Fifty years ago today, I met Robert F. Kennedy.
A freshly minted, politically obsessed sixth-grader, I’d badgered my mother into letting me skip church that Sunday and driving me the 40 miles from Curtis to McCook to see RFK and Eugene McCarthy, who were making last-minute stops two days before the Nebraska primary election.
“I remember having to go, alright. You thought you’d die if you didn’t,” my mom, Hilda, recalled. "So we went.”
McCarthy went first, speaking from a bandshell in a city park. Then, a few hours later, Kennedy arrived at the City Auditorium.
I’d strategically positioned myself on the aisle. Kennedy spotted me as he walked by, stopped, asked me how old I was, where I was from, why I was there and shook my hand. I’ve got no idea how I responded. I was more than a little starstruck. But I’m sure I said something to him.
Then, icing on the cake, I got to meet John Glenn, one of my astronaut heroes, who'd accompanied Kennedy on a day that brought them to McCook, Hastings, Wilber and Lincoln.
I don’t recall anything that Kennedy — or McCarthy, for that matter — said in McCook. I was all of 11, was more than a little overwhelmed and wasn’t taking notes.
The Lincoln Star, however, recounted a list of proposals Kennedy made before the 4,000 people inside the auditorium that day, including an emergency storage program for farm commodities, an expansion of the school lunch program and tax credits for rural development.
The McCook visit isn’t mentioned in “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America,” Thurston Clarke’s illuminating book on Kennedy’s presidential run.
Clarke does concisely summarize the results of RFK’s intensive Nebraska campaign:
“Kennedy confirmed his appeal to rural white voters by winning the May 14 Nebraska primary with 51 percent of the vote. He took 88 of 93 counties in a state even more conservative and white than Indiana. These included 24 of the 25 counties where he had campaigned, 60 percent of the farm vote and 60 percent of the blue-collar vote. McCarthy, who had written off Nebraska after polls showed him doing poorly, got 31 percent. President Johnson, whose name could not be removed from the ballot, 8 percent, and Vice President (Hubert) Humphrey, 6 percent despite an aggressive write-in campaign.”
Kennedy made multiple trips to Nebraska, including a late April whistle-stop train tour that took him from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Omaha with 10 stops along the way.
That's evidence that, 50 years ago, Nebraska mattered, And it brought all the candidates to the state — including the GOP nominee Richard Nixon, who took the state in the general election that November.
The Nebraska primary still mattered in 1972, 1976 and 1980, when I, now a journalist, interviewed Edward Kennedy during a stop at Duncan Aviation.
Since then, however, the number of primaries has increased, the election calendar has moved ever earlier. By 2000, Nebraska’s primary became irrelevant at best and, to be honest, unnecessary — the nominations for each of the parties essentially locked up well before mid-May.
The Nebraska Democratic Party has put the state back on the primary map by moving to a caucus system and setting the caucus date in early March, bringing candidates and campaigns back to the state.
But primaries, which allow for wide participation in an election, are preferable to caucuses.
So, in my view, Nebraska should move its presidential primary from May to the earliest available date in March, the better to piggyback off Iowa’s caucuses and draw candidates across the Missouri to campaign.
Then, a future politically obsessed sixth grader — if not me — will have a chance to at least see their favorite candidate in either parties, just as I did five decades ago.
“I didn’t think you’d ever wash your hand again,” my mom said.
Well, I did wash my hand. But, five decades later, my memory of meeting RFK has never dimmed.