Democrats see similarities between Humphrey vs. Kennedy ’68

Working guard duty at Fort Dix in 1968, 22-year-old government issue Ray Lesniak counted himself a fortunate one because he

Working guard duty at Fort Dix in 1968, 22-year-old government issue Ray Lesniak counted himself a fortunate one because he didn't get shipped off to Vietnam.

"Even though I ain't no senator's son," said the senator, 40 years later now, quoting the Creedence Clearwater Revivial song lyrics from the older era.

He was into politics even then, and he liked Sen. Robert Kennedy for president.

"I was a huge supporter," he said.

For insiders like Lesniak who have been immersed in Democratic Party stand-offs for decades, the primary rumble between senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama bears traces of that 1968 match-up between establishment warhorse Hubert Humphrey and tousle-headed rock star Kennedy.

Many of the supporters of the former are not surprisingly now backing Clinton, who carries what the Rev. Reginald Jackson identifies as the same tragic flaw as Humphrey: she can’t escape her critical early ties to an unpopular war, just as Vice President Humphrey was inescapably harnessed to Johnson’s war policy.

Jackson supported Johnson, and then Humphrey. Now he’s with Clinton.

Many of the Bobby Kennedy backers stand by and large in the Obama column, says environmental activist and lifelong Democrat Jeff Tittel – a phenomenon underscored by Sen. Ted Kennedy’s sword-on-the-shoulder endorsement of the Illinois senator at American University on Monday.

"In many respects, this election is strongly analogous to the Democratic Party primary of 1968, more so than 1984," said Dr. Joseph Patten, professor of political science at Monmouth University.

In comments Obama backer Sen. Loretta Weinberg said were inappropriate, former President Bill Clinton last week depicted Obama’s victory in South Carolina as a retread of Jesse Jackson’s successful efforts in the Palmetto State in 1984 and 1988.

But "In 1984, the insurgent candidate Jesse Jackson was never positioned the way Obama is now," said Patten. "Obama is more like the Bobby Kennedy candidate of 1968, and the fact that he is making that link for us with the Kennedy family endorsement facilitates that narrative."

Newark's North Ward Democratic Organization leader Steve Adubato has positioned his people behind the Clinton candidacy. Forty years ago, he also favored the candidate in the race who came out of the establishment’s inner sanctum.

"I was a Humphrey guy," said Adubato. "I say I’m not a liberal, but I liked Humphrey. I thought he was a very human person."

Now in his 90s, New Jersey historian John Cunningham, whose book, "Newark," focuses particularly on the city’s post WWII period and the 1960s, said, "I was a Kennedy guy. It was an easy choice for me, as it is now. The country at this time needs an inspiring figure." He’s backing Obama.

So is Jersey City Deputy Mayor Kibili Tayari, who says Bobby Kennedy’s campaign was similar to Obama’s.

"We need a president like Robert," said Tayari. "We need a president who doesn’t just reach the hearts and the minds of the people, but who feels their sufferings, whether they live in Appalachia, whether they live in Newark, New Jersey, whether they live in rural South Carolina, or Gloucester County, New Jersey. We need a president who feels their concerns and then we need him to champion them."

Adubato said he knows Sen. Clinton lacks her husband’s soft shoe charm and Obama’s oratorical ability.

"If it’s based on personality, then she’s a loser," Adubato said. "I don’t dislike Obama at all. He’s a decent guy. The young people don’t think like a guy my age. A majority of whites under 30 are with Obama. I get that. A majority of all white people are with her. But young people like him, no question."

The late New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes was extremely close to Johnson, and backed Humphrey when Johnson dropped out of the 1968 primary following Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire. Now Hughes’ son in public office, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, backs Clinton.

Staunch Clinton supporter Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman backed Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 primary, but says the Kennedy-Obama parallels are overblown.

"The difference between Bobby and Barack is experience," said Watson Coleman. "Bobby knew federal government. He had been an attorney general, an advisor to the president and the sitting senator from New York."

Patten insisted that the fact that Obama is a U.S. senator gives him clout not dissimilar to Kennedy’s. Then there are the early wins and the endorsements.

"Clinton has been the establishment candidate, but Obama’s wins in Iowa and South Carolina have enabled him to break through a psychological threshold and prove that he is not just an insurgent candidate," said Patten.

Democrats see similarities between Humphrey vs. Kennedy ’68