It's one of the tantalizing questions in American history: what if Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated? Would he have secured the Democratic nomination? Would he have been elected president? If so, how might history have unfolded differently?
For 50 years, such questions have proven as irresistible as they are unanswerable. The death of Robert Kennedy — in the midst of a transformative time for him and the country — suggests dramatic possibilities.
Read several historians, journalists and colleagues' varied ideas.
RFK aide and speechwriter
"There has been some confusion over when Robert Kennedy actually decided to run for president. In fact, Senator Kennedy decided to run at least two days before the New Hampshire primary. I went with him to California to visit Cesar Chavez on that Sunday, March 10, 1968. John Seigenthaler and Ed Guthman joined us en route.
I wondered why Kennedy had asked Seigenthaler and Guthman to join us, and on the flight, I found out. RFK told Ed, John and me that he had decided to run for president. I was exhilarated, so I recall the moment with particular clarity. The following week was a blur of frenzied activity, as we began putting a campaign in motion, given that the announcement was to be made the following Saturday, March 16.
I've always thought RFK would have been nominated and elected. Key party people like Mayor Daley of Chicago and Governor Hughes of New Jersey were moving in his direction, and I think many party professionals would have supported him for the nomination, although some (no doubt) would have done so out of self-interest rather than principle. And I don't think Richard Nixon was a very strong candidate on the other side, as is clearly indicated by the closeness of his actual contest with Vice President Humphrey.
As President, RFK would have negotiated an early end to the Vietnam War and worked hard toward racial reconciliation and narrowing of income gaps at home. How much would he have accomplished? Even with the mandate he would have had coming into office, he necessarily had limited political capital -- every president does — and he was addressing difficult and divisive issues, to say the least. We well know that the next challenges of civil rights -- good jobs, a good education for every child, and so on — were and are even harder than ending state-mandated segregation and assuring equality before the law. Still, Robert Kennedy would have taken the country in a direction very different from what did transpire, and I think we would be in a different place today as a consequence."
Special assistant to President John F. Kennedy for civil rights
"His odds of winning the nomination were, I'd say, fifty/fifty, because there were a lot of forces against him. He started very late. But he might have put it together. And he had momentum — as they say — going into the convention, out of California. I have no idea whether he could have won. But he was a winner, whether he got the nomination or not. He would have been in private life, very possibly, or in the Senate of the United States, he would have been a major figure [in] shaping our future."
"He was 42 when he was killed. He was just finding his own voice... I think he would have been elected in '68. And I think Robert Kennedy in the White House, instead of Richard Nixon, is day and night. We would not have had years more of death in Southeast Asia. We would not have had Watergate. We would not have had a crook as vice president, like [Spiro] Agnew. We would not have overthrown the democratically elected government of Chile. The world would have been very different, if not for the veto of a gunman.
We'll never know how his mix of radical ideas, and somewhat conservative personal values — of self-sacrifice, and self-discipline, and stoicism, and patriotism — how that would ever play out in power... Would he really have gotten us out of Vietnam?... Would he really have dealt with poverty and racism in the cities? He was a singular figure, who was cheated out of his chance to test his ideas, and his values in the White House."
Civil rights activist
"In 1968, during that brief campaign for the Democratic nomination, Robert Kennedy would say over and over again, 'There must be a revolution.' Not a revolution in the streets, but in the minds and hearts and souls of our people. He believed that. He wanted — not just to change laws — but he wanted to change people. He wanted to change the mind-set. He wanted to build a sense of community. Dr. King called it 'the beloved community,' some of us call it an interracial democracy, some of us call it one house, the American house. But he wanted to see all of us make that great leap. Under his leadership we would've made that great leap."
RFK campaign aide and biographer
"I think that Robert Kennedy, like all potentially great men, showed new possibilities in the unending fight towards individual freedom and individual social justice. And I think he is an example which continues to inspire people, to interest them. They wonder how and why he was so effective, and they mourn the loss of his leadership. Had he been elected president in 1968 we would have gotten out of Vietnam in 1969."
"I think we're always fascinated in 'what ifs,' and we always wonder if Bobby Kennedy had lived, would he have been able to bridge the racial divide and help the poor and end the war in Vietnam, and take this country to a place that it never got to. Certainly in the Nixon years it never did. So there's that sense of unfulfilled promise.
...He was deeply human, and flawed, and vibrated with human weakness and fear, as well as human courage and strength, and so that I think that people — whose lives, of course, are complicated — can relate to him as a human being in a way that it's hard to relate to great leaders."
"Robert Kennedy has a continuing hold on the public's imagination. Not simply because he was a martyr, like his brother. Not simply because the family has an extraordinary grip on the public's imagination. But also because he and his brother represented a kind of hope, a kind of vision of the future. And that was snuffed out with JFK's death in 1963. And then it was snuffed out again with Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968.
There is this faith, this belief, that if only he had lived, he would've won the presidency in 1968. And he would've served for eight years, and brought the country into a kind of golden age, with a volume of liberal laws. A continuation of more judicious Great Society legislation; with a wise restrained foreign policy; with the development of getting out of Vietnam and having a kind of détante with the Soviet Union; and a follow through on his brother's limited test ban treaty.
So it's the hope that was lost. But that in a sense, by remembering him, by enshrining him in our memories, we keep the hope alive. And I think that has a lot to do with why John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, still to this day, have such wide appeal to so many millions of Americans. Because they remember them as bringing hope to the country, a better future, a more promising America, a better world."
"I think Bobby Kennedy continues to haunt our imagination because he represents what might have been. We can never be disillusioned, because it's always in the unfulfilled future. He never failed, because he was denied the chance, of course. But he opened the sense of possibilities of change.... He spoke in a language that people could find their hopes, and their dreams. And so, I think we'll always read in Bobby Kennedy, not what was, or what failed to be, but what might have been."
Aide and speechwriter
"If you're gonna say, 'gee, if President Kennedy were still alive' -- why stop there? Wouldn't it be better, for example, if we had [Abraham] Lincoln? How about George Washington? Maybe, Jesus, or the Buddha, or Socrates. All anybody can give us is an example for ourselves to follow... If we're smart, those examples outlive the short lives of the people who give them to us. So Robert Kennedy leaves us an example of an American statesman, who could seek, and find, the good, and the success of the country, in the opportunities that it offered for its citizens — to themselves find growth and dignity — participation in the great enterprise of the United States of America."
"I think of it all the time. I think this would be a different country if he had lived — a lot better country. And, I think, a more responsive, more humane country — and a more equal, more generous society."