- Historic Sites
As Hillary Clinton campaigns for a New York Senate seat, she’d do well to study the career of another effective outsider
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Once in, Kennedy moved with what in our present politics would be considered stunning alacrity. He declared for the Senate from New York on August 26, resigned his position as a Massachusetts delegate to the Democratic Convention the same day, and wrapped up the nomination at the New York state convention on September 1. Polls already showed him leading Keating by seventeen points.
But Kenneth Keating was no push-over. Sixty-four years old, a dignified, white-haired veteran of both world wars and a graduate of Harvard Law School, he had served six terms in the House before being persuaded by Nelson Rockefeller to run for the Senate in 1958. Bucking a national Democratic landslide, Keating had scored a 130,000-vote victory over Manhattan’s legendary district attorney Frank Hogan and gone on to establish a solid record in the Senate as a hard worker, a domestic liberal, and a staunch Cold Warrior.
Ethel Kennedy suggested “There is only so much you can do for Massachusetts” as a campaign slogan.
“I welcome Robert Kennedy to New York,” he said when Kennedy announced. “Indeed, as his Senator, I would be happy to furnish him a guidebook, road map, and any other useful literature about the Empire State which any sojourner would find helpful.”
He went on to attack Kennedy’s carpetbagger status at every opportunity, repeatedly pointing out that the candidate would not even be able to vote for himself. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s early moves were tentative and wrong-footed. His courting of the entrenched Democratic leadership had infuriated party reformers still trying to put the last nail in Carmine De Sapio’s Tammany Hall organization. Gore Vidai and Lisa Howard organized a Democrats for Keating Committee, and a host of liberals, including I. F. Stone, James Baldwin, Richard Hofstadter, Paul Newman, Barbara Tuchman, and Nat Hentoff, endorsed the Republican incumbent. Most of the state’s newspapers did likewise. The New York Times mocked Bobby as a “young Lochinvar” and—twisting the knife by using the r-word—deplored “the ruthless swiftness with which he has put together an irresistible personal political machine in this state.”
By early October Kennedy’s own pollster had Keating with a small lead, and Bobby was futilely demanding a debate. But in fact Kenneth Keating was a man fighting on quicksand. His campaign was being slowly but inexorably drawn down by Barry Goldwater’s hijacking of the Republican party. In order to retain his liberal and moderate support, Keating refused to endorse Goldwater—only to have a sixty-one-year-old Clare Boothe Luce—usually a resident of Connecticut—threaten to run for the Senate on the Conservative party line if Keating did not back the Republican nominee.
Two carpetbaggers, and a race pitting Robert Kennedy against Clare Boothe Luce? Alas, such treasures are beyond us in this life. Luce eventually desisted, but the GOP’s schism continued to undermine Keating’s campaign, while the prospect of victory was enough to drive even Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy into each other’s arms. Johnson campaigned with Bobby from Buffalo to Brooklyn in two days of frenzied, jubilant motorcades and rallies, squeezing a gamely smiling Kennedy to his chest and telling crowds, “This is ma boy. I want you to elect ma boy.” On October 29 some half-million people gave Kennedy and the vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey a tumultuous reception at Manhattan’s traditional electioneve labor rally in the garment district. A day earlier Keating had appeared before a Wall Street crowd of five hundred, some fifty of whom turned out to be Goldwater diehards who booed the senator and held up placards reading WE WANT BARRY! and SOCIALIST!
Kennedy surged back into a commanding lead by mid-October, and Keating began to make repeated references to his “ruthless” campaign. Now it was the Republican who demanded a debate, and when Kennedy demurred, Keating resorted to an old tactic. He bought half an hour of time on WCBS-TV, for 7:30 P.M. on October 27, and announced that if Kennedy did not show up, Keating and New York’s senior U.S. senator, Jacob Javits, would spend the half-hour “debating” an empty chair.
“Let the man from Massachusetts meet me face to face,” Keating told newsmen. “I’ll pin his ears back.”
Keating demanded a debate, but when Kennedy showed up at the TV studio the producer wouldn’t let him in.
Men from Massachusetts are not in the habit of having their ears pinned back, however, and Keating was about to find out just how ruthless Robert Kennedy could be. Kennedy bought thirty minutes of airtime on WCBS himself that night, beginning at 8:00 P.M. Then, at approximately 7:25, he showed up at Keating ’s studio with a phalanx of reporters and announced that he was ready to debate.