Alleged Stickler for Accuracy Rachel Maddow Gets it Wrong About RFK's '68 Campaign

Nearly a half century after Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated by an Arab radical while running for president, like-minded liberals in media are still providing hagiographic cover for Kennedy's legacy.

Taking her turn at burnishing the revered liberal icon was Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show last night as she described a possibly brokered Republican convention in the summer if Donald Trump prevails in the primaries.

This is a potentially catastrophic scenario for the GOP, Maddow said, citing the '68 campaign as a precedent. And in the process, a woman once described in an MSNBC promo as so devoted to facts that it "borders on obsessive" made a glaring error that, not incidentally, makes Kennedy look less craven than he did upon jumping into the '68 campaign --

MADDOW: ... We can see how it works in recent history because parties have tried this sort of thing before. This is the way parties used to do it. (Maddow alluding to backroom deals in smoke-filled convention rooms). And in the most recent history, when parties have tried to do this, it ended up in catastrophe. And let me show you what I mean here. Take 1968 -- 1968 was a strange year, right?

That it was -- but distant enough from 2016 that few aside from geologists would describe it as "the most recent history." Back to Maddow's impending revisionism --

There was a Democratic president who could have run for re-election if he wanted to, but he didn't. President Johnson started off running for re-election. He ran in the first state that year, he ran in New Hampshire, but he won there by an unexpectedly small margin and then he bugged out, he got out of the race. In the spring of that election year, he said he would not run for re-election.

That narrow margin for Johnson in New Hampshire was seven percentage points over challenger Eugene McCarthy, Johnson receiving 49 percent (as a write-in who was not yet an official candidate) to McCarthy's 42 percent. Ever since, it has mattered not just how a politician does in a primary or caucus, but how the results align with expectations --

And so Eugene McCarthy was going to run against LBJ even if LBJ was standing for re-election. So Eugene McCarthy was running against him. And then once Johnson withdrew and said he wouldn't run for re-election, then Robert F. Kennedy started running against him as well and these two anti-Vietnam war candidates, they started winning primaries all over the country for the Democratic nomination.

Here's where Maddow plays loose with the facts. The '68 New Hampshire primary was held on March 12, followed by Kennedy, emboldened by McCarthy's strong showing, announcing his candidacy on March 16. Johnson, stunned by both developments and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that preceded them, told a nationally televised audience on March 31 that he would not seek re-election. By then, RFK's campaign was already underway. In Maddow's recounting, McCarthy comes across as disloyal opportunist while RFK dutifully observes protocol.

As of early June, Kennedy and McCarthy, running explicitly as anti-war candidates, had won ten primaries between them, including Kennedy's victory in California on the night he was shot. These victories and the anti-war fervor among Democrats meant little to party bosses at the convention in Chicago that summer, who anointed LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as their nominee, despite Humphrey having not run in the primaries.

Maddow gets it right about how this turn of events was a "catastrophe" for Democrats, with Republican nominee Richard Nixon winning in the general election. But her inaccurate retelling of Kennedy's entry into the race, whether intentionally deceptive or just plain sloppy, has the effect of downplaying Kennedy's role in that looming catastrophe.

For example, much of the bad blood among Democrats that year stemmed specifically from Kennedy's decision to run against a sitting president of his own party -- months after fellow Democrat McCarthy took the huge risk of challenging Johnson. The enmity that developed between McCarthy and Kennedy once RFK became a candidate was intense and raged between their supporters during the campaign and after Kennedy's murder in Los Angeles. 

One of the reasons why politicians hesitate to take on an incumbent president of their own party running for re-election is because intraparty challenges invariably doom the party in the election. This is how it played out in 1968, when two Democrats challenged an incumbent Democrat president. It happened again in 1976, when Ronald Reagan took on incumbent GOP president Gerald Ford -- with Democrat Jimmy Carter winning the election that fall. Four years later, same scenario -- Democrat Ted Kennedy challenging Carter all the way to the convention, with a bloodied Carter eventually losing to Reagan. Twelve years later, once again -- Republican Pat Buchanan taking on Republican president George H.W. Bush -- and Democrat Bill Clinton winning the election.

Perhaps the 1968 campaign does serve as a reliable template for what to expect from Republicans this year, as Maddow suggests. All the more reason to pay close attention in anticipation of future efforts from the left to substitute fiction for facts.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts