IN THIS WEEK of remorse and remembrance, occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I have been haunted by a remark from Senator Ed Markey of Malden that speaks both to what was lost on June 5, 1968, and to the poverty of our politics a half-century later.
‘’Bobby Kennedy,’’ Markey told me, ‘’is the greatest president we never had.’’
A big statement, that. For in the two-and-a-third centuries since the ratification of the Constitution, many giants — Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William H. Seward, Charles Evans Hughes, Thomas E. Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, and Robert Taft among them — have reached for the presidency without attaining the White House.
But more remarkable still is the field of political giants who ran in the tumult and turmoil of 1968. Several could be considered among the great presidents we never had.
We remember Lyndon B. Johnson as a man beaten and broken, by Vietnam, by the protests and cultural upheaval of the time, by self-indulgence and self-pity, and by his stubborn preference for sycophants. But as the 1968 campaign began, he was considered unassailable, at least in the view of the political establishment. His formidable record included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (both beyond the reach of John F. Kennedy), the Medicare Act of 1965, and the legislative triumphs of the Great Society.
Johnson’s route to reelection was disrupted by Senator Eugene McCarthy, who heeded the call of the redoubtable Allard Lowenstein — a persuasive agent provocateur mostly forgotten today — whose Dump Johnson movement had a following but, through late November 1967, no leader. Until Lowenstein recruited McCarthy.
Largely on the strength of antiwar college students who cut their hair and shaved their beards to “Get Clean for Gene,’’ the Minnesota Democrat nearly won the New Hampshire primary, making him perhaps the greatest giant killer of modern American history. Four days later, Kennedy entered the race; a fortnight later Johnson exited it.
Several other huge figures crowded into the 1968 presidential field.
There was Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, credited with delivering one of the greatest convention speeches in American history, with this memorial moral imperative: “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Friend to labor, sentinel of social programs such as health care and food stamps, he was revered as a leading American liberal — until he became LBJ’s VP and was tarnished by Johnson’s Vietnam policies.
There was George Romney, governor of Michigan and former president of American Motors. A civil rights proponent and a state-finance reformer, he possessed the appealing profile (and consequent bad luck) of Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, two other business executives with political experience. In a way that seems unimaginable in the Trump era, Romney was undone by an offhand comment, his 1967 remark that, in a Vietnam fact-finding tour, “I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get.’’ (McCarthy’s mordant response: In Romney’s case, “a light rinse’’ would have been sufficient.)
An often-ignored element of that New Hampshire contest: Once Romney exited the race, key aides of his quietly moved to the McCarthy campaign. The lists of supporters they brought were of immense value in a primary where independents could ask for either party’s ballot.
And of course there was Richard Nixon. Perhaps not since John C. Calhoun — also a former member of the House and Senate, a vice president, and a repeat presidential candidate — has a White House contender presented so formidable a resume.
But we’re not done. By the time delegates gathered for their nominating convention in Miami Beach, two governors, Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California, were in the Republican race, too. And a late entrant in the Democratic race: Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota, who would win the party’s nomination four years later.
And so was Robert Kennedy the best president we never had? Historians will never agree. But with Kennedy, McCarthy, Humphrey, McGovern, Nixon, Romney, Reagan, Rockefeller, and McGovern all campaigning for the White House in the same year, there never has been a presidential field quite like it. Nor, pointedly, a more sobering reminder of how far our politics has fallen and failed us.