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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Participation in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Presidential Campaign

Seigenthaler discusses his friendship with Robert F. Kennedy and his role in Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. In particular, he focuses on Kennedy's thought process leading up to his decision to run for president, noting that once Kennedy had decided to run, he asked Seigenthaler to campaign for him, first in Nashville and later in California.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

1968, Bob Kennedy came here to make a speech and afterward, he came to my house. He said, after that, he sat down with a hundred leaders from a variety of backgrounds. Within the framework of what we are talking about, it may be more for the oral history than for an interview . . . I might just talk about that for a little bit, because it is an interesting annecdote.
BILL FINGER:
But you will deal with my question?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
All right, I will. I'll deal with the question afterwards. I went up to the Gridiron Dinner, which was probably in March. I got to Washington and called him on the telephone and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I've come to see the Gridiron." And he said, "Well, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Why don't you go with me, I'm going to make a speech in Iowa for Harold Hughes, who is running for the Senate. It's going to be a fund raiser and there are going to be two or three governors there and then I am going on to break the bread of social justice with Cesar Chavez. And I am leaving in an hour." So, I packed my bags and met him at the airport.
BILL FINGER:
You began here?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, I was here and then flew to Washington for that Gridiron. So, the anecdote goes back a little bit. We go to this place in Iowa, he speaks for Harold Hughes. Afterwards, in a suite, there are four governors, Guy, Hearne, Docking, Hughes. And their intimate advisors. One of them opens the conversation, John McCormally, who is a newspaper man from Iowa and didn't come to hear the speech, I don't think, probably stayed up in that suite. He began the conversation by saying, "All right, Senator, when are you going to announce for President?" I have the feeling that at this time, Bob was really in the throes of decision making.
JIM TRAMEL:
This is March?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
It would have been March, I think. February, maybe. It would have been prior to . . .
JIM TRAMEL:
New Hampshire?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
New Hampshire. I don't remember the date in New Hampshire, but the date would have coincided with the Gridiron Dinner in Washington, which it seems to me, is every year in March. But I don't remember when New Hampshire was, maybe April. He said, "Look, I've already said that I can foresee no possibility of doing this." And it was interesting to hear those governors talk about their own political futures, in terms of his political future. Hughes represented sort of a consensus when he said, "Well, I'll tell you one thing. I am sick of this administration and Lyndon Johnson's inability to hear what the people are saying. I don't think that Gene McCarthy is really saying all the things that ought to be said, but a number of my supporters are committed to Gene McCarthy and if you got in, you would just foul it up for me and them. But you will have to decide." That night, after they left, Peter Edelman and I stayed up late and argued with each other in front of him about our ideas. That argument continued the next day on the way to California. My position was that he should not run. My position was that Lyndon enmity for him was so deep that as a sitting President, Kennedy could never take the convention away from him. And that to run, would in effect, be to lose. Peter's argument, on the other hand, was, "I think that he can beat Lyndon Johnson and whether he can or not is not important. What is important is for him to be the moral leader of the Democratic party." And I said, "You can be a moral leader of the Democratic party and not be a candidate. You will be in great demand at events like this one all across the country." We went the next day to see Cesar and after that, flew from Delano down to Los Angelos, got out at a private airplane place and he walked up to American with me. Just before we left, he said, "As always, you have been candid and you told me what you think. You know that I am leaning in the other way, but I haven't made up my mind." . . . he may have. Others have said since then and have written since then that he had already decided. I don't believe it. But I think that without a doubt that he was close to it. Just before we left, he said, "Well, before I announce anything, I'll call you." And I said, "Well, if you accept everything that I say as logical and the odds of beating Lyndon are maybe 90-10, what's the rationale for following another course?" And he sort of looked away and there was a long pause. He said, "I just feel more comfortable doing it." And I knew when I got on the airplane that that feeling . . . he had spoken earlier about McCarthy's inability to deal with the questions of blacks and poverty, aside from the issue of the war. He said, "It shouldn't be a one-issue campaign. McCarthy couldn't win on a one-issue campaign." But anyway, he called me a little bit later and said . . . no, he announced, he didn't call me before he announced. But about a week after he announced, he was in California and he said, "I'm coming South and I wondered if you could get a few of your friends together and let me make a speech to them at some college down there." I said, "Well, when, and how many friends?" And this was on a Friday or a Saturday night and he said, "I'd like to come Monday and if you can get an auditorium full, that's what I'd like." I said, "Well, I don't think there would be any big problem about getting an auditorium full of college students, if you would give me a little more time." He said, "Tuesday. I am going to Alabama on Tuesday afternoon and I thought that I would come to Nashville on Monday night and I thought that since you are my friend, you could get a bigger crowd than they could get down there." I said, "Look, that's three days away." It must have been Friday night, and it was very late, he woke me up. At any rate, the people at Vanderbilt were very responsive and we filled the place, 16,000 people. After that, he went to my house and we had some labor leaders and business executives, lawyers, students, college professors . . . some of the traveling press was there. Dave Halberstam came out. At any rate, after it was over, he walked out front, and said, "I need help bad in California. Could you take a couple of months off and go out there. I really need help." I said, "Yeah, I can. I don't know if I could give it two months, but I could give it from now to the end of the California campaign." He said, "O.K., if you would do that, I would appreciate it. Northern California is in desperate straights." So, I said, "Sure, I'll go." He said, "Well, could you go tomorrow." I said, "I don't think that I could go tomorrow, but I will try to go right away." In 1964, when he ran for the Senate, he had asked me to come up to New York and I went up for a week and saw that it was a waste of time. Really, at the time that he asked me, it was a week before I could go and within that week, his television began to take hold and there was a transformation. I got there and spent several days and saw that I was not needed and left. I said, "Look, I don't want to go through another New York. You asked me to go up there and it wasn't really necessary. Don't think that you just have to ask me just because we are friends, to come out and participate in this. If you really need me, I will go, but if you don't need me, what I am doing here is important to me." He said, "I really need you." So, within forty-eight hours, I went. Looking back on it and what happened, I'm glad. But that's a long story to get to another point. I was still an activist in 1968. I still thought that a great deal could be done by changes in government. I've done a great deal of reflecting on that since 1968, and I wouldn't go back into government, under any circumstances, in any role, in any post.
BILL FINGER:
What about for the man?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
For anybody. That's not saying that I wouldn't work for somebody in a campaign for a few weeks. But, I would have gone back if he had been elected President, if he had asked me to come. I might have gone back to some position of power. I'm not saying that when I am sixty, if somebody asked me if I wanted to be an ambassador, I wouldn't go to Chile or Argentina or Luxembourg, but I am saying that that would be a form of semi-retirement, you know. I just don't think that the opportunities for changing society from inside government are that meaningful. Government is the corporate colony.
JIM TRAMEL:
Can we quote you on that?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Please do. Government is the corporate colony.