The recent California primary made history, clinching Hillary Clinton’s bid to be the first woman nominated for the presidency. I can’t help thinking back to an earlier California primary that also reshaped American history. The year was 1968 and three men were locked in a tight race. The winner in California, Robert F. Kennedy, was a passionate advocate for racial and economic justice, his campaign fueled by young people looking to remake America. Eugene McCarthy was more of an academic, running on an anti-war platform. Hubert Humphrey was the vice-president and the establishment favorite, but he was saddled with a war he refused to disavow. Kennedy’s victory in California would have been a major setback for McCarthy, likely setting up a dramatic convention fight with Humphrey for the nomination. It’s the way a lot of Sanders’ supporters were hoping things would go this year. We never got to see it, though.
On the night of his greatest victory, Kennedy was gunned down, the first American casualty of our deepening involvement in the Middle East. As he lay dying, Kennedy whispered, “Everything’s going to be okay.” If only it were so. The country has been though a lot since then, and in many ways the business of the 1968 campaign is still unfinished, the struggle to define America still ongoing. We have another chance this year. Perhaps it’s true that history first plays as tragedy then as farce, but this is the only history we have. The choice is still fundamentally the same. Do we want an America where social progress matters, or will we again let fear and false promises govern our choice? It made a difference then. It will make a difference now.