Hot Air

Innocent Days

The 1968 Indiana presidential primary took place in the last, more or less carefree days when candidates could go out and touch voters. That is, skin to skin.

It seems quaint now but back then candidates would ride in open convertibles, sitting up on the deck behind the rear seat, reaching over and shaking thousands of hands as the car inched through crowds. Then assassination became a epidemic and now candidates are whisked here and there in armored vehicles.

Much as we say pols are “losing touch” these days, it’s true in that elementary sense. The campaign handshake is old stuff.

My pal, Bloomington Utilities Director Pat Murphy, was an idealistic teenager when Bobby Kennedy came to Indiana in ’68. The primary was to be held on Tuesday, May 7. In the days before the state vote, Kennedy criss-crossed Indiana, trying to drum up support. He didn’t have to try very hard, considering he was the brother of a beloved President who’d been slain not even five years before. But Bobby worked hard, trying to bring together voters who opposed the war in Vietnam, who hoped to eradicate poverty, who saw integration not as the end of civilization but a new beginning. With the Democratic Party becoming suddenly rudderless after President Lyndon Johnson dropped out of the race on March 31st, Bobby seemed to many to be the Dems’ best chance to beat Richard Nixon or any of the Republicans’ three Rs: Romney, Rockefeller, or Reagan.

Kennedy’d already made his mark in Indiana a month before when, against the advice of his staff and security people, his plane landed at the Indianapolis airport and he came out to tell a waiting, mostly black crowd that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. It’s said that Kennedy’s calming and consoling words prevented riots from breaking out in Indy even as 60 other American cities turned into war zones.

Kennedy at Indy

Bobby Breaks The News, April 4, 1968

Murphy came from strong Democratic stock. His mother had been a labor organizer in Washington. His was an old-style, working-class liberal upbringing. He was eager to see Bobby Kennedy up close.

As luck would have it, Kennedy would be making a campaign stop in front of the old Hotel Elkhart. Murphy grew up in Elkhart and would soon be leaving to go to college. But first, there was a Kennedy to see.

Murphy tells me it was a beautiful spring day when Bobby came to Elkhart. The intersection of Main and Marion streets, where the hotel stood, was jammed with supporters and onlookers. A platform had been set up for the Kennedy party. One brave soul carried a placard reading “Nixon’s the One.”

As Murphy remembers it, Kennedy pointed at the placard and commented, “The one what?”

Kennedy in Elkhart

Kennedy In Elkhart, May 2, 1968

After his speech, Kennedy, his wife Ethel, who was pregnant at the time, and retired baseball great Stan Musial (a celebrity supporter) and his wife, descended the platform and began walking a short distance to their waiting car. But the crowd pressed in on the little party. Murphy stood between the platform and the waiting cars. He noticed some folks beginning to panic. Murphy recalls one small woman who seemed certain she would be trampled.


Stan Musial In 1957

“It was,” Murphy says, “like the crush at a rock concert.”

The Kennedy party somehow got to the waiting car. Kennedy and Ethel sat in the back seat. But before the car could move, Murphy — and Kennedy — noticed that a little girl, perhaps seven years old, was pinned against the car. The press of bodies seemed to both men to threaten to smother her.

“Bobby just reached over and put his hands on the little girl’s shoulders, ” Murphy says. “His sleeve was flapping; someone had stripped off his cufflink when he was walking to the car. He just lifted the little girl up and put her in the car next to him.”

That kind of little incident wouldn’t happen today, of course. And even if it did, it’d probably be staged somehow.

I wonder if the trade-off — iron-clad protection for presidents and presidential candidates in exchange for real, sweaty, grabby handshaking, baby-kissing, and saving little girls from being crushed — is worth it.

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