Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ronald Reagan vs. Robert Kennedy

In the 1980s, I had a Commodore 64 computer in my home, which I used primarily for two purposes — writing (using word processing software that probably can't be found anymore, even though, as I understand it, Commodore 64s and their accessories are still sold online) and playing the computer games of that time.

One of the games that I enjoyed playing was a presidential election game. You could use preprogrammed historical figures from 1960 to 1984, which meant you could re–create actual election contests or match other candidates in a kind of what–if scenario. You could also answer a series of questions on various issues and program yourself to be a candidate.

For that matter, you could alter the actual economic and foreign conditions. You could have a third–party candidate. It was really the ideal game for a political junkie like myself.

The computer could even manage any or all of the candidates.

Then, during the course of the game, you could budget your advertising and campaign appearances for each of nine rounds (weeks), followed by a realistic depiction of a minute–by–minute Election Night.

One scenario that I liked to play was a what–if scenario featuring New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and California Gov. Ronald Reagan as opponents in the 1968 election. Kennedy, of course, was assassinated while he campaigned for the Democratic nomination, and Reagan's 1968 campaign never really got off the ground.

But there was a time when a confrontation between the two was not only regarded as possible, it was even seen by some as probable.

I was an admirer of Kennedy, even though I really wasn't old enough in 1968 to understand much about him, other than, I suppose, the fact that I knew his name.

I didn't really know Reagan's name at the time, but a decade later, I sure did. And I had heard plenty of speculation over the years about how an election campaign between Kennedy and Reagan would have turned out.

So I often played the 1968 scenario managing Kennedy against Reagan. Sometimes I included George Wallace as a third–party candidate — as he was in real life.

Kennedy and Reagan tended to split the three–way scenarios. When it was just the two of them running against each other, Reagan won just about every time.

Like all the other what–ifs of history, the outcome of such an electoral confrontation will forever be a mystery. No one knows, for example, if Wallace would have mounted a third–party candidacy if Reagan had been the Republican nominee.

If he had, would he and Reagan have split the right–wing vote, permitting Kennedy to take a razor–thin victory?

And if Wallace had chosen not to run, would Reagan have won?

Forty–five years ago today, voters got a taste of what it might have been like.

On Monday night, May 15, 1967, Reagan and Kennedy met in a one–hour debate about the Vietnam War. Approximately 15 million Americans watched it on CBS.

Footage from that occasion is fascinating to watch today — in no small part because, even though there have been many books written about both men, I have seen very few references to that debate.

In fact, the only article I have seen about that debate — which was really more of a global town hall meeting — was Paul Kengor's piece in the National Review five years ago.

Kengor observed that the consensus that Reagan "won" the debate was virtually unanimous, and I have found no reason to dispute that.

If they had been their respective parties' nominees and had met in a series of debates in the fall of 1968, it seems logical to me that Reagan might have prevailed. He had a very folksy way of speaking when he was president that endeared him to people, even those who disagreed with him. Kennedy, on the other hand, had a reputation for being "ruthless" that turned off even those who supported him.

(In the debate 45 years ago tonight, however, the two seemed to switch roles. Reagan came across as the more ruthless while Kennedy seemed more amiable. At least, that is my impression from the clips I have seen.)

Also, the Democrats had held the White House for eight years, and the incumbent was very unpopular. On this occasion, though, as Kengor points out, Kennedy and Reagan "ended up debating the group of students" who questioned them, "not one another." A panel of "extremely rude" international students served as the questioners, and they "seemed to bask in their big chance to unleash their torrent of anger on the two available representatives of the country they despised."

Even if Kennedy and Reagan had run against each other, the debate in which they participated 45 years ago today might have been vastly different from the ones they would have had in their campaign.

If debates in 1968 resembled the ones that have been held since, the panel of questioners wouldn't have been students intent on challenging authority but professional journalists with expertise in the subjects about which the candidates were asked.

But it's difficult to say that because, in 1968, presidential debates were not the campaign fixtures they have become. The only models at the time were the debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Who knows what the organizers might have done to the format in 1968?

And who knows what America would be like in 2012 if either Bobby Kennedy or Ronald Reagan had been elected president in 1968?

That would have meant that Richard Nixon probably never would have been elected president — hence, there would have been no Watergate. Would either Kennedy or Reagan have been finished in national politics if one had lost to the other in 1968 — however narrowly?

Would the winner have ended the Vietnam War years before it actually ended?

To be sure, it would be an alternate reality.

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