Bobby Kennedy and What Might Have Been

By Peter Wolfgang Published on June 6, 2023

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 55 years ago yesterday. I was born the next year and in my teens in the 1980s, I was quite taken with the “What Might Have Been” question. As were many others: the newspapers and magazines and the broadcast networks were awash with nostalgic stories about the Kennedys. It was how they coped with their depression over the success of Ronald Reagan. What if Bobby hadn’t been killed? What if he’d been elected president? How much better would things have been?

I know exactly what Lance Morrow is talking about in his Wall Street Journal article when he asks the same questions. But it’s the wrong question to ask. Don’t ask what might have been. Consider “What Actually Was.” After RFK was assassinated, we got 12 more years of bad times. And then we got Ronald Reagan.

Forgetfulness and Ingratitude

Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot. He helped save the world.

Still asking the “What Might Have Been” question in 2023 is an example of the strange forgetfulness, and ingratitude, that humanity often shows when it enjoys good fortune, as Americans did in the relatively peaceful outcome of the Cold War. (The more irresponsible Ukraine war hawks, the ones who seek a direct confrontation between the USA and Russia, are the most extreme manifestation of this.)

But let me answer what might have happened if Bobby Kennedy had lived, because the people who still like to answer this question get a self-serving answer, I think. America and the world would have been worse than they were. I think God allowed those years to play out the way they did, to get to that success we had at the end of the ’80s. He did not will the assassinations and the other evils of the time, of course. But God brings good out of evil.

We ought to have a lot more gratitude than we do to God almighty for the leaders He sent us in the 1980s: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, John Paul II, and many others. We didn’t deserve them. They weren’t inevitable.

If Bobby had won in ’68 and ’72, there would have been no Nixon and Watergate — and no Carter and therefore no Reagan afterwards. I think he would have mismanaged relations with the Brezhnev-era USSR. No detente, no rapprochement with China, no human rights crusade behind the Iron Curtain, no strategic missile defense. There would have been no careful squeezing of the USSR that eventually gave us Gorbachev (“a man we can do business with,” as Margaret Thatcher accurately described him), and the fall of the Soviet communist regime.

The second President Kennedy’s foreign policy would have been more of the “Murder, Inc.” — a horrified LBJ’s phrase — that was the first President Kennedy’s foreign policy. That would have backfired with the Brezhnev/Andropov/Chernenko USSR. Maybe, instead of eventually getting Gorbachev, who let the regime die, we would all be atomic ash by now.

He Wouldn’t Be a Republican

One other thing I want to mention, a “What Might Have Been” thought about the Kennedys those of us on the Right indulge. It’s the claim that “If JFK were alive today, he would be a Republican.” Or “If JFK were alive today, his own party would disown him.” Their hero would turn out to be our ally.

The claim was that the Democrats went off the deep end beginning with McGovern because Jack and Bobby and Martin Luther King, Jr., had all been assassinated. They were better leaders who would have kept their party and their movement from going ever further left, if only they had lived. Jack and Bobby were better than younger brother Ted, the “lion of the Senate” who went left along with the rest of the party.

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Conservatives have been saying that about JFK and the Democrats since the ’80s. I don’t think it would have been true. Ted did not go along with his party. Ted controlled the Democratic party, he pushed it toward the left as he moved steadily left. Jack and Bobby, had they lived, would have done the same. They would have moved left not only on economic issues but on the moral issues like abortion and homosexuality. They would have gone along with all of it.

They were politicians. When in the early 70s, the activists replaced the party bosses as the controlling faction in the Democrat Party, they would have adjusted accordingly, as Ted did. (Ted had once been pro-life, but that didn’t last long into his political career.)

The Earlier Kennedy

Remember William Jennings Bryan. He was an economically populist friend of the people and enemy of what we now call “Wall Street.” He was the Democratic party’s presidential candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Now he’s remembered mostly as a fundamentalist Christian who fought the teaching of evolution.

He lived 10 years too long, said one writer I read. (I’m afraid I can’t remember his name.) If he had died sooner, he would have been remembered as the great progressive hero who gave the “You shall not crucify man upon this cross of gold” speech at the 1896 convention. Instead, history remembers the elderly lawyer who embarrassed himself at the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The same writer suggested that we remember Abraham Lincoln as fondly as we do because of the timing of his death. If Lincoln had lived, he might have been consumed with Reconstruction-era fights with Congress and we might not remember him as the great success that he was. Bryan did not have Lincoln’s good fortune to die at the right moment.

Let It Go

It is in that spirit that I think those, like Lance Morrow, need to let go of the nostalgia and regret about “What Might Have Been” if Jack and Bobby Kennedy had lived. It’s fortunate that we can think of them as fondly as we do. I don’t think that would be the case quite as much if they had lived out their natural lifespans, rather than suffer the terrible deaths they suffered.

Here’s my main point in saying all this: We ought to have a lot more gratitude than we do to God almighty for the leaders He sent us in the 1980s: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, John Paul II, and many others. We didn’t deserve them. They weren’t inevitable.

We could have had other, weaker, blinder, leaders — leaders who would have floated along as the nations drifted into decline. We could have had leaders who would have tried to appease the Soviet Union, who would have kept giving its leaders what they wanted in the hope they’d eventually stop asking, which would have been the route to the subjugation of the West.

We could have had other leaders who didn’t recognize the importance of freedom. We could have had leaders who didn’t liberate their economies from intrusive agencies and regulations, who didn’t try to return to people control of their own lives, leaders who would have kept concentrating power in Washington, which would have led to the death of freedom.

There ought to be civil holidays and liturgical feast days celebrating the fact that the Cold War ended so well. That we didn’t blow up the world. That the western nations for a few years grew freer and stronger.

Maybe that would concentrate the minds of today’s leaders, who seem intent on undoing what they accomplished.


Peter Wolfgang is Executive Director of Family Institute of Connecticut Action. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed on The Stream are solely his own.

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