Fifty years ago Robert F. Kennedy, the idealistic Democratic presidential candidate of the late 1960s, arrived in Vincennes to tour local historic sites and to speak to local businessmen. The Indiana primary election was in May and Kennedy visited in late April.
Kennedy was the younger brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, though his politics and demeanor were much different than his brother’s. Yet he, too, was the victim of an assassin’s bullet less than two months after his Vincennes visit.
Though the speech at the Vincennes Ramada Inn fell flat (it wasn’t what Kennedy really wanted to discuss), the rest of the visit turned out hundreds of people (many of them young people), and it included prominent local Democrats who were not Kennedy supporters.
“We called the local Democratic bigwigs and invited them to meet the senator,” said Jim Osborne of Vincennes, who along with Tom Ernst, were in charge of the local Kennedy campaign. “The best I can recall, we got a flat turn down from all of them. But about 30 to 40 minutes before he was to arrive, all of them lined up to shake his hand.”
Osborne and Ernst were young teachers at Vincennes Lincoln High School that spring of 1968. Their names were suggested to the Kennedy campaign by Gerald Minderman, who as Postmaster was a Democratic presidential appointee. Neither had experience with a local presidential campaign, but Kennedy’s message resonated with them.
“He was very much into civil rights, trying to eliminate poverty, getting out of Vietnam, and he wanted to get young people involved,” Ernst said. “That was very appealing to me.”
Ernst was a liberal Democrat in 1968. His father had served on the Vincennes City Council as a Democrat and he followed.
“JFK was an icon, a hero to me,” Ernst said. “I believe in what Robert was saying when he was running for president. His people came to town to talk to Jim Osborne and me about setting up his campaign headquarters for Knox County, and without hesitation we said we would do it.”
Kennedy’s visit to Vincennes was an effort to court voters in small towns and rural counties in Indiana, rather than visits to college campuses and inner city neighborhoods. Campaign aid John Bartlow Martin wanted Kennedy to change the tone of the campaign to reach more conservative Democrats, according to Thurston Clarke’s 2008 book The Last Campaign: Robert Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.
Kennedy didn’t like what his campaign handlers recommended, but he complied. Upon landing at the airport near Lawrenceville he said, “I have come because I believe that the seeds of national greatness lie in the greatness of the past. To meet our responsibilities we will need the courage of George Rogers Clark, the resourcefulness of William Henry Harrison, and the humility and wisdom and sheer humanity of Abraham Lincoln.”
Gus Stevens, who then worked at WAOV, was asked to escort Kennedy and his entourage to some of Vincennes’ historic sites.
“We met him at George Field (now the Mid-American Air Center) and there were a lot of people there,” Stevens said. “His wife (Ethel), three of his kids (David, Courtney, and Michael), and their dog Freckles were with them.”
There were several people with the Kennedy entourage, among them Richard Goodwin, who had been a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson and then was helping to write speeches for Kennedy. (Goodwin is married to noted author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.)
Osborne enlisted his cousin, Frank Meyer, who had a convertible, to drive Kennedy. Stevens was given the okay (by Kennedy’s bodyguard) to sit in the front passenger seat, while the senator and his wife sat in the back. Meyer drove.
“The conversation from the airport to Vincennes was about the upcoming election,” Stevens said. “He kept asking ‘how does it look for us?’ and I can’t remember how I got out of not answering, because I wasn’t in a position to say.”
Meyers’ brother, D.D. Meyer, was asked to drive another car, but initially refused because he didn’t support the New York senator. Caught up in the excitement of Kennedy’s visit, he soon changed his mind, and drove another car the Meyers owned.
Upon seeing the St. Francis Xavier Old Cathedral, Kennedy, who was Catholic, was said to have exclaimed, “Beautiful!” He saw the bishops’ graves, and even had knowledge of who the Rev. Simon Brute was.
What struck Stevens, though, were the ecstatic screams of young people, many of them young women and girls, who surrounded Kennedy and tried to touch him outside the church, during the walk to the George Rogers Clark National Memorial.
“I think he had lost a cuff link in between the Old Cathedral and the Memorial,” Stevens said. “When he got there his hair was tousled and his shirt tail out.”
Kennedy was impressed with the Memorial, Stevens said, and took time to study the monument and the paintings inside that describes Clark’s ‘Conquest of the West.’ He and Ethel also visited Grouseland. They were listening to guides discuss history in the basement of the Harrison mansion when Stevens was asked to find them so they could stay on schedule.
“I went down there and opened a door and it frightened him,” Stevens said. “I’ll never forget the look on his face. He was startled. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look.”
Outside of Grouseland, Kennedy was swarmed again, this time by hundreds of Vincennes University students. Climbing onto the back of a truck, Kennedy answered every question the students had for him. The moment is preserved in a photograph taken by LIFE Magazine photographer Bill Epperidge, who covered the entire RFK campaign in 1968.
When Kennedy arrived for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at his local campaign headquarters on South Fourth Street (just off of Main), he was greeted by hundreds, many of whom were Lincoln High School students on their lunch break. (A number of them were suspended, too, for having stayed too long at the campaign rally.)
In conservative Knox County, established Democrats had not embraced Kennedy’s candidacy. Some were supporting Indiana Gov. Roger Branigan, but Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy were the established favorites. So Osborne was stunned when many of them showed up right before RFK arrived.
“They all lined up to shake hands with him,” Osborne said.
Kennedy’s speech to a combined meeting of Vincennes Kiwanis, Rotary, and Civitan clubs was designed by his speechwriters to highlight private enterprise and business issues. But it wasn’t the kind of speech Kennedy typically gave. When someone in the audience questioned federal funding for rat control efforts in America’s urban areas, Kennedy became unnerved.
“Do you know there are more rats in New York than people?” Kennedy asked.
The response was met with nervous chuckles, which seemed to anger the presidential candidate. “Don’t laugh,” he admonished his audience, and then launched into a lecture on the problems of poverty in America’s inner cities.
“That really struck a nerve in him,” Osborne said. “He was very serious.”
Osborne, Stevens, and Meyer went on to accompany the Kennedy entourage to other southern Indiana towns along the Lincoln Trail, ending at an Evansville rally. At one point along the way, the car RFK was in was hit by eggs, causing intense concern. However, that was the only incident in an otherwise positive trip.
Kennedy invited one of his Vincennes guests to fly with them to Indianapolis that day, but all refused. Osborne wishes now that he would have accepted the offer.
“I thought, ‘oh, gee, I’m supposed to teach the next morning,’ and decided not to go,” he said. “I had the opportunity of a lifetime and I let it drift away.”
Kennedy went on to win the Indiana primary that year, and steadily worked his way through a number of other primary victories. Kennedy would have gained the Democratic nomination, and he likely would have won the presidency had he not been assassinated.
After a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian radical who was again turned down for parole in February and remains in a California prison.
The idealistic Robert F. Kennedy died the next day. He is buried adjacent his brother in Arlington National Cemetery.
By Bernie Schmitt