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1968: LBJ, McCarthy, RFK, Humphrey, Nixon

Even just seeing those four digits, 1968, evokes so many memories. It may well have been the most momentous year in American political history.

There have been many books about it, from different perspectives. I have mostly avoided them. I retain my own personal perspective on all of it, and it is futile to mentally argue with someone else’s opinions in books or on television. So here is the story, at least from my memory and perspective, which differs from some of the general perceptions which have become the convenient narrative.

I was a freshman at UCLA in that year.. My parents had always cared about government and politics. They were great admirers of FDR as they grew up. They really liked Adlai Stevenson, and my mother said they could not understand how the brilliant Adlai could have lost to Eisenhower, who was not articulate, and had not much in the way of policy. And of course they hated Nixon, whom they had seen smear and Red-bait Jerry Voorhees and Helen Gahagan Douglas, on the way to being pushed on Eisenhower as the Vice Presidential choice in 1952.

My parents were not at all big fans of the Kennedys. Probably much of this came from Joseph Kennedy’s efforts to keep America out of World War II, continually telling FDR that England could not defeat Germany, and that we should just let it happen, and work something out with Hitler. They wanted Stevenson to get his third nomination in 1960, though he had never entered the race; they were hoping for a drafting of him by the convention, which was held in Los Angeles.

My father told me, probably around 1968, how Eugene J. McCarthy, the liberal senator from Minnesota, who shared a mutual dislike with the Kennedys, had felt that JFK was always getting headlines with some position, but that when the real voting came, he was not part of the battle, leaving McCarthy and others to be out on the limb. So they did not want Kennedy to power his way to the nomination. But he did, helped by the fact that Governor Edmund G. Brown of California, who held California’s delegates as a “favorite son,” did what he had apparently said he would not do, and threw the delegates to Kennedy. That was what enabled him to gain the nomination on the first ballot. Had he not, his chances would have decreased substantially. McCarthy gave the nominating speech for Stevenson. Eleanor Roosevelt gave a seconding speech. There was an incredibly long and loud demonstration on the floor of the convention for Stevenson, but it did not sway the delegates, who were already locked up for Kennedy.

My parents certainly supported JFK against Nixon. We had a debate in elementary school, where I argued for Kennedy. I remember that the islands of Quemoy and Matsu were an issue, typical Republican domino theory nonsense. My parents said that the islands were indefensible, which is what I said during the debate, though I did not really understand the geopolitics of it too well. Can you imagine that being an important election issue, but it was.

Kennedy won, barely. My parents came to terms with him, and liked him. I learned about his assassination over the public address system in my junior high school, and it was a dreadful day.

Lyndon Johnson took over, and governed with dignity in the early years of his Administration. He won a landslide victory in 1964, over Barry Goldwater. Johnson did great things domestically. But the Vietnam war kept escalating, as he listened to the hawks in his cabinet, and the generals. It was believed by some, and my parents felt that way, that had Kennedy won the second term he would have started de-escalating the war; he had seen enough of the generals with regard to Cuba, to not trust them; and he had the capacity and confidence to countermand them, which LBJ did not.

We will never know. The war kept growing, and young people, partly because of moral principles, and partly because they did not want to be sent to Vietnam to die for an unwinnable undeclared war, took to the streets. LBJ would not budge, and his Vice-President, Hubert H. Humphrey, was demonstrative in attacking the “Nervous Nellies” who wanted us to pull out of the war.

Humphrey was the other senator from Minnesota, known as a liberal; and most notably for pushing for a strong Civil Rights platform at the 1948 Democratic Convention, which caused Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats to walk out, and form a third party. Humphrey had run for president in 1960, but JFK defeated him in the West Virginia primary. In 1964, Johnson likely chose between Humphrey and McCarthy for Vice President, and picked Humphrey, who became a staunch loyalist toward LBJ and a supporter of the war, which disappointed and infuriated many liberal Democrats.

Robert F. Kennedy had run for and won the senate seat in New York in 1964. Many hoped that he would run for president in 1968, but he would not, though many were pleading for someone to run against Johnson in the primaries. A liberal activist Democratic Congressman from New York, Allard Lowenstein, begged him to run against Johnson, but he would not, as the war dragged on and the troops and bombings increased. It was generally believed that, being a pragmatic Kennedy, RFK thought that if he ran against President Johnson, he would lose, and he wanted to wait until 1972.

Lowenstein then turned to Eugene McCarthy who said, yes, that he would indeed run against Johnson. That was met with shrugs or even derision by most people. My parents liked McCarthy, a handsome and very intelligent and erudite man who had mentored freshman Democratic senators, and who had written the admired book, “The Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge.” He was a true liberal, though he had a classical view of history and politics, and thought that a president should serve only one six-year term. Some described him as someone who believed in the value of a quixotic quest; the great musical, ‘The Man of La Mancha,” about dreaming the impossible dream, had come out in 1965.

