Robert F. Kennedy looked in disbelief at the forklift greeting him as he prepared to step off a plane at La Grande’s airport on May 22, 1968.
Robert F. Kennedy waves to onlookers while riding in a motorcade in La Grande on May 22, 1968.
The sight compelled Kennedy to quote one of the best known of Ireland’s playwrights.
“In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘There has got to be a better way.’ ’’
Perhaps, but in the 1960s Robert Kennedy and many others believed the way to the White House passed through La Grande.
Kennedy was among five major presidential candidates who made campaign stops in La Grande between November 1959 and May 1968. It was a different era, one in which the Oregon primary was enormously important.
Oregon’s election mattered, for it was one of the few presidential primaries. Relatively few delegates were at stake in Oregon. However, candidates knew they had to do well here to prove their national electability and win their party’s nomination.
Today numerous states hold primaries so Oregon’s significance is diminished. Here is a chronological look back to a time when presidential candidates coveted Oregon primary votes so much that they made campaign stops in La Grande.
1960 campaign John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey Kennedy appeared in La Grande Nov. 9, 1959, and spoke at EOU’s Inlow Hall and at The Wheel restaurant.
Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, would announce his candidacy in early January. He discussed the decision he was mulling.
“I find that my trip through your state has been very beneficial and useful,’’ he told The Observer. “I have been very cordially received.’’
He said, though, that he did not yet know what impact his trip would have on his decision.
Kennedy later sent a letter to Eastern President Frank Bennett dated Nov. 25, 1959, following his appearance at Eastern Nov. 9 thanking Bennett and Eastern for his warm welcome. The future president then referred to his audience at Inlow Hall.
“Certainly, you can well take pride in your students. I thought them a very alert group. Their questions were excellent and addressing them was a real pleasure.’’
The letter, signed by the future president, is now part of the EOU archives.
Humphrey appeared in La Grande Feb. 10, 1960. The U.S. senator from Minnesota visited La Grande High School before speaking at Eastern and a local restaurant. He said that as president he would work for the common American.
He noted that his background as a small town druggist gave him an understanding of the problems of most Americans.
Humphrey also spoke of the challenge posed by the Soviet Union, saying it must be met cerebrally.
“From brainpower will come firepower or economic power or whatever you wish,’’ the presidential candidate said.
John Kennedy won Oregon’s May 20 primary, upsetting Oregon U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse. Humphrey, who had pulled out of the race earlier, finished third. Morse ended his presidential campaign following his loss to Kennedy.
Kennedy went on to win the Democratic nomination and narrowly defeat GOP nominee Richard Nixon in November. Humphrey later served as vice president under Lyndon Johnson.
1964 Republican Campaign
Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, made a campaign stop in La Grande March 30, 1964.
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, center, is escorted into a car at La Grandeâ€™s airport on March 30, 1964, during a presidential campaign stop. Late La Grande civic leaders, Willard K. Carey, left, and David C. Baum are with Rockefeller. - Submitted photo
The governor spoke before a packed audience at Eastern’s Quinn Coliseum. He addressed many issues and continually emphasized the need for faith in the American form of free enterprise and the policies of the Republican party that “uphold this form of government.’’
Rockefeller, who flew into La Grande, also spoke in Ontario, Pendleton, The Dalles, Bend, Eugene and Portland during his Oregon visit.
Rockefeller won the Oregon primary in May, beating Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in an upset. He dropped out, though, after doing poorly in June’s California primary.
Rockefeller later served as vice president under Gerald Ford from 1974 through early 1977.
1968 Democratic Campaign
Robert Kennedy vs. Eugene McCarthy
Kennedy visited La Grande May 22, two weeks before his death. He looked upon the forklift that greeted him with good humor, said Robert J. Caldwell, now The Oregonian’s editorial page editor.
Kennedy’s comment about the forklift was made in good humor and without sarcasm.
“It was a parody. Everybody thought it was funny,’’ said Caldwell, then a student at EOU.
The forklift was needed because the La Grande airport was not equipped to serve the type of plane Kennedy flew in on. The aircraft was too high for any of the mobile steps the airport had.
Kennedy was driven to downtown La Grande where he rode in a motorcade on Adams Avenue and up Fourth Street. Kennedy traveled in an Oldsmobile convertible with La Grande Police Chief Robert Brawner.
The people lined up welcomed him warmly. The crowd included nuns working at the old St. Joseph Hospital, now the Joseph building.
“They ran out into the street to shake his hand,’’ Caldwell said. “They were wearing their habits. It was quite a sight.’’
Kennedy’s car, bound for Quinn Coliseum, was followed by a bus filed with members of the national media. Caldwell said it was important to the reporters that they always be near Kennedy. When Kennedy’s car and the bus turned east at different streets, the reporters were alarmed.
“They yelled, ‘No! No!’ ’’ Caldwell said.
The reporters asked that the bus be stopped and then ran off it to the coliseum.
Kennedy opened his address by saying that his audience was probably surprised to see him in La Grande. He explained why he was here, making reference to his brother’s visit in 1959.
“My brother John told me, ‘Bobby, if you want to be president, you have to visit La Grande.’ ’’
According to David Halbertstam’s book about Kennedy, “The Unfinished Odyssey, ’’ Robert Kennedy is also reported to have said, “There are two things I’ve always wanted to do in my life, become a ventriloquist and visit La Grande.’’
Halberstam wrote that Kennedy often used the ventriloquist line when visiting a small town. The author picked La Grande as an example of this practice.
Kennedy spoke for a half hour at Eastern and then fielded questions. Some of the most pointed were from McCarthy supporters.
The Kennedy staff debated over whether he should campaign in such an a lightly populated portion of the state. Oregon, however, posed an important test for the candidate because it was the first state he campaigned in lacking large blocks of traditional New Deal Democrats and minorities. These constituencies were strong Kennedy supporters.
“Oregon was considered a maverick state then,’’ Caldwell said. “It was a test of a candidate’s persuasive ability.’’
Despite his efforts, the New York senator lost to McCarthy in the Oregon primary, one of the first election defeats ever suffered by someone in his family. In Union County, McCarthy received 1,529 votes to Kennedy’s 1,272.
Kennedy went on to win the California primary but was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, the night of June 4, 1968, at a victory celebration.
Since 1968, presidential candidates have visited La Grande just twice, and in neither case did the candidate have a large following.
The late Patsi Mink, a congresswoman from Hawaii, campaigned here in 1972. Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich visited in 2004.