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“Indiana Can Help Choose a President”: Robert Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary

RFK Boomhower book(Note: an extended audio file version includes an interview with Ray Boomhower and clips of Robert Kennedy speaking during the 1968 campaign)

“Indiana can help choose a president.” Those words, which may have a surprising relevance this year, were used by Senator Robert Kennedy to open speeches when he launched his campaign for the presidency in Indiana. In his new book, Robert Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary, Ray Boomhower provides the inside stories of how the New York senator scored an unlikely victory in the heart of the Midwest.

Kennedy faced considerable odds when he jumped into the ’68 race, spurred on by the Vietnam war and incumbent president Lyndon Johnson’s sudden vulnerability in the wake of a narrow New Hampshire primary victory over Eugene McCarthy . The Democratic Party establishment opposed him. Antiwar college students resented his late entrance, feeling that he had let McCarthy risk the initial confrontation with a sitting Democratic president. The vaunted Kennedy machine that had helped his brother Jack win had to be reassembled in scattershot fashion. Advisers were wary of the Indiana primary, fearing that the conservative state would favor LBJ stand-in Gov. Roger Branigin. Eugene Pulliam, the publisher of the Indianapolis Star, used his newspaper to wage near-daily warfare against Robert Kennedy.

“Indiana’s my West Virginia,” Kennedy said, referring to the 1960 contest that had been a proving ground for his brother. In Boomhower’s detailed account, Hoosier political figures such as John Bartlow Martin and Louie Mahern are at the forefront of RFK’s eventual triumph. He also writes movingly of the evening of April 4, 1968, when Kennedy informed an African-American crowd in an Indianapolis ghetto that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. His spontaneous words quelled a riot that night and have passed into political legend. This book illuminates the Indiana byways of Kennedy’s historical and ultimately tragic journey.

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