Senator Edward Kennedy's criticism of President Richard Nixon∇'s conduct of the Vietnam War helped transform him into one of the administration's most vocal critics. Kennedy was widely considered a possible presidential candidate in 1972, although Kennedy had repeatedly denied his intention to run.
During a speech to the National Convocation of Lawyers to End the War on June 7, 1971, Kennedy made the inflammatory charge that Nixon was timing the end of the Vietnam War to his 1972 reelection campaign. "The only possible excuse for continuing the discredited policy of the Vietnamizing the war, now and in the months ahead, seems to be the President's intention to play his last great card for peace at a time close to November 1972, when the chances will be greater that the action will benefit the coming presidential election campaign," Kennedy declared. "How many more American soldiers must die, how many innocent Vietnamese civilians must be killed, so that the final end to the war may be announced in 1972 instead of 1971?"1
Republicans had jumped on Kennedy's accusation that Nixon was playing politics with the war. Senator Bob Dole∇ (R-Kansas), the chairman of the Republican National Committee, had told the Senate that some Democrats were willing "to exceed the bounds of partisanship, reason, and common decency in their efforts to downgrade the President and advance their own personal interests."2And in a visit to Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts a week later, Ronald Reagan∇, the Republican Governor of California, added a new applause line to his speech: "The senator has charged that the President is playing politics with the war. This is an irresponsibility."3
On June 9, Senator Hubert Humphrey, D-Minnesota, former vice president under Lyndon Johnson and who had run against Edward Kennedy's brother Robert in the 1968 Democratic nomination race, also came to Nixon's defense, saying, "I think President Nixon wants peace as badly as any senator or anybody else" and that "It is beyond the bounds of fairness to charge that any President would extend the war and cause death and injury to young Americans to get closer to an election date."4
Nixon called Humphrey to thank him for his public show of support.
President Nixon: Hello?
Hubert Humphrey: Hello.
President Nixon: Well, I wanted to call you on a completely personal basis to tell you that I hope you didn’t get into too much trouble by rising to my defense on the Senate floor, and I’m most grateful.
Humphrey: Well, I didn’t—it didn’t bother me one bit.
President Nixon: Yeah. I just want you to know, Hubert, that as you can imagine, whether it’s arms control or China and also in this area, there are things going on that may not meet the eye. That isn’t [to] promise anything, but certainly whether they work out or not, the point that we all agree on is that when you were in office and the same was true of Lyndon Johnson, nobody wanted to keep the damn war going. Everybody—
President Nixon: —was for peace. And now we are. Now, we may disagree as to how and when and all that, but I did appreciate it very much.
Humphrey: Well, I—
President Nixon: And I just want to say, if you got a little flack from your party, just know there was one party down at the White House that was appreciative.
Humphrey: Well, I very much appreciate that. And let me say I did exactly what I would have expected that you or someone like you to have done under the same circumstances, and which you did do.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Humphrey: And I believe there are rules of fair play, and I’m not going to—I have too much respect for the office and the man that occupies it to permit things like that to go unchecked.
President Nixon: Well, I appreciate it. We hope to make some . . . be making progress. I can assure you that if it, as it comes, we’re going to be in close touch with all sides, because there’s no political mileage in anybody in keeping this going. You know that.
Humphrey: Of course not.
Humphrey: We know that. We know that. My goodness, it isn’t—if anybody wants to talk politics, it isn’t even good politics.
President Nixon: That’s right. It’s good to talk about something else.
Humphrey: Yes, I should say so.
President Nixon: That’s right.
President Nixon: Well, I’m most, most grateful.
Humphrey: Thank you. You’re very considerate and I’m very appreciative of this.
Edit. The conversation continues on other topics.