History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
On August 25, 1964, Robert F. Kennedy stood on the steps of Gracie Mansion, the New York City mayoral residence, and announced his candidacy for New York State Senator.
“All that President Kennedy stood for, all that President Johnson is trying to accomplish, all the progress that has been made is threatened by a new and dangerous Republican assault,” Kennedy said. “In this struggle, New York has a special role to play, a role which transcends the question of electoral votes for the presidency. For New York is the supreme testing ground for the most acute national problems of our time, the problems of racial harmony, of employment, of youth, of education, and the quality of urban and suburban life.”
The campaign against incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating was going to be a quick and fierce affair. Kennedy had less than three months to convince New Yorkers that a change in leadership was needed…and that it should come via a politician from Massachusetts. But campaign stops, like the one shown in this video from Columbia University, helped seal the deal. On November 3, 1964, he won the seat in a landslide.
The “Carpetbagger” Turned New York Senator
New York may have seemed an unlikely state for Kennedy. After all, he wasn’t a resident of New York, or registered to vote there, and he had to obtain special permission to run in the state. While the New York Democratic Committee paved the way for him to run, his outsider status provided fodder for Keating’s most pointed attack: that Kennedy was a “carpetbagger” who couldn’t possibly represent the interests of New Yorkers.
While Kennedy had to contend with this criticism throughout his fall campaign, he gave one of his clearest responses during his stop at Columbia University. There, he explained that he was running because he wanted to, not because he needed to. “I tell you frankly I don’t need this title because I [could] be called General, I understand, for the rest of my life. And I don’t need the money and I don’t need the office space. Frank as it is — and maybe it’s difficult to believe in the state of New York — I’d like to just be a good United States Senator. I’d like to serve.”
In the Shadow of His Brother
Despite what he may have said about his calling to serve—or, at least, in addition to his calling—Kennedy’s bid for senator was in some ways his last chance at continuing the political career he began under his brother. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, RFK stayed on as Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson. But he didn’t have the same influence with Johnson as he had with his brother. Moreover, the president had turned him down for the job he really wanted: vice-presidential candidate on Johnson’s next ticket.
So with his prospects dimmed in the White House, Kennedy decided to take the opportunity in New York that he had initially turned down earlier that summer. In addition to his desire to continue his political career, Kennedy also wanted to carry on the legacy of his brother. As can be seen in many of his speeches, including his talk at Columbia, he often referenced the memory of his brother and the values that he had promoted.
As Thurston Clarke wrote in Vanity Fair in 2008, “Kennedy was still mourning his brother and endeavoring to live for him when he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in the autumn of 1964, telling a friend that he wanted to ensure that the hopes J.F.K. had kindled around the world would not die, and saying in his victory statement that he had won ‘an overwhelming mandate to continue the policies’ of President Kennedy.”
A Senator Extraordinaire
On election day in 1964, Keating frantically made stops around the state in hopes of solidifying the vote. Kennedy, on the other hand, took seven of his kids to the Bronx Zoo and had lunch with his sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy. He won by 719,000 votes.
During his three years in office, Kennedy launched an aggressive and impressive agenda. He took on poverty, particularly as it affected children and education, and he came out against the Vietnam War. He tackled issues that went far beyond the boundaries of his state and dedicated himself to furthering human rights on a global scale.
Given his actions as a Senator, it was perhaps not that surprising when Kennedy made another announcement on March 16, 1968, this time from the U.S. Senate Caucus Room: he had decided to run for president. Tragically, his candidacy would be cut short only a few months later when, like his brother, he was assassinated.
Watch RFK: The Kennedy Family Remembers, a new HISTORY special about the life of Robert F. Kennedy.