Reagan-RFK 1967
Big-picture allies.


Paul Kengor

Thanks to a significantly stupid gaffe by Hillary Clinton, the June 5, 1968, assassination of Robert F. Kennedy made the newscycle a little earlier than expected. I say “earlier than expected” because today the press will pause to remember the event’s 40th anniversary, as RFK was one of the most beloved politicians of his era. Naturally, news sources will try to find unique angles in their commemorations, mining some nugget from RFK’s life or even the life of his shooter — or perhaps another dumb Hillary remark.

But I doubt the media will acknowledge one perspective, especially given that it was long ago got sucked into a historical vacuum. At first glance might seem odd, but it is actually interesting, notable, and perhaps even moving. I’m referring to the response to the assassination by the then-governor of the state in which RFK was shot, and who went on to become the most beloved political figure of the next era: Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan-RFK relationship has eluded historians, biographers, and even admirers of both men. It was a fascinating one that might be dismissed by liberals who liked RFK but not Reagan and by conservatives who liked Reagan but not RFK — which would be a mistake.

In fact, the truth about the relationship is a wake-up call for both liberals and conservatives: Back when Reagan was a liberal Democrat, he campaigned for Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running for the Senate and had been dubbed the “Pink Lady” by her opponent, Richard Nixon. This put Reagan not only against Nixon but against the Kennedys, who were staunch anti-Communists who crossed party lines to support Nixon (including a campaign contribution) against Douglas. The Kennedys were to the right of Reagan.

A decade and a half later, Reagan had moved decidedly and permanently to the right, but once again found himself on the other side of the Kennedys when, on May 15, 1967, a year before the shooting in Los Angeles, Reagan squared off against RFK in a major, nationally televised debate on the Vietnam War. The debate — I wrote a retrospective for NRO last year — was broadcast at 10 P.M. Eastern by CBS’s TV and radio networks. Fifteen million Americans tuned in, and the leading newsweeklies covered the event. (Someone should rerun the debate; it is captivating.)

Newsweek speculated that the debate might be a “dry run” for a future set of “Great Debates” between these two promising presidential aspirants, sensing that they were rising to the top of their respective parties. The verdict, from Newsweek to the San Francisco Chronicle, to historians like the late David Halberstam and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, was that Reagan won the debate.

Really, though, this was not a debate between Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. Rather, it descended into a venomous America-bashing session by a panel of extremely rude, bratty international students who pilloried the two men. In truth, Reagan and RFK emerged as allies rather than opponents, even though Kennedy had not done well, and freely admitted so.

Yet, the most intriguing (and forgotten) component in the relationship between the pair came a year later, on June 5, 1968. On that day, Bobby Kennedy was again an item for Reagan, though this time in a dreadful way that the governor could not have imagined a year earlier: Kennedy had just been assassinated.

Reagan was immediately invited to talk about the tragedy on the television show of his friend and fellow entertainer Joey Bishop. A rare transcript of his appearance is today held by Bill Clark, who, as governor Reagan’s chief of staff, grabbed a copy and filed it away for political posterity, where it still remains (stuffed in a box) four decades later. Clark shared it with me.


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