Peter McDermott of the Irish Echo on the history of the NH primary

Andy Smith’s (head of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center) comment about the Hillary campaign, particularly its attitude to the media, was backed up by Maureen Dowd’s column the following day.
“Hillary has barely talked to the press throughout her race even though the Clintons this week whined mightily that the press prefers Obama,” she wrote. Dowd echoed another comment he made when she said that Eugene McCarthy forced the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House with his strong showing in the New Hampshire Primary in 1968.

Both Andy and the NYT columnist are wrong on this historical point. The primary was held on March 12, which LBJ won in a write-in campaign. The president announced to the nation in a televised address on March 31 that he would not be seeking reelection. What neither mentioned is that Robert Kennedy had entered the race on March 16.

I referred to these facts in a general opinion piece about the history of the primary, which was published in my paper on Jan. 2, and can be found on the IPA website.

However, let me add some points not referred to in that piece but which have some bearing on Andy’s comment on how the race is usually a contest between an establishment candidate and a challenger. First of all, I’m not sure that imposing a grand narrative on what is pretty obvious anyway is all that helpful. It seems the frontrunner is inevitably the established or establishment candidate. And, there have been cases when there were several viable candidates going into the race.

But Robert Kennedy’s was a very interesting candidacy in this respect. He was an establishment figure on several important levels: he was the brother and heir apparent of the slain president; he had also been attorney general and arguably the most influential member of the cabinet from 1961 to 1963. But he immediately put himself outside of that establishment by his challenge to LBJ. Most of his political advisors — including his brother Teddy — cautioned against declaring. They said the party would fall into his lap, if he was patient – and 1972 would certainly be his year. But Kennedy, who personally had moved to the left in the 1960s, could feel things were shifting rapidly in society at large. He felt that he was losing a key section of the liberal base, most especially the young, by letting McCarthy make the running. The anti-war people were a minority but he felt he was their natural leader.

On the other hand, he angered the party bosses by challenging the president. And at that time, you could win key primaries and still be defeated at the Convention. (That changed from 1972, as I point out in the op-ed piece, because of the upheaval of 1968.) Additionally, the antipathy between RFK and LBJ was widely known, and it was easy for people to assume that all of this was personal. Even today, people say McCarthy did all the work (by coming second in New Hampshire), something that ignores the dynamics of the situation at the time.

Kennedy had a lot more to lose by entering the race. His decision to run was a courageous one, politically, morally and physically.

An interesting footnote for 2008: Senator Obama is identified with two constituencies that came into play in the primaries 40 years ago – college students, who worked in large numbers for McCarthy’s campaign, and African Americans, who were RFK’s most enthusiastic backers.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.