Nobody expected McCarthy to do more than get maybe five or ten percent of the vote in New Hampshire. His supporters were mostly liberal college students who cut their long hair and beards, going “clean for Gene,” and slogged through the snow, knocking on doors. On the night of the election, the results were stunning. Johnson had only won by 4% or so. It was an outcome which changed American history, though not in the way we hoped it would.

The next primary (there were not many primaries then) was in Wisconsin. Polls showed an actual lead for McCarthy, which shot up to 15-20%. Almost simultaneously, President Johnson got on TV to make a statement that he would not seek or accept the nomination for President. I saw this on a department store TV in Westwood Village.

Immediately, Robert Kennedy said that he was “reassessing.” My first reaction was excitement, because I thought that he could win. But when I called my father, he said that this was terrible, that Kennedy was going to ruin everything, and that McCarthy deserved to be supported. And I soon came to agree with him.

Johnson had no intention of letting the race be wide-open. He wanted Humphrey to win, to support his positions. Humphrey had of course not expected to be running, so the best they could do was get a slate of unpledged delegates on the primary ballots, to represent him. Also, and I did not realize it then, but it later had echoes in 2008: if Humphrey was not on the ballot, he could not “lose” the primaries, though he would have lost all of them, had he been.

There was then this war of positions and principles among leading Democrats. Richard Goodwin, an admirable asset for McCarthy in New Hampshire, had close ties to the Kennedys, and went over to support RFK, as did some other Kennedy loyalists. Most Kennedy supporters, though not Goodwin, hated McCarthy. RFK was adored by many liberals, but there were also many, including me and my parents, and many other students whom I met during the campaign, who liked McCarthy better. He was brilliant and witty, and understood all the issues. And he had the courage to run against Johnson, when Kennedy, who had been in the Senate for three years, and had also been Attorney General under JFK, as the total of his government experience. did not, or was willing to put up with four more years of war, and the despondency and deaths of so many young people, so that he would have an easier path in 1972.

There were not many primaries in 1968, not like now, The Indiana and Nebraska primaries were almost set-ups for Kennedy. Blue-collar Democrats, not that many college liberal types. And of course he had a very well-funded political machine, which McCarthy, running a true “people’s campaign,” certainly did not. The story we heard was that the Kennedy campaign played a race card there, claiming or implying that McCarthy would mandate widespread busing, where Black people would be sent to school in White areas. RFK won those primaries fairly easily. The unpledged slates of Humphrey got very few votes, but the McCarthy vs. Kennedy race obscured that important fact.

The media was of course all about RFK. McCarthy had to win the next primary in Oregon, and he did, as that was a more favorable place for him. That was a very exciting day for me.Then came the big primary in California. There was a debate between the two. Once again, RFK played a race card, actually claiming that McCarthy would bus Black children to Orange County. Louis Lomax, a well respected Black political talk show host, caught this, and said right after the debate that he was switching his support to McCarthy. There was also a moment when McCarthy challenged Kennedy about something he claimed that he said, and Kennedy denied it; McCarthy said that he had the quote on a piece of paper in his pocket, but did not deign to pull it out

I did my first political campaigning for Eugene McCarthy, knocking on doors in Westwood, and discussing the merits. It was invigorating. We were not paid, nor did we want to be, but the story was that RFK’s workers were paid. Jesse Unruh, the “Big Daddy,” of California Democratic politics, whose machine my parents had kept working in vain to defeat in primaries, strongly supported Kennedy, and mocked McCarthy, saying that he would be “a footnote to history,” to which McCarthy replied that Unruh would not even be a footnote.

The California primary election was closer than many expected, but Kennedy won by about 3.8% Would McCarthy have won had he pulled out the quote, which I was certain was actually there? Some thought that McCarthy may not really have wanted the Presidency, that the quest was all, but I think he did. This win, albeit very close, apparently meant to pundits that Kennedy had triumphed as between the two, and that McCarthy’s campaign was over. Kennedy gave a victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel, and then moments later was tragically assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

At that point, things fell apart. Many of RFK’s campaign team refused to support McCarthy. They encouraged George McGovern to run and take RFK’s delegates. Humphrey had the power brokers on his side, and none of them was going to switch now. The fact that there was not just one anti-war candidate to oppose LBJ and now Humphrey, which was caused by RFK entering the race after. New Hampshire, diffused everything.

The Chicago convention was a tragedy. Protesters were savagely beaten by Mayor Daley’s police force, in what the Kerner Commission later called a police riot. Senator Ribicoff stood up on the convention floor, and spoke angrily about “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” Mayor Daley cut his microphone off, said something like, “Shut up, you MFing Jew B—–d.” Humphrey was nominated. He praised Daley for his “great work” in running the convention.

At that point, I would never have voted for Humphrey, though I was not eligible to vote. Everywhere he campaigned, there were young protesters shouting , “Dump the Hump!” Two weeks before the election, LBJ temporarily stopped the bombing in Vietnam. Humphrey made a big rally, but lost by about 1%, and Nixon and George Wallace got about 58% of the vote between them.

