When A-listers joined the fray

A door into the past on Warren Street.

By Peter McDermott

The novelist Norman Mailer said of Senator Robert Kennedy, “[I]t was incredible to think him of him as President, and yet marvelous, as if only a marvelous country would finally dare have him.”

He only met him once. It was in 1968, during the hectic last weeks of the former attorney general’s life when he was locked in primary combat with Senator Eugene McCarthy. Thinking back, Mailer felt it hadn’t gone well, for he’d suggested that a Kennedy-McCarthy ticket would be very effective in the general election. His reasoning was in part, that “if there were conservative Irishmen who could vote against one of them, where was the Irish Catholic in America who could vote against two?”Kennedy replied he didn’t want to get votes that way. In any case, the two senators loathed each other.

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Mailer was in a minority among the liberal intelligentsia in favoring RFK. McCarthy was their anti-war hero. He took on LBJ, and in the New Hampshire Democratic primary of March 12, 1968, damaged the president with a very strong showing. Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16, and the president ended his reelection bid on the last day of the month.

It’s amazing when we think of those who’ve, in the decades since, considered and dithered about making a challenge for a nomination that seemed theirs for the taking: such as Gov. Mario Cuomo, General Colin Powell and Gov. Chris Christie.

Kennedy, in contrast, seized the moment, ignoring the advice of his brother Ted, who argued that the party would fall into his lap in 1972, and upsetting his parents, who felt he was risking his life. (George McGovern, a liberal whom RFK had liked and promoted, and who’d worked in JFK’s administration, won the party’s nomination in 1972.)

Recently, I spotted a remarkable artifact from those weeks in America’s history at Philip Williams Posters, 52 Warren St., just a short walk west of City Hall in Manhattan. If you visit, be prepared to take a trip into the past in that large, remarkable store, which also has an entrance also on the parallel Chambers Street. It doesn’t just have big, often huge, posters and framed images from many lands, going as far back as the 19th century. Its plastic-wrapped Life magazines each provide its own portal into history. (Life would cease publication as a weekly at the end of 1972, when it still had millions of subscribers.)

The Life cover of May 10, 1968, featured Hollywood superstar Paul Newman sporting a McCarthy campaign button. “The Stars Leap Into Politics,” the magazine said.

The issue of that week had plenty about the tumult of the era: for instance, a photographic feature on the student revolt at Columbia University, a lengthy profile of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, commentary on the MLK Jr. assassination and a column from Loudon Wainwright (a Life editor and father of the folksinger) on the RFK train in Nebraska.

The cover story, inside labeled “The Star-spangled ’68 campaign,” declared it a presidential race “full of theater – surprising twists in plot, dramatic exits and entrances, and in supporting roles, a spectacular cast of showbiz stars.”

Richard Nixon had Ginger Rogers and Rudy Vallée (whose mother’s parents were Irish immigrants) in his corner, while it was suggested that many Hollywood Republicans were waiting in the wings ready to back either Governor Reagan or Governor Rockefeller. On the Democratic side, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante indicated support for Vice President Humphrey, and RFK and McCarthy were reportedly vying for Marlon Brando’s nod of approval.

Lauren Becall, a Bobby Kennedy supporter, was quoted saying: “When I came out for Stevenson 16 years ago I was told to shut up, honey.” The magazine added: “Nobody tells the stars that today.”

Life said. “There has never been anything like it.

Senator Eugene McCarthy.

Senator Robert Kennedy.

“So far most of them,” it continued “are involved in the Kennedy-McCarthy battle.” Indeed, all of the stars named below were pictured actively campaigning for or otherwise promoting their guy.

In the RFK camp were: the chairman of First-time Voters for Kennedy Lesley Gore (who’d become famous with the hit “It’s My Party”; she died this past February), Sonny & Cher (one of whom was later a Republican member of Congress), Rod Steiger, Shirely MacLaine, Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin and the candidate’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford.

In addition to Newman, Senator McCarthy had on his side Tony Randall, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson (who were married 66 years at the time of his death last year), Dustin Hoffman, Robert Ryan, Elaine May, Hal Halbrook and Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors.

There were quotes of 50 or more words from each explaining their choice. Darin said that the other Bobby “has a spiritual understanding of what it means to be poor,” while Davis offered: “No one relates to the black man like Bobby.”

Randall said of McCarthy: “He has the guts to lay things on the line.” Time and again, the Minnesotan’s moral courage was cited.

But for many, just standing up and being counted was the important thing.

“If you don’t participate, you’re not entitled to anything,” said Paul Newman. “Get serious, that’s the keynote. Why McCarthy? Because it was time.”

That was Kennedy’s thinking, too.