An engaging, witty speaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s history, Branigin had initially agreed to run as a stand-in for President Lyndon Johnson in the primary. With Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for president, a stunned Branigin nevertheless decided to remain in the race as a favorite-son candidate. He hoped to win some influence for Indiana’s sixty-three delegates at the Democratic convention in Chicago, slated to be held in August 1968. Time and time again during the campaign he repeated that national issues were not at stake in Indiana. “What is at stake here,” he told his supporters, “is who is going to represent the state of Indiana in Chicago.”
Branigin enjoyed several advantages over his opponents in the primary. With his tight control over patronage in the state, the governor could count on the expertise of Democratic Party regulars in each of Indiana’s ninety-two counties. To fund his campaign, Branigin could draw upon the funds raised by having several thousand patronage employees “voluntarily” kicking back to the party 2 of their salaries. Democratic officials throughout the state also feared that if Kennedy were nominated for president, his candidacy would hurt local candidates in the November election. With these factors in mind, Democratic Party chairmen in all but one of Indiana’s counties threw their support to the governor.
In addition to the support of elected officials, Branigin enjoyed the unwavering editorial assistance of Pulliam, the powerful owner and publisher of the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News, as well as newspapers in Muncie and Vincennes. Pulliam did all he could in his newspaper to aid Branigin and defeat Kennedy, whom the newspaper labeled as a carpetbagger ready to buy the election with unlimited cash. The newspaper gave the governor’s effort page-one coverage and even peddled him as a possible candidate for vice president. Referring to his time delivering copies of the Star as a young man, Branigin joked: “I used to carry Pulliam, and he has been carrying me ever since."
The governor noted in his daily journal that Pulliam agreed with his position to “hold the line for the Indiana delegation so as to be more effective in Chicago—and press my candidacy as far as prudence and good judgment permits.” The Democratic governor had been amazed that Pulliam, a strong supporter of Republican causes, had promoted his candidacy day after day in his newspaper, “sometimes when there was no news—or reason. You can’t purchase such support.” Although he did not know what the long-term effect might be for the primary contest, Branigin noted Democrats should remember that “Republicans can elect you!”
Born in Ulysses, Kansas, Pulliam had attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, before leaving after his junior year to work in newspapers. He quickly rose in the industry, working for the Kansas City Star and serving as editor of the Atchison Champion before buying a number of newspapers in Indiana, including the Lebanon Reporter, Franklin Evening Star, and the Indianapolis Star. According to his grandson, Pulliam was at heart “an old fashioned editor who went into political battles with both fists swinging.”
During the 1968 Indiana primary, Pulliam used his power as publisher to bolster Branigin’s efforts in Indiana, and hamper the Kennedy campaign at all costs. During John Kennedy’s administration, Pulliam, who also owned newspapers in Phoenix, Arizona, had developed a liking for the president’s wit, but never developed any such warm feelings for Robert Kennedy. In Pulliam’s mind, the younger Kennedy possessed an unattractive personality that sorted people into two distinct categories—those who were with him, and those who were against him. “You could never relax and just be with him, like you could with Jack,” Pulliam said.
Although warned by his assistant publisher, his son, Gene, and the Star’s managing editor, William Dyer, that his efforts against Kennedy might harm the newspaper’s reputation, the publisher refused to pull any punches. Longtime Star city editor Lawrence “Bo” Connor remembered receiving a memo from Pulliam that read: “I think whenever Senator [Eugene] McCarthy comes to Indiana that we should give him as full coverage as possible—but this does not apply to a man named Kennedy.”
The Star treated Kennedy and McCarthy as unwelcome outsiders. Editorial cartoons blasting Kennedy for using his fortune to buy Indiana votes appeared on news pages. One infamous cartoon on the front page of the Star’s April 24 issue under the title “Guests in the House!” had McCarthy and Kennedy wooing a worried woman labeled “Mrs. Indiana” as Branigin looked balefully down at them behind his glasses. In the drawing, McCarthy tickles the woman under the chin while Kennedy’s hand appears to be fondling her breast.
The Star also gave continued coverage to charges from St. Angelo and Branigin that Kennedy was out to buy the election with his family fortune. The newspaper ran on its front page an editorial from the New York Times titled “Is Indiana For Sale?” The editorial noted that the Kennedy campaign estimated they would spend $500,000 in the state, but nobody would be “surprised at an expenditure by them twice or three times as great.” Because Indiana had no effective law requiring reports on campaign expenditures, the Times editorial said no one would ever know the real amount. In reprinting the editorial, however, the Star edited out a mention that the Branigin campaign could draw upon for financial support what the Times called “the ancient and disreputable practice” of levying 2 percent from patronage employee’s paychecks.
By the end of the campaign, Kennedy campaign aides had called on the American Society of Newspaper Editors’s Freedom of Information Committee to investigate the Pulliam newspapers for what he called “outrageous and callous disregard for fairness.” Pulliam fired back at Kennedy, comparing him to a spoiled child. “When he doesn’t get what he wants, he bellyaches about it,” Pulliam said in a statement. “The facts are Kennedy and his entourage received more space in the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News than any other candidate, largely for the reason he brought his whole family, including his mother, to Indianapolis and they made news and we printed the news and the pictures.”
The Kennedy campaign attempted to counter the reach of the Pulliam newspapers by going over their heads and concentrating on television and radio advertising. In general, however, noted press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, there was not much Kennedy could do about what he saw as biased political coverage. One new technique employed by the campaign to circumvent the Indianapolis newspapers came from Jim Dunn, who had worked on Democrat Pat Brown’s gubernatorial contests in California. Dunn set up a recording machine in Kennedy campaign headquarters in Indianapolis with a phone line and notified every radio station in the state that they could call twice a day to obtain a live feed of Kennedy’s speeches to use in their news reports and programs. Dunn went to every Kennedy speech, recorded them, edited them, and also provided commentary on the size of the crowd and the location of the speech. “It was a good device,” Mankiewicz recalled. “We got a lot of good radio publicity that way.”
Kennedy attempted to joke about the rough coverage he received in the Star. During a visit to Indianapolis on May 1, Kennedy made brief remarks to an enormous crowd of approximately three thousand people that pressed around his car as it traveled on Monument Circle. Lacking the proper permit to make a speech, the senator said he did not want to say too much and risk spending the last few days of the campaign reading the Indianapolis Star while incarcerated.
In a talk at the Christian Theological Seminary later in the day, Kennedy turned serious, noting he had always considered the Manchester Union-Leader, run by arch-conservative New Hampshire publisher William Loeb, as the country’s nastiest newspaper. “I think, really, the Indianapolis Star must run it neck and neck,” he said. “I’ve been here two weeks, and I’ve never seen a worse newspaper. . . . It’s certainly the most distorted, I think, one of the most warped.” He went on to say, in a dig at Pulliam, that it must be a great thing to “have a toy like that.” The Indianapolis Star reporter who covered the event at the seminary failed to include Kennedy’s remarks about the newspaper, noting only that the candidate made digressed from his remarks to indicate “his displeasure with some of the news coverage he encounters in Indiana.”
As the campaign neared its home stretch, Pulliam’s son had convinced his father to give equal space to all campaigns by running news briefs about their efforts along the bottom of the front page. Branigin, however, continued to be the newspaper’s main focus. The front page of the Star on primary election day, May 7, had a large headline above the fold reading: “Branigin Predicts Victory.” Later that fall, in a meeting with Indianapolis executives, Pulliam did admit: “Well, I guess we did go a little too far.”