Back In The Day: RFK In Indiana, May 1968
The Washington Post has assembled a sampling of the several TV ads that were made in some haste for the 7 May Indiana primary after Robert Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy on 16 March 1968.
The Indiana ad campaign was entrusted to Charles Guggenheim, the Michelangelo of political admakers, who had made his mark working for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.
The Kennedy camp was taken by surprise by LBJ’s sudden withdrawal. The ad hoc campaign organization had to get up and running in less than two months in a less than welcoming environment; Robert Kennedy’s image had not yet taken on the luster it would too soon assume after his tragic death:
“Charlie’s stuff cut to the character of candidates,” says Richard Parker, a biographer of Kennedy contemporary John Kenneth Galbraith. He notes that in some quarters Kennedy was still considered his brother’s enforcer, the tough former attorney general who had authorized wiretaps of Martin Luther King Jr., had vacillated on his opposition to the Vietnam War and who, in the opinion of many Democrats, had let McCarthy do his dirty work before jumping into the race. “The whole point of Guggenheim doing those ads was to break through that narrative,” Parker suggests. “This is the campaign that remakes Bobby Kennedy and in some sense, Guggenheim is capturing the formation of the man as it happens.”
Only a few months after making these ads, Guggenheim would be charged with making the filmed eulogy, Robert Kennedy Remembered, that stunned the Democratic Convention and went on to win an Oscar.
Guggenheim was able to make use of some recent technological advances; he used a 16 mm camera and a portable sound recorder in developing the cinema verite style that became one of his signatures.
Ann Hornaday, in the Post‘s story, notes that:
The resulting ads — which range in length from 30 and 60 seconds to five minutes — provide fascinating records, not only of Kennedy’s astonishingly frank political rhetoric, but of his evolving emotional connection with voters. They also prove that even in the days we look back on with nostalgia for their purity, lines could be crossed: The ad featuring children, presumably at school in Indiana, was filmed on a Saturday morning in Northwest Washington, and features a young John Harwood (who now covers politics for the New York Times and CNBC), whose father, Richard, was covering the race for The Washington Post.
Charles Guggenheim died in 2002. Last year his son, Davis, won an Oscar for Best Documentary for Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Forty years on, these ads have an impressive intimacy and impact.