The South Side Inn is at the corner of State and Main Streets in my hometown, New Albany, Indiana, directly across from the town’s oldest building – the house constructed by the three Scribner brothers when they arrived in 1813 from (logically enough) Albany, NY, found some land by the falls of the Ohio a few miles west of Louisville, and decided to put down roots.
The South Side Inn’s not quite as venerable, but it’s been around for a while – 55 years. It’s an unremarkable neighborhood bar that serves home cooking to the lunch crowd. Growing up, I must have driven or walked past it ten thousand times and paid it no mind. Had I been told a year ago that a New Albany bar-restaurant would be the site of a 2008 presidential campaign event garnering nationwide attention, I would have guessed it would take place at Tommy Lancaster’s, which also has been around a half-century and is a hangout for the political crowd. (That is, if I would have been ready to believe that anything involving the Indiana presidential primary on May 6 would still attract attention.)

But on Sunday morning I picked up the Washington Post and found an article on the front page datelined from New Albany, and concerning Sen. Hillary Clinton’s appearances in the New Albany and Louisville areas, including an “economic roundtable” conducted at the South Side Inn before about 200 people packed into the bar (with 400 Clinton supporters outside).

This kind of media coverage brings back some old, old memories for me. In the mid-March 1968 I was ten years old and in the fourth grade, the son of a doctor and housewife prominent in the Democratic circles of Southern Indiana. At political rallies – some of them on my dad’s farm – I met Indiana Senators Vance Hartke and Birch Bayh (who would later run, quite unsucessfully, for President in 1972 and 1976 respectively) and the young congressman for my district, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, almost four decades away from co-chairing the 9/11 Commission.

During the first months of 1968 it looked as if the big political story in Indiana that year would be Bayh’s bid for a second Senate term. A Democratic presidential primary was slated for May 7, but looked to be a snooze. It was universally taken for granted that President Johnson would run for another term; many a political cartoon and column referred to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential plans, but for ’72. Governor Roger H. Branigan was on the Democratic ballot for the primary as a favorite son, the assumption being that he would release his delegates to Johnson at the convention in Chicago.

But on March 12 everything changed when Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota attracted 42% of the vote in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, failing to defeat Johnson but causing profound political shockwaves. Four days later, Kennedy entered the race.

The next primary after New Hampshire was Wisconsin’s on April 2, where McCarthy’s corps of student volunteers already gave him an edge. Kennedy and his advisors, therefore, decided to put all their resources into Indiana. On March 24, Kennedy filed his candidacy in Indianapolis. A week later, to a stunned national TV audience, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. This brought Vice-President Hubert Humphrey into the race (though he was unable to run in Indiana, where the primary’s filing deadline had passed).

So the month of April, and the first week of May 1968, was a highly memorable one for a young Democrat. While Branigan made as many speeches as his official duties allowed, McCarthy and Kennedy crisscrossed the state endlessly, both visiting New Albany almost every week. A few days before the primary, I was part of a crowd of several thousand that lined up at the Knights of Columbus Hall to shake hands with the junior Senator from New York. I remember that Kennedy, in person, looked pretty much as he did on television, except that his suit appeared to be about a size too large and he looked very weary. His wife Ethel, sitting next to him, and expecting their eleventh child (Rory, who unlike her siblings is an Obama supporter), was a bit livelier.

On May 7, Kennedy won the Indiana primary with 42.3%, with Branigan polling 30.7% and McCarthy getting 27%. (Richard Nixon easily won the Republican primary and, as expected, defeated Humphrey and Gov. George Wallace by a sizable margin in the state’s general election that November.) Thirty days after the primary, Kennedy was dead.

This year, Pennsylvania’s race is getting a lot of attention, but whoever wins there, the Indiana vote will still be an important one for the Democrats. I wonder how many fourth-graders in New Albany are scanning the Obama website to see if he’ll be showing up near the White Castle at Spring and Vincennes before long.

(This year Indiana University Press published a book, Robert F. Kennedy And The 1968 Indiana Primary, which, despite its unimaginative title, appears to be a well-written and engrossing account of the above events; an excerpt can be found here. The author, Roy Boomhower, has written several books about Indiana history and personalities, and, to judge from an articulate interview about his book, is not to be confused in any way with the King of the Hill character of similar name.)