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If I Had a Time Machine

If you had a time machine, what point in history would be your first stop?  It is not a question meant to try to change history in stopping an assassination or attempting to convince policymakers to make different decisions.  Instead, what day or year do you simply want to observe live; to take in through all human senses?  I probably owe it to human history to choose the period between the day Jesus was crucified through his Biblically told ascension into heaven.  There is certainly risk involved especially if it turns out that what Christians have believed for several millennia turn out to be a grand fable.  I cannot imagine that I would be very popular at Easter services.

But if I had my druthers, my first choice would be 1968; well, maybe late 1967 through year-end and into 1968.  On this blog I have written a bit about that year, not necessarily on purpose but because it seems to keep popping up in my reading and in current events.  So much of what we see today has roots in the late 60s and specifically in 1968.   In public school, and I suspect private as well, we learn the basics.  This was the year that Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota dared to challenge an incumbent president of his own party (Lyndon Johnson) over the Vietnam War.  It was the year that incumbent president chose not to run for re-election because he knew it would be an uphill battle.  It was the year of assassination and violent protest.  And it was the year of “Tricky Dick’s” political comeback.

I wish we learned more because there IS so much more.  If you have followed my blog or read some of my posts you know that I can be fairly critical of American politics and culture.  We brag a lot about who and what we are to the world when in reality, we usually do not live up to the high mindedness of our Founders.  President Reagan talked about America being a ‘Shining City on a Hill,’ but from my perspective, we are quick to shut off that city from the rest of the world when it becomes scary and uncomfortable.  We claim to be a nation of immigrants but throughout our history fail to support reform that would make it easier for those wishing to come to America to do so, even if it is in our economic interest.  Worse, for centuries we have discriminated against those who do come to our shores, using newcomers as scapegoats to our problems.  And we really do not understand, nor do I believe we want to admit, the deep racial divisions that still exist in this country and our lack of effort toward amelioration.  Today they manifest in police brutality, economic injustice, and NFL player peaceful protests during the national anthem.  The white response?  Backlash and criticism against the protesters.

All of this was on display in 1968 but what made that year unique was that so many of America’s open wounds were on display for all the world to see.  In his book, Playing With Fire:  The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, Lawrence O’Donnell breaks down in detail each of the “basics” that we all learned in our textbooks.  But the details behind those basics make the 1968 presidential election not just fascinating, but oddly surreal.  The pinnacle and legacy of that year can be summarized in the first paragraph of chapter twenty-nine “The Government of the People in Exile”

People who watched all of the 1968 Democratic National Convention on TV remember only Wednesday night.  The unforgettable images inside and outside the hall that night overwhelmed everything else that had happened.  People’s lives changed on Wednesday night.  Hopes changed none for the better.  Richard Daley on the convention floor and William F. Buckley Jr. in a TV studio each had the worst, the ugliest, the most hateful public moment of their lives.  All of it was televised.  All of it happened in the shocked living rooms of America.  Wednesday was the darkest, most dangerous night in the history of American political conventions.

To those of us who have viewed the last 24 months in dismay, feeling that the world seems to have come off its axis, it is slightly reassuring to know that America has survived greater turbulence than Donald Trump and the Bannonites.  But when we start viewing our electoral politics as something to “survive,” we know we have lost something of great importance.  What follows are key points in what Americans survived throughout 1968.  Whether simple “survival” was good enough has yet to be determined.

1968:  The GOP

I will not re-write O’Donnell’s book.  Rather, I would like to highlight just a few points about the ’68 presidential election and the cultural themes that I think we miss in our public education of 20th century American history.  As a result of those misses, we fail to understand the significance that race, religion, and culture have played in our politics.  If we understood how politicians (on both sides of the ideological spectrum) leveraged our fears and innate desire to maintain the status quo, perhaