent. But in the Electoral College, Humphrey's defeat was resounding. Nixon won thirty-two states, for 301 electoral votes, whereas Humphrey—the sitting Vice President—won only thirteen states (and the District of Columbia), for 191 electoral votes. Wallace, a race-baiting demagogue, won five states, for forty-six votes. Given these results, the election could be viewed as a repudiation of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Racial unrest, the riots of 1967 and 1968, the Vietnam War, the unfulfilled promise of the War on Poverty, and the chaos at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August—all this had combined to curdle much of the idealistic pro-Democratic sentiment that had until recently prevailed.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Call to Service" (April 9, 2004)
Scott Stossel, the author of Sarge, talks about the life and legacy of Sargent Shriver.

And yet it is not hard to imagine the 1968 election's having gone a different way. It is well known that events surrounding Vietnam (specifically, the likelihood that a peace settlement was imminent) had turned the tide in Humphrey's favor in the weeks before the election—and that the tide turned back at least in part because Republican operatives meddled unethically, trying to persuade the South Vietnamese government to pull back from negotiations with suggestions that a Nixon Administration would generate a more favorable settlement.

There was another factor as well—one that might have tilted the election to Humphrey in spite of the stalling of the Paris peace talks. It was the matter of Humphrey's vice-presidential selection.

In the spring of 1968 Sargent Shriver—the founding director of the Peace Corps, the head of Johnson's War on Poverty, and, as the husband of Eunice Kennedy, a brother-in-law of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy—was appointed U.S. ambassador to France. His appointment was not without controversy in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party—and in his own extended family.

The problem was that during the fall of 1967 Bobby Kennedy had begun contemplating challenging Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy had been increasingly opposed to LBJ's handling of Vietnam, and he and Johnson had never had much use for each other; Kennedy had to stifle his distaste when his brother selected LBJ as his running mate in 1960. Even though their mutual dislike was no secret, for the most part the two had maintained an outward truce, and Kennedy had resisted seeking the nomination for fear of creating a damaging rift within the party. Late in 1967, however, Senator Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, began his own campaign; now RFK could not be held solely to blame for any rift.

In late January of 1968 the Tet Offensive destroyed any remaining credibility LBJ had with liberal Democrats and lost him the support of the American people generally. Johnson had been insisting for months that victory in Vietnam was nearly at hand; the penetration of 67,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong deep into South Vietnam that winter suddenly made an American victory seem very distant, if not impossible. McCarthy's previously anemic campaign got a burst of energy as he became the repository of Democratic hopes for ending the war. Kennedy knew if he wanted to make a move, he had to do it soon.

The President had offered the ambassadorship to Shriver earlier that winter. So while Kennedy was considering whether to run against Johnson, Shriver was considering whether to go to Paris. Shriver monitored Kennedy's deliberations closely. It clearly bothered Kennedy that his brother-in-law had remained in the Johnson Administration long after many other former JFK aides and Cabinet members (including RFK himself) had left. But as long as the veneer of a truce existed between LBJ and RFK, Shriver could stay with impunity. If that truce were broken by Kennedy's entering the Democratic race, however, Shriver would be seen as sleeping with the enemy if he continued to serve the Administration in any capacity.

From the archives:

"The Unfinished War" (December 1988)
A product of the conflicting ambitions of the men who shaped it, the War on Poverty was ill-fated. By Nicholas Lemann

"The Unfinished War (Part two)" (January 1989)
An inside look at how personal enmity, political calculation, and policy misjudgments prevented any effective prosecution of the War on Poverty by either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Part two of a two-part article. by Nicholas Lemann

It was a no-win situation. Ever since John F. Kennedy's assassination, when Johnson had reached out to him in an effort to signal continuity with the Kennedy Administration, almost anything Shriver did (or didn't do) for Johnson had been fraught with symbolic weight. For good or ill, both sides saw him as The Kennedy in the Johnson Administration. Shriver had always supported the Kennedy family's political aspirations, but he was still working for Johnson, and he believed it was his patriotic duty to serve the President's interests. Meanwhile, although he remained unwaveringly devoted to the anti-poverty program, that wasn't enough for the President, who pressured him to accept the Paris appointment. As LBJ's adviser Joseph Califano observed in his book The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1991), the President "couldn't look at Shriver without trying to see whether Robert Kennedy was in the shadows behind his brother-in-law." It was bad enough, in Johnson's view, that Bobby Kennedy, who had once served as his Attorney General, was now threatening to run against him; he didn't want another member of the Kennedy family, one who was still working in his Administration, to join an opposing campaign. He wanted Shriver out of the country—and out of RFK's orbit.

In the second week of March, Shriver told Johnson he would accept the ambassadorship, pending the approval of the French government. Then he left with Eunice for a vacation in Spain. A few days later, on March 16, LBJ's fear was realized: Bobby Kennedy announced that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination. On March 22 Secretary of State Dean Rusk called Shriver in Madrid seeking reassurance that Shriver still wished the President to submit his name to the Senate for confirmation; he and Johnson were worried that Kennedy's announcement might have caused Shriver to reconsider. But Shriver had made up his mind: he would go to Paris.

Although Shriver accepted the appointment without any malign intent, some of those close to RFK saw his decision as an insult to their candidate. What's more, Shriver, citing his diplomatic obligations, declined to work for the Kennedy campaign—even after Johnson withdrew from the race, on March 31. To some in the Kennedy circle, this was an unforgivable violation of the family code.

Nor was it his first. In early 1964 Johnson had leaked word to the press that Shriver topped his list of potential running mates for that year's election. LBJ believed that in making this known he could keep Bobby Kennedy off the ticket (there was considerable pressure to put him on it) and inoculate himself against attacks from Kennedy's wing of the party. But to Kennedy, for one of his in-laws to even contemplate joining LBJ's ticket constituted a betrayal. In late July of 1964 the former JFK aide Kenny O'Donnell was meeting with Johnson in the Oval Office when the voice of Bill Moyers, who had worked for Shriver at the Peace Corps and was now a top aide to LBJ, came over the intercom on the President's desk. Moyers reported that Shriver would be willing to join the ticket, and that Bobby Kennedy would not object. "The hell he wouldn't!" O'Donnell exclaimed. Not long after this incident, according to a New York Times report some years later, "Robert Kennedy sat in icy silence aboard the Kennedy plane on the way to Hyannis Port deliberately ostracizing his brother-in-law."

In the event, Shriver went to Paris in May and played no role in Kennedy's campaign. Eunice campaigned hard for her brother while standing resolutely by her husband's decision. Her campaigning put her husband in an awkward position—after all, he was still working for Johnson and his Vice President, Humphrey, who had entered the race in April. However, her support did not placate RFK's aides, who remained furious with Shriver.

Then, tragically, everything changed. A few minutes after midnight on June 5, 1968, moments after he had given a speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, celebrating his victory over Eugene McCarthy in the California primary, Bobby Kennedy was shot. He died in the hospital the next day. LBJ sent Air Force One to transport Kennedy's body to New York, and the Shrivers flew to La Guardia to join family members and Kennedy's aides. When Shriver tried to help unload the casket from the plane, some of the aides pushed him away, bitter in their grief.

Kennedy's former advisers soon dispersed to the campaigns of the remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination, among whom the two leading contenders were now McCarthy and Humphrey. But the "Kennedy movement," as the journalist Theodore White called it, longed for Ted Kennedy to enter the race, or at least to make himself available as a running mate. The American people, especially Democrats, craved a Kennedy on the 1968 ticket. If Ted was not going to step forward, however, the order of succession—which had previously run from Joe Jr. to Jack to Bobby to Ted—was no longer clear. For Kennedy supporters outside Bobby's inner circle, the next best alternative was Shriver: a Kennedy in-law who shared RFK's commitment to social programs and who had something of JFK's dash and style. By the third week in June newspapers were reporting that Shriver was one of Humphrey's top choices for a running mate. On June 21 Humphrey told reporters that he was "very interested" in allying himself with Shriver.

