Doherty, the former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, had little time in which to do his work. Just one week later all those who intended to run in the Hoosier primary had to be certified to be on the ballot by submitting to the secretary of state’s office the signatures of 5,500 registered voters—500 signatures from each of
’s eleven congressional districts. Indiana
Before flying to Indianapolis, Doherty had stopped at the new Kennedy for President campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., to be briefed on his assignment. Days earlier, he had heard about Robert Kennedy’s decision to run for president and had called Ted Kennedy’s office to volunteer his services. “I had just returned to the law business and I was chasing after ambulances,” Doherty recalled. “But, I said, I’m not going to . . . take apart paper clips and put them back together. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do, but it has to be meaningful.”
Doherty got his wish, and faced more of a challenge than he knew. He flew on to
expecting to be “greeted by thousands of cheering people”—the multitudes needed
in order to run a successful political campaign. When he arrived, however, he
soon discovered he could initially only count on the assistance of three young
Hoosier Democrats: Michael Riley, Louie Mahern, and William Schreiber. Indianapolis
The paucity of help for Doherty early on in
chaotic nature of Robert Kennedy’s race for the Democratic presidential
nomination in 1968. Time was short; Kennedy’s staff had to prepare for running
in six primary campaigns in just three months. Leading up to his announcement,
Kennedy had vacillated about taking on incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.
“It’s all so complicated,” Kennedy lamented to Jack Newfield, a reporter for
the Village Voice. “I don’t know what
to do.” History was against the
success of such an attempt. The last time a challenger had unseated a sitting
president for his party’s nomination had come in 1884, when James G. Blaine won
the Republican nomination over President Chester A. Arthur. Indiana
In Indiana the Kennedy campaign would be facing off against the insurgent candidacy of U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and the Hoosier state’s Democratic governor, Roger D. Branigin, running as a stand-in for President Lyndon B. Johnson. With his patronage power, Branigin held a firm grip on the Democratic party in Indiana.
There were some Hoosier Democrats, however, who stood ready to work against Branigin in the primary. These Democrats were younger and more liberal than conservative party elders such as Branigin and had been inspired by the energy of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. When Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1968, this younger generation rallied to his cause.
One of these new breed was Michael Riley, a native of the coal country around
. Riley’s father, a
dragline operator for a coal company, admired union boss John L. Lewis and
fiercely supported the Democratic Party. After completing his freshman year at Linton,
Riley had gone home and told his father he had decided to support the
Republican Party. His father sat his son down on the screened porch of the
family home and talked with him for three hours about the history of the
Democratic Party and why his son should support its work. At the end of the
talk, Riley turned to his father and said: “Dad, I’ll always be a Democrat.” Indiana State University
After earning his law degree, Riley found work in a variety of state government patronage jobs, including positions in the Department of Revenue and Secretary of State office. He also found time to work as a precinct committeeman. In 1965 Riley moved up the ranks a bit in the party by winning election as president of the Marion County Young Democrats. Two years later, he became president of the state Young Democrats organization. While in Gary, Indiana, attending a fund-raiser for the Young Democrats, Riley heard the news about Kennedy’s announcement of his presidential candidacy on television. When he returned home to Indianapolis, he called Jim Beatty, chairman of the Marion County Democratic Party, and told him if Kennedy were to come to Indiana, Riley wanted to be involved in the campaign.
On the morning of March 21, shortly after his conversation with Beatty, Riley sat in his Indianapolis law office on the second floor of the Circle Tower building when he heard a phone ring. His secretary answered and informed him that a gentleman identifying himself as Ted Kennedy wanted to speak with him. Riley picked up the phone and heard a man with a
Boston accent on the other end telling him that Robert
Kennedy planned on running in the
primary and asked if the thirty-year-old Riley would take the job as chairman
of the Indiana Committee to Elect Kennedy. Riley responded to the conversation
but only reluctantly, as he suspected one of his friends might be playing a
practical joke on him. “I’m just waiting for someone to laugh,” Riley recalled.
