RFK's Overshadowed Victory

The Democratic presidential primaries have come to a close. But the South Dakota vote also offers an eerie reminder of a tragic anniversary.

Forty years ago today, South Dakota voted for Robert Francis Kennedy to be the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate. It was the same day he won the California primary. Just after midnight following a victory speech, Kennedy was assassinated and he died the following day.

As WBUR's Curt Nickisch reports, Kennedy's stunning win in South Dakota underlines the promise lost that fateful evening.


CURT NICKISCH: On the same night as his California win, Robert Kennedy made a phone call to supporters gathered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His staffer, Steve Smith, set it up.

STEVE SMITH ON TAPE: Are you ready? I'm ready! Just a moment, here's Senator Kennedy.

NICKISCH: In this recording, Kennedy celebrated his unlikely victory in that rural state.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY ON TAPE: Did Ethel's trip up there turn the tide?

BILL DOUGHERTY ON TAPE: It really helped, it really helped Senator!

NICKISCH: The New York Senator won South Dakota by a whopping twenty points — astonishing when you consider he was running against two Midwesterners. Both his opponents, Eugene McCarthy and Lyndon Johnson stand-in Hubert Humphrey, were from Minnesota. Both expected to win in their own backyard.

JON LAUCK: What's absolutely stunning to me is that an outsider like Kennedy could win in South Dakota because South Dakota likes favorite sons.

NICKISCH: Jon Lauck is a Republican political strategist from the state.


LAUCK: And I know that Humphrey was planning on using that tradition to win big in South Dakota. And compounding the advantage for Humphrey is the fact that he was from Doland, South Dakota originally! And so it was a coup!

NICKISCH: So just how did this northeast city slicker win over skeptical South Dakotans? Bill Dougherty was Kennedy's campaign manager in the state. He remembers how one time, after a speech to farmers, Kennedy opened the floor to questions.

DOUGHERTY: And some guy stood up and said: What are you going to do for agriculture when you get to be elected president? He said: I do something for agriculture every day. He said every day when I get up, I go down to the breakfast table and I've got nine kids, and we eat and drink all this milk and we eat all this food — doing something for agriculture. And the whole place just roared. He didn't pretend to know a lot about agriculture, because he didn't. But he handled it in such a way, that it worked.

NICKISCH: Robert Kennedy's personal style also resonated with American Indians. His advisors had told him not to waste his time courting that minority — since they accounted for few votes. But he toured the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation anyway. Nellie Two Bulls, a Lakota woman, still remembers his speech there today.

NELLIE TWO BULLS: He said he has heart for red-skinned people. He said, when I see their houses, it makes me feel so bad. And: they live in poverty. And he got his handkerchief out from his back pocket. And he wiped his tears.

NICKISCH: By cobbling together a coalition of American Indians and farmers neglected by the Democratic Party establishment, Robert Kennedy pulled off a stunning victory that took the sting out of his loss in Oregon the week before. By upsetting his two competitors on their home turf, he showed he had national appeal. Plenty to celebrate in that phone call with South Dakota supporters, campaign manager Bill Dougherty at the other end:

DOUGHERTY ON TAPE: We had a great Indian vote, Senator, our trip down to Pine Ridge did pretty good. I'd like to give you one result from Pine Ridge: 878 Kennedy, 2 Johnson, 9 McCarthy. (CROWD CHEERS)

KENNEDY ON TAPE: That's great. I'm very grateful to the Indians! (CROWD CHEERS) I always thought there was some question whether the white man should live here or not. Particularly whether we should have gone all the way to Oregon. (CROWD LAUGHS)

NICKISCH: Whether Robert Kennedy could have used his South Dakota coup to go all the way to winning the presidential nomination at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago will forever remain uncertain. Bill Dougherty, his state campaign manager, had already gone home from the Sioux Falls victory party when he heard the news from California.

DOUGHERTY: A fellow that I went to high school with worked at Western Union and he called me up and the phone rang. I was in bed and I answered it and he said: just wanted you to know they just shot Bob Kennedy out in California. And I said: Oh you got to be kidding. Quit doing this to me. He said: Turn on your TV. So I turned on the TV and Steve Smith was up there. He was telling people to get a doctor and step back. So I just — what do you do?

KENNEDY ON TAPE: You did a great job! So I'm very very grateful to you and I'm looking forward to meeting you in Chicago and then meeting you at the inauguration! (CROWD CHEERS)

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on June 4, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.