A Shriver nomination would be politically tricky, because no one knew exactly what the Kennedys wanted and whether or not they would approve. Nevertheless, the first signs were positive. Bill Moyers, who had left the Johnson Administration in 1967 and was now the publisher of Newsday, wrote to Shriver on June 27, 1968.

I had a long and private meeting Tuesday with Fred Dutton [a former aide to JFK who had remained close to the Kennedy family] and asked him how the hardcore Kennedy people would react to you as Vice President. I went over the reasons why your selection would be good for Humphrey and the country, hitting hard on the symbolic meaning it would have for the young, the poor, and the black. He thought this made sense, and expressed the belief that the idea would be accepted by most of the people around Kennedy, himself (Dutton) included.

In mid-July, Bill Josephson, the former general counsel of the Peace Corps, met discreetly on Shriver's behalf with Max Kampelman, one of Humphrey's close advisers. As Josephson later reported to Shriver, Kampelman said that Humphrey "definitely" wanted Shriver in any Humphrey Administration and then brought up the subject of the vice-presidency. Presumably, however, the Kennedys would have to give their blessing before Humphrey made any official move.

On July 17 Don Petrie, a well-connected business executive and a longtime friend of Shriver's, sent word to Paris that the Shriver-for-VP trial balloons sent up by the Humphrey camp through leaks to the press had produced "generally favorable comment." Everyone, however, was waiting for Ted. The Kennedy movement was waiting for Ted to say that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination. The Humphrey campaign was waiting to see whether Ted would be available for the vice-presidency. Shriver and company were waiting to see whether Ted would support Shriver for the vice-presidency.

For the moment Ted wasn't saying anything. But Petrie had told Shriver about a conversation that one of his colleagues had had with Shriver's brother-in-law Steve Smith (the husband of Jean Kennedy, Eunice and Ted's sister), in which Smith had said that although it was obvious that Ted Kennedy could win the nomination, he didn't want it. Nor did he want to be Humphrey's running mate. So who did Smith think Humphrey would pick? "It looks like Sarge," Smith responded. "But the family resents it."

Finally, in late July, Ted announced that he would not seek or accept the presidential or vice-presidential nomination. On August 9 Josephson, Shriver's emissary, met again with Kampelman. Kampelman got right to the point: "Let's talk turkey about Shriver." He told Josephson that if Humphrey were to select Shriver, several issues would need to be addressed. One of them was that the selection "would alienate the Kennedy family and their surrounding politicos." Josephson replied that Humphrey needed to identify someone "who speaks authoritatively for the Kennedy family" and get "a reliable report of what he or she says." He told Kampelman that "if, for example, Rose Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, or Ethel Kennedy were asked," he was "reasonably sure that they would be strongly positive about Sarge's candidacy." On the other hand, "if Steve Smith were asked, he would be negative."

At this, as Josephson recorded in his notes immediately following the meeting, "Max's eyebrows shot up." Kampelman said that "Steve was negative toward Sarge and that Steve and the Vice President had dined together recently." Kenny O'Donnell, Kampelman agreed, was "also knocking Sarge." Humphrey was influenced by these opinions, Kampelman said, because he saw the importance of "not losing the enthusiasm and competence of the Kennedy supporters nationwide."

Josephson suggested that "probably Ted Kennedy was the only person who could and would speak authoritatively for the family." Kampelman agreed that Ted's views would carry great weight, not only with Humphrey but also with those party leaders—for example, the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley—who refused to give up on the idea of Ted as Vice President. But Kennedy proved elusive. He agreed to make a discreet side trip to Paris to meet with Shriver during a European vacation the second week of August, but he never showed up.

On August 20 Moyers sent Humphrey a memo that he had written with Josephson and other Shriver supporters. The memo made a strong case for Shriver, and finessed the question of his being a "Kennedy candidate" without the support of certain Kennedy people.

