Fifty years ago Tuesday, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy eked out a narrow win in the California Democratic presidential primary. Moments after declaring victory, Kennedy was fatally shot, throwing the 1968 presidential race into further turmoil and sending political shockwaves still being felt today.
Former Rep. James Rogan, R-Calif., who also served as one of the impeachment managers against President Clinton in 1999, is now a judge on the Superior Court of California in Orange County. He is also the author of “On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968,” published by WND Books.
Rogan was 10 years old and finishing the fifth grade when Kennedy was killed. His class was enthralled with the very competitive Democratic primary. While most of the kids backed Kennedy, Rogan strategically supported Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., to impress a cute girl in his class who was also on the McCarthy bandwagon.
1 centimeter away from another President Kennedy? By James Rogan
Rogan remembers staying up past midnight, seeing McCarthy concede and Kennedy declare victory. It was only in the morning that a classmate called to tell him Kennedy had been murdered. He then flipped on his family’s new color television and saw the footage of Kennedy on the hotel floor.
“The first thing I saw was color footage from six hours earlier of Kennedy flat on his back on this concrete floor of a pantry of a hotel in Los Angeles, with this big pool of maroon blood seeping from the back of his head. I had never seen anything like that before,” said Rogan.
Another Kennedy assassination would have been traumatic enough for the country, but his murder also followed the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that greatly galvanized the anti-war movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two months earlier and the race riots that followed in over 100 cities around the nation.
“People in 1968 really believed that a possible revolution was afoot,” said Rogan, who noted that the GOP candidates vigorously committed to victory in Vietnam and backing the police among the rioters in urban centers.
America’s political and cultural environment was a powder keg in 1968, and Judge Rogan says he’s stunned by how many younger, well-educated Americans know almost nothing about it.
“We have generations of young professionals today who have never heard of Robert F. Kennedy or Nelson Rockefeller, or Eugene McCarthy, or Hubert Humphrey, people who were titans on the political stage in 1968,” said Rogan.
While people too young to remember Kennedy’s assassination or the upheaval of 1968 may think of it as ancient history, Rogan is quick to point out the same ideas seen on the campaign trail in 2016 found their roots in 1968.
“It really struck me how 1968 and 2016 had so many different parallels: a nation divided, the polarization of politics, the abject hatred that people had for the other side, the incendiary campaign strategies of some candidates,” said Rogan, who was working on his book during the 2016 campaign.
He says Bernie Sanders was not pushing anything new in the last campaign, because Kennedy and McCarthy were espousing the same ideas five decades earlier.
“If you go back and study their speeches, and their campaigns, and what their issues were, you can see it is a direct predecessor to what the progressives of today are talking about,” said Rogan.
“Anybody who wants to understand 2016 and 2018 needs to understand 1968 if you want to know where it all started and how the connection reaches back in time,” said Rogan.
Another parallel between 1968 and 2016 is the prodigious field of candidates. But while 2016 featured 17 Republican candidates at one point, Rogan says 1968 was remarkable for the many prominent names all battling each other.
“Running against each other in one single race, you had President Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, three-term governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller, Bobby Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, George Wallace – who made Donald Trump look like a shrinking violet on the campaign trail – and Gov. George Romney from Michigan, who was Mitt’s dad,” said Rogan.
“It was the ultimate throwdown in American politics,” he added.
Nixon ultimately won the election over Humphrey, with Wallace winning a handful of states as an independent candidate.
In addition to recalling the horror of Kennedy’s assassination and the fallout on the nation, Rogan’s book considers what might have happened if Kennedy had not been killed. The idea has intrigued Rogan since learning Kennedy probably would have made a full recovery if Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet had been off course by just a centimeter.
“I wanted to explore, not based on sentimentality or that Camelot sentimental nonsense. I wanted to explore the issue, based on the facts and the evidence, what really would have happened if Bobby Kennedy had survived and continued his campaign: what would have happened to the Democratic Party, what would have happened to the Republican ticket and what would have really happened in November 1968,” said Rogan.