McCarthy, whose people in his hotel had tried to care for the bloodied protesters in Chicago, seemed to lose verve, as if he had been permanently embittered by the way that the Kennedy forces had attacked him, after he had been the one to force Johnson out of the race. He did run for president again, but did not do too well in primaries, the Kennedy wing wanted McGovern in 1972. He wrote more intelligent and thoughtful books. He retired from the Senate, and Humphrey took the seat. The liberal activists who had organized so well in 1968, had temporarily taken control in many states, and they got McGovern the nomination in 1972, probably with the aid of Nixon’s forces; and his disorganized campaign was ultimately routed by Nixon, which left a vacuum in the Democratic Party, allowing an unknown governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, to gain the nomination in 1976.

The candidates and powers brokers of 1968 are all gone now. This campaign played out like a Greek epic or tragic play, with momentous and legendary figures. Many questions remain. Would McCarthy have gotten the nomination if RFK had not entered and made it impossible for there to be only one candidate to oppose Humphrey, and then McCarthy would have unquestionably swept all the primaries, piled up delegates, and built very strong momentum? My mother and I always believed so. I think that some of the party bosses would have decided that they could live with McCarthy. My brother disagreed, and thought that RFK would have gotten the nomination had he not been assassinated. Maybe. The national polls always had him running weaker against Nixon, with McCarthy running the best, though that could have changed.

Would Humphrey have beaten Nixon, had the anti-war people not been so much against him? Possibly, but it would have only been because Wallace was taking votes away from Nixon. My parents ultimately voted for Humphrey, because they just could not stand Nixon, and in retrospect, I think that was the right decision, though I would not have voted for him, though I never would have voted for anyone else on the ballot. It feels different when you are younger. My mother actually cast her first vote, in 1948, for Henry Wallace, because many liberals felt that Truman was veering away from FDR’s policies.

And we could also ask if LBJ would have won re-election had there no been a primary challenge. Very possibly. But there was an immense rift in the country, and there were millions of people who wanted us to get out of Vietnam, and it is hard to imagine that there would have been no candidate to represent them. If LBJ would have realized that this was a futile and destructive war, he would have won easily. Certainly almost no one can look back and say that the war should have gone longer, that it was a good idea. And yet a large group of people in this country vociferously supported the war, and called people traitors and cowards if they did not. Leaving Vietnam meant losing, to them, and they wanted to keep fighting until we won, in some fashion.

Can we learn things from 1968? Many things, though I sometimes wonder whether we can still gain from them. I think that some people learned the wrong things, but of course that is my opinion. In a haunting way, 2008 had echoes of 1968, with Hillary being like McCarthy in some aspects, and Obama being another version of RFK. By nature, I usually prefer the highly intelligent person of great knowledge, to the rock star personality whom people scream in adulation of. And though McCarthy said that he would only serve one four-year term, which I did not favor as an idea, he was so calm and reasoned, and did not engender the hatred that many Republicans had for RFK, that he might have won.

It was also like one of those puzzles in books: “Can you change this word to that, one letter at a time?” How we started with Johnson’s landslide in 1964, and ended up with Nixon and Agnew in 1968 is unfathomable in one sense, but understandable now, given what we know about voters and their lack of understanding of which party is trying to help them, and which is not. And of course LBJ spearheaded passage of the Civil Rights Act, which he supposedly said was the right thing, but would cost the Democrats political power for forty years or so.

In a famous scene from the second season of “Twin Peaks”, the Giant, (later calling himself the Fireman), said portentously, “It is happening again,” as Laura Palmer’s cousin Maddie was being killed by the same entities which had killed Laura, and everyone was powerless to stop it. And when I watched Hillary be an almost certain Presidential winner leading up to 2008, only to see the same kind of people and the same kind of frenzy as in 1968, lead to Obama being virtually handed the nomination, I felt something like that. General decency, and superior intelligence doesn’t get the political reward it should. And the consequences are not just one election loss, but a realigning of the entire playing board, so that it can never get back to what it might have been.

In my personal view of it, Eugene McCarthy was the hero, with Allard Lowenstein, who horrifyingly was also assassinated, in 1980, being right there with him. Humphrey was the person who lost his way in the service of power and the desire to attain it for himself. LBJ was a ruthless power politician who yet did much good, and who showed grace during an incomprehensible tragedy, but then reverted to his earlier instincts, and ended up losing so much of what he valued in the country, allowing a great enemy to profit from it. Nixon was a gifted politician of great evil, who yet did one or two good things, such as starting EPA, but he was an amoral totalitarian at heart. Robert F. Kennedy is hard for me to assess. Maybe I undervalued him, but I was never a supporter, though according to the movie “Thirteen Days,” about the Cuban missile crisis, he may have helped save the world. He would have been a better president than Obama, I think, but he put his own personal political assessments ahead of the country at a crucial time.

Evil won that year, in more than one way. But there was also greatness, and eloquence, and millions of good people who tried so hard to make the world better. And I wish that the story of 1968 were told in true detail, not through the prism of comfortable legend.