After about two or three minutes Ted Kennedy realized that Riley questioned whether he really was the senator from
. Kennedy laughed and said he
would have Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, call and tell
him more about what was expected of him. Mankiewicz called Riley and asked him
to schedule a press conference to announce that Senator Kennedy had expressed
an interest in exploring the possibility of running in the Massachusetts primary and Riley would be helping
him make a decision. Indiana
On Friday, March 22, the Indianapolis Star featured an article noting that the first steps were being made for a statewide petition drive to place Kennedy on the ballot for the primary. The article quotes Riley as indicating that “more than 75 percent” of the activists involved in the Young Democrats organization were ready to throw their support behind Kennedy.
One of the activists Riley intended to involve in the campaign was Louie Mahern, a former U.S. marine whose family had long been involved in Indianapolis politics. Mahern’s grandmother on his mother’s side of the family worked as a Democratic precinct committeeman in Beech Grove in the 1930s. While he was growing up, Mahern also heard stories about political battles from his uncle, Paul Cantwell, who served as a
commissioner and as a state representative in the legislature. “He brought some
pretty interesting people around the house,” Mahern remembered. “I told my
mother when I was eleven that I wanted to be a politician.” Mahern received his
first experience in politics after World War II, when he assisted another uncle
in the Democratic primary for the state legislature. He placed cards urging
people to vote for his uncle on the windshields of those attending mass at
Saint Catherine Catholic Church. Marion County
In 1968 Mahern worked as the Democratic chief deputy at the Marion County Board of Voters Registration, a job usually filled by county chairman Beatty as a way to groom promising politicians for the party’s future. As a veteran who opposed the war in Vietnam, Mahern found himself supporting McCarthy’s presidential candidacy, but, like many Democrats, harbored the “secret hope that Bobby Kennedy would run.” At that time approximately thirty Marion County Democrats would gather for lunch every Thursday in the basement of the Indiana State Teachers Association building. “There was usually a speaker,” Mahern said, who also served as chairman of the Young Democrats for the Eleventh Congressional District, “but the principle feature of the lunch was getting together with other Democrats and trading information and rumors.”
At about eleven o’clock in the morning on March 21, Mahern, sitting in his office at the
, received a
telephone call from Riley asking if he would be attending the regular Thursday
luncheon. When Mahern indicated he would be at the luncheon, Riley asked him to
meet him on the Circle so they could walk over together. The two men met and
Riley informed Mahern of his conversation with Ted Kennedy. Riley said once the
luncheon had finished, he wanted Mahern to obtain and have copies made of the
petition forms needed to place Robert Kennedy on the City-County
Building ballot. The Young Democrats had only
a week to obtain certified signatures of five hundred registered voters in each
of Indiana’s eleven congressional districts—a new, tougher requirement enacted
by the Indiana General Assembly to make it harder for non-serious candidates to
place their names on the ballot. The certified signatures had to be in the
Indiana Secretary of State’s office before midnight on March 28. Indiana
After lunch, Mahern returned to the Board of Voters Registration and picked up a blank Branigin for President petition and walked over to Commercial Printing, located on East Ohio Street just west of Alabama Street and owned by Curly Ash. Behind the counter that day was Tom Ash, the owner’s son, who was just a few years older than Mahern. “I went in there and I saw him and said, ‘Tom, I need one of these things, but at the top here instead of where it says Roger Branigin,
Indiana, I want you to put Robert Kennedy of .’ He looked at me and said, ‘No kidding?’”
Mahern replied that his request was not a joke, should be kept secret, and he
needed approximately eight thousand petitions printed by the next morning. Ash
indicated the order would be ready on time. New York, New
The Young Democrats were joined in their efforts by a representative from the Kennedy campaign, Doherty, who had earned the Kennedys’ trust through his service to the family during Ted Kennedy’s first run for the U.S. Senate in 1962. During that race for the Democratic nomination against challenger Edward J. McCormick Jr., Doherty prepared a detailed report on each of the state’s districts. Ted Kennedy shared the report with his brother, President John Kennendy, who noted: “You know, whoever wrote this knew what he was talking about.”
Doherty later met with Robert Kennedy, who put him in charge of his brother’s effort to win the nomination and gave him his home and office number and told him to call if he had any problems. Doherty used this information as leverage during the campaign, threatening recalcitrant campaign workers with notifying Robert Kennedy directly if they failed to follow Doherty’s instructions. After Ted Kennedy won the nomination, Doherty received word from Robert Kennedy, who said: “You know I asked you to do something; you did it, you did very well. Our family will be forever grateful to you.”
Doherty had returned to his law practice in 1968 when he received another assignment from the Kennedys—to head to Indiana and see if there might be any chance for Robert Kennedy to enter the primary there. Doherty flew into Indianapolis and met with Riley, Mahern, and Schreiber. These three men became the core group Doherty worked with on the petition drive, as almost all Hoosier politicians of note avoided the Kennedy campaign “like the plague,” Doherty said.
In Massachusetts Doherty could always find some politicians to help out during a campaign, but in Indiana “they just pulled the shades down.” Mahern pointed out that senior members of the Democratic Party who would have normally supported Kennedy were stymied by Branigin’s decision to serve as a stand-in for Johnson and by the need to protect, at all costs, Congressman Andy Jacobs Jr., “the most important progressive officeholder in Marion County,” said Mahern. Jacobs faced a potentially tough opponent in the primary, a young attorney named Dave Foley, who received some support from the Branigin administration. “That’s why it fell to the Young Democrats to essentially run the Kennedy campaign in Indiana,” Mahern noted.
Doherty also reported to Ted Kennedy that a February 14, 1968, redistricting by a panel of three judges (dubbed the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre by Democrats) had badly hurt such Democratic congressman as Jacobs, John Brademas, and J. Edward Roush. “And for this reason,” Doherty said, “many of their friends, although sympathetic [to Robert Kennedy], do not want anybody in making waves. It seems everybody is with us on a voice vote but no one wants us on a stand up vote.”
Riley recalled Doherty as “just a great guy, funny, but all business. [He] knew how to run a campaign, [he] knew the ins and outs. We set up shop in my law office.” For the petition drive, Riley used his Indiana contacts to find volunteers to help secure the required signatures. Doherty also received under-the-table assistance from U.S. Senator Vance Hartke’s office, which provided names of Hoosiers who might be willing to support Kennedy. In order to help simplify matters, Doherty and his Hoosier advisers decided to solicit signatures in the most populous county in each congressional district. Schreiber received the assignment for the Third Congressional District in northern Indiana and set out for South Bend on Friday in a heavy snow with the names of two University of Notre Dame undergraduates, Chuck Naus and Mike Kendall.
Obtaining the necessary signatures proved to be dangerous work for some Kennedy supporters. A sophomore at the University of Notre Dame when Kennedy entered the presidential contest, Michael Kendall formed a Notre Dame Students for Kennedy organization, received the necessary petitions from Schreiber, and with other students went out over a weekend to collect signatures. Kendall, who went on to serve in the Indiana State Senate, received a painful lesson in participatory democracy. He and another student were set upon and threatened in downtown South Bend by local Democrats aligned with Governor Branigin. “So we got beat up in the United States of America trying to get petitions signed,” Kendall said.
Undeterred by the physical assault, Kendall and other members of the student group were able to obtain more than a thousand signatures on Kennedy’s behalf, including a large number at Michiana area Catholic Churches. Looking back on the experience, Kendall still finds it hard to believe he played that the Kennedy campaign allowed him to play such a vital role in its Indiana primary effort. “Can you imagine a person running for president today doing that?” he asked.
The First Congressional District, most of which centered on Lake County in northwest Indiana, proved to be a difficult area for those organizing the Kennedy petition drive. According to Mahern, the Democrats in Lake County “lived and died on patronage” and no politician wanted to risk angering Branigin. In addition, many Lake County Democrats harbored resentment toward Kennedy for a Justice Department investigation during his days as attorney general that indicted and sent to prison for tax evasion popular longtime Gary mayor George Chacharis. Democrats in the Region felt betrayed because Chacharis had aided John F. Kennedy in his quest for the presidency and helped deliver a sixty-thousand-vote plurality for Kennedy in the 1960 general election. In addition, white members of the Democrat machine in the county opposed to Mayor Richard Hatcher, Gary’s first African American mayor, remembered that Kennedy had sent his political aide, Dick Tuck, to assist Hatcher during the mayoral election. To circulate petitions, the Kennedy campaign had to rely upon volunteers from Chicago, a group organized by Richard Wade, a professor of history at the University of Chicago who headed the Kennedy office there.
Getting the petitions to the First District became the first challenge. At about ten o’clock in the morning on Friday, Mahern had been sent to the Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis to express ship blank Kennedy petitions to be picked up at the Chicago Greyhound depot. Later that afternoon, Mahern and Riley received word that the shipment had not arrived, so Mahern returned to Greyhound with a duplicate shipment, which also failed to reach its destination (Riley later learned that the Chicago depot had a work stoppage going on by its baggage handlers and no packages were being sorted). In order to get the petitions to the Chicago volunteers Mahern, whose own vehicle might not have survived the trip, borrowed Riley’s car and left Indianapolis at about two o’clock in the morning for the northwest part of the state. He arrived at a Hammond, Indiana, service station four hours later and handed off the petitions to the Chicago volunteers through the car’s window. “We didn’t even get out of the car,” said Mahern, who turned around and drove back home to Indianapolis.
Kennedy’s entrance into the presidential contest had prompted a number of people to call Wade’s Chicago office to volunteer their service. “When they would call up the Chicago office,” said Wade, “they would say, ‘What can I do for Kennedy?’ I’d said, ‘Forget Illinois. Can you get down? Do you have a car? Can you get down to Gary? Can you get to Whiting?’” The volunteers were especially important because any signed petitions submitted by those loyal to Mayor Hatcher were sure to be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb by Lake County officials opposed to the mayor, Wade pointed out. In addition, the Branigin and McCarthy campaigns had already been working for several weeks to obtain signatures from registered Democratic voters.
After talking with Doherty, Wade went himself to Whiting, Indiana, a majority white area, with a non-official Kennedy for President petition and went door-to-door to gauge public opinion. “You could see it was do-able,” Wade said. “The people responded very fast to it.” Once the official petitions were ready, Wade’s volunteers returned to the homes of people who had signed previously and had them re-sign. “To get those petitions signed we put four busloads down there in two straight days,” Wade recalled. “That’s probably four hundred people.”
Doherty had spent most of the day Friday calling seminaries and Catholic high schools in the state asking for help and sending out petitions to those who volunteered their service. “It was just people working—all sorts of people,” said Doherty. “I had eighteen, twenty seminarians out in the northeast getting signatures in the snow. It was one of those things you see movies about.”
In Indianapolis, the Kennedy forces had the able assistance of a self-styled African American minister named Joe Turner, a nattily dressed man never seen without a clerical collar. Turner took petitions and gathered the needed signatures in Kokomo for the Fifth Congressional District. Once he accomplished that assignment, he performed the same stellar job in Terre Haute for the Seventh Congressional District. “Reverend Turner may have been the con man he was reputed to be,” said Mahern, “but he sure as hell knew how to get petitions signed.” In case Kennedy could not make it to the state in time to file his candidacy, the campaign gave power of attorney to Turner, Riley, and Schreiber to file on his behalf.
In reports to the Kennedy campaign from his room at the Marrot Hotel, Doherty outlined the political picture in the state and noted that the Kennedy campaign could expect “a hell of a battle.” He did express confidence that if Kennedy could garner enough signatures to be on the ballot, he could defeat Branigin. “NEED BODIES. NEED MONEY,” he wrote. Doherty did worry that there might still be some problems with the petition drive, because “in all probability the county clerks will make it difficult to certify names.” (Kennedy supporters had to go to court to obtain a write of mandamus to force Lake County Clerk John G. Krupa to certify the approximately twenty-five hundred signatures gathered in Lake County.)
By late Sunday evening Doherty had determined that the volunteers had accumulated almost ten thousand signatures—more than enough to place Kennedy’s name on the ballot. As the signature drive continued, Doherty received a call from the Kennedy campaign to return to Washington, D.C., for a meeting on whether or not to enter the Indiana primary. The meeting involved most of Robert Kennedy’s Senate staff and a number of old friends of President John Kennedy.
Most of those gathered for the meeting, including Ted Sorensen and Ted Kennedy, opposed making Indiana the first test for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. They were put off by the state’s conservative reputation and the lack of assistance from the state Democratic Party. The campaign might survive a defeat in Indiana by Branigin, but if McCarthy ran ahead of Kennedy his race for the nomination would be finished before it could begin.