Shriver would appeal to the young, the memo argued, because as the creator of the Peace Corps, Head Start, and other programs he had become "the personal symbol for the idealism those programs inspired." In the spring of 1968 Shriver, alone among LBJ's high-ranking officials, could appear on college campuses without being picketed. Shriver could also reach out to black voters: two years earlier he had ridden past 10,000 spectators through the riot-scarred streets of Watts, in Los Angeles, in a car on which his hosts had written "Sargent Shriver—The Man Who Has Done the Most for the Negro." Shriver was a proven administrator, a forceful campaigner, and a nationally known figure—and he had not been "a casualty of the Vietnam war." The memo stated, "As a member of the Administration he could not and did not denounce the war, but he appeals to critics of the war because he has been totally involved in the two Kennedy-Johnson programs most remote from and opposite to the war: The Peace Corps and the Economic Opportunity Programs." Finally, Shriver got along well with Humphrey, and as the "prototype of the modern American Catholic," he could help win the crucial blue-collar ethnic vote.

Around the same time, Ted Kennedy weighed in. He talked to Shriver by phone in France for about half an hour. On the question of whether the family would support Shriver on the Humphrey ticket, Kennedy was ultimately inconclusive. But the substance of the conversation, as Shriver described it the next day in a letter to one of his closest friends, was revealing. Shriver wrote, "Many K[ennedy] boosters really are sore at me—even bitter—because I didn't help more [on RFK's campaign]." Ted agreed to "keep in close touch" with Shriver through the convention and said that if Steve Smith was the source of negative comments about Shriver, he would "slow him down or shut him up." Shriver now realized, however, that there was a fundamental problem: "those who had staked most of their personal hopes on RFK are extremely frustrated—& the prospect of anyone 'in the family' who didn't impale him—or herself—on a picket fence without regard to the consequences—suddenly being in a position to pick up all the marbles—that prospect is galling!" Shriver concluded his letter with uncharacteristic bile: "Clearly ... the same clique who opposed [the Peace Corps] as an independent agency—the same palace guard (now without a palace) (or a pretender) find it hard to accept the prospect of a prodigal in-law (let alone son) sitting down to their feast."

"All I asked Teddie was for neutrality," Shriver wrote.

I said frankly I had never asked him or Steve or anyone else in the family for anything—which is true—Now all I suggested was that it brought no credit to anyone for Steve or others to attack me. I can't report that Teddie explicitly stated he would be neutral—My belief is this: He will try to be neutral ... but his neutrality would be neutrality for [Maine Senator Edmund] Muskie or [South Dakota Senator George] McGovern or [Maryland Senator] Joe Tydings and neutrality against [Oklahoma Senator] Fred Harris or me.

Humphrey was evidently convinced that Shriver had all the qualifications he was seeking in a running mate; Max Kampelman recalled in a memoir, "Hubert was very fond of Sarge, whose genial and charming exterior hid a strong sense of principle, personal integrity, and stubborn independence." But he felt he could not choose him without the Kennedy family's unequivocal blessing. Still, a few days before the convention began, Fred Harris told Moyers that Humphrey had narrowed the list to Shriver and himself.

From the archives:

"The Democrats's Dilemma" (March 1974)
There is less to the Party's prospects than meets the eye. By David Broder

The convention opened on Monday, August 26. By Wednesday morning it looked as though Humphrey had the nomination sewn up. That afternoon delegates heatedly debated Vietnam; that evening violence erupted on the streets outside. War protesters, civil-rights activists, and college students of various persuasions had descended on the city at the start of the convention. That day they whipped themselves into an almost insurrectionist frenzy, and were then brutalized by National Guardsmen and the Chicago police, acting under Mayor Daley's direction. At 8:05 on Wednesday night Theodore White jotted this sentence in his notebook: "The Democrats are finished." Just under four hours later Humphrey was officially nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate.

Over breakfast with Humphrey on Wednesday morning, Daley—having finally accepted that Kennedy would not run for Vice President—had strongly urged him to pick Shriver. The Chicago Daily News that day enthusiastically trumpeted Shriver's qualifications. In Paris, Shriver had been meeting with Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance, LBJ's leading negotiators in the Paris peace talks, to discuss what sort of peace plan he would urge on Humphrey if offered a place on the ticket. He began thinking about how, if nominated, he would proffer an olive branch to the peace movement generally, and to the protesters who had been beaten and jailed in Chicago in particular.

But late Wednesday night, as Harris Wofford, who had worked for JFK in the White House and for Shriver at the Peace Corps, recorded in a memoir, Senator Walter Mondale, of Minnesota, called him from Humphrey's suite to say that "Kennedy family opposition to Shriver's nomination was weighing heavily against his selection." (Wofford suspected that Kenny O'Donnell was speaking in the family name, "perhaps without prior authority." Indeed, as Kampelman later recalled, O'Donnell made clear to Humphrey during the convention that "the family would consider it an unfriendly act" if he were to select Shriver.) Wofford told Mondale that this "former Palace Guard" had "no monopoly on the Kennedy legacy." Besides, he asked, did Mondale really think that a man as decent as Ted Kennedy would impede the electoral aspirations of his own brother-in-law?

In fact, it seems, Kennedy already had. Earlier in the day, according to Humphrey's aides, he had called Humphrey and promised his support. But notes Josephson took on a conversation with Kampelman that September make clear that the support did not extend to Shriver. According to the notes, which I obtained from Josephson recently, Kampelman recalled Humphrey's exact words after getting off the phone with Kennedy: "I sensed Teddy was not adamant [in his opposition to Shriver], but led [me] to believe better not."

Reflecting on these events nearly forty years later, Ted Kennedy acknowledges having been disappointed at Shriver's decision not to participate in RFK's campaign. But he insists that he did not veto Shriver's nomination for Vice President. He says that he does not clearly recollect the telephone conversation with Humphrey about Shriver, but that he will never forget how he felt at the time. His brother Bobby's death had been devastating to him; he was in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Having had two brothers assassinated while campaigning, Ted wanted to get as far away from politics as possible until his wounds could heal. His distress and his desire to retreat from politics, Kennedy believes, account for any negative vibrations Humphrey may have received when they spoke.

Whatever Ted intended, on Thursday morning Humphrey's people let Shriver's people know that the choice for VP was down to Harris and Muskie. (Ultimately Humphrey chose Muskie.) "We needed the good will of the Kennedys more than we needed Sarge," one of Humphrey's advisers said at the time. "His name was effectively vetoed."

Would Shriver's presence on the ticket have changed the outcome of the election? First, consider that Humphrey lost Illinois by only 135,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast. With Shriver, who could claim to be a native son (he had lived there for fifteen years, during which time he had been a significant political force), Humphrey would most likely have won that state's twenty-six electoral votes, instantly narrowing the electoral-vote count to 275-217. Second, consider that many of the Catholic and ethnic voters who had been so crucial to the Democrats' victory in 1960 switched their allegiance to Nixon in 1968. As one of the nation's most prominent lay Catholics, Shriver would most likely have fared better than Muskie among Catholic voters. More votes from Catholics in, say, Wisconsin (which Humphrey lost by 61,000 votes out of 1.7 million) and Ohio (which he lost by 90,000 votes out of 4 million) could have given the Democrats those states, which had twelve and twenty-six electoral votes respectively. A win in any two of those three states, or in some combination of several closely contested others, would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives, a heavily Democratic body where Humphrey would easily have prevailed.

In addition, by far the most pressing issue on most voters' minds was Vietnam. If Shriver had been on the ticket and had carried through with his plan to press for a negotiated peace—a plan concocted with the help of Harriman and Vance, the negotiators themselves—who knows how many additional votes might have gone Humphrey's way?

Most important, Humphrey had wanted Shriver on the ticket for largely the same reason he had wanted Ted Kennedy: after the deaths of JFK and RFK, many Americans were hungry for another Kennedy—as a reminder of what the New Frontier had been like before hope and optimism had withered. With Ted declining to run and various members of the Kennedy circle apparently opposed to Shriver, Humphrey had to do without the help of the Kennedy mystique. How many votes would that mystique have been worth?

Two years after the 1968 convention Max Kampelman had lunch with Shriver in Washington. As Kampelman recorded in a letter soon afterward, "We ... talked about 1968 and Chicago. I again made it clear to [Shriver] that he was knifed and I believe he knows that. I believe he also knows who did it."