Doherty found himself to be the lone voice arguing in favor of going into Indiana. A veteran of ward politics in Boston, Doherty, faced opposition from fellow party members in his campaign for the legislature. He had to go door-to-door to win support. By working so hard, Doherty said he began to develop what he called “a sense of the people who live on the second floor.” He developed such a feeling in Indiana. “You just can’t get that many signatures, people working for you, if you’re a dud,” Doherty said.
In his meeting with Kennedy’s advisers, Doherty argued that with just the initial help of three people, and with the entire state apparatus aligned against them, he could guarantee that they would have enough certified signatures before the March 28 filing deadline. As the argument continued, Robert Kennedy entered the room and asked a tired Doherty, who had been without sleep for several days, “Jerry, what do you say?” Doherty responded: “I say we go in and I think we can win.” Kennedy turned to the others in the room and said that as a candidate for president, he needed to know if he had any support. “The best thing to do,” Doherty recalled Kennedy saying, “is to run, so I’m going to run in Indiana.”
On Thursday, March 28, Kennedy, fresh from campaign stops in Denver, Colorado, and Lincoln, Nebraska, stepped off an airplane at Indianapolis’s Weir Cook Airport to officially file to enter the Indiana primary. Wearing a grey glen plaid suit, Kennedy arrived at the airport at 8:25 p.m., little more than a half an hour behind schedule. A crowd estimated at four thousand in size greeted the candidate, many with homemade signs with slogans such as “Anybody Over Johnson,” “All the Way With RFK,” and “Sock It To Them Bobby.”
Earl Conn, a Ball State University assistant professor of journalism, had brought his family with him to witness the senator’s arrival. “We could see him about 100 feet away speaking into a microphone but we couldn’t hear him,” Conn said. The crush of the crowd grew so great as Kennedy prepared to leave that some children were in risk of being trampled. “People were simply swept along; you could not stop moving if you wanted to,” remembered Conn.
From the airport, Kennedy traveled by motorcade to the Indiana Statehouse, where another large crowd, this time numbering more than five thousand, was on hand to cheer the candidate at the south entrance to the building. James Tolan, an advance man for the Kennedy campaign, noted the crush of people made it almost impossible for the Kennedy entourage to enter the Statehouse. “Indiana is a terribly important state,” Kennedy told the cheering crowd. “If we can win in Indiana, we can win in every other state, and win when we go to the convention in August.” He asked for Hoosiers help in order to “start a new course, start a new path to peace in Vietnam.”
The overflow crowd made it difficult for Kennedy and his entourage to leave the Statehouse after filing with the Secretary of State Edgar Whitcomb’s office on the building’s second floor. The melee prevented Kennedy from making it to his waiting car, and he had to return to the Statehouse and leave by another exit. In the confusion, the candidate became separated from his wife, Ethel, who had to take a separate car for the short trip to the Marott Hotel.
At the Meridian Street hotel, Kennedy gave a brief statement to members of the press. “I am not running against Governor Branigin,” said Kennedy. “I consider him an outstanding governor, and a close personal friend.” The issues in the campaign were not the govenor’s stewardship of the state, he continued, but “are the divisions among us, between races, between age groups, and most of all over Vietnam.”
Kennedy left Indianapolis the next day for campaign appearances in New Mexico. The previous evening, however, Riley, Mahern, and Schreiber met with the candidate in his room at the Lincoln Hotel on East Washington Street. “I immediately noticed how swollen his hands were and the scratch marks that ran up his arms and disappeared under his sleeves, souvenirs from adoring airport crowds that clutched at him,” said Mahern.
Although Ethel Kennedy expressed concern about her husband losing his voice and suggested writing down his answers to the Hoosiers’ questions, Kennedy waved away her concerns; he said he would speak with them. He asked them a number of questions about the petition drive and the political situation in the state. When Kennedy asked them why so many people were so anxious to sign the petitions, Mahern said: “I don’t think the people in Washington have any idea how detested Lyndon Johnson is and how upset people are with this war.” Mahern added that a number of signatures came from Lawrence Township, a normally Republican area. “They were falling all over themselves trying to sign these petitions,” Mahern recalled, contributing it to uneasiness with what was happening in Vietnam.
Looking back on his encounter with Kennedy, Mahern said the most remarkable aspect “was the piercing nature” of the candidate’s eyes. “When I spoke to him he looked at me as though there was no one else in the world,” said Mahern. “I felt as though he could see the inside of the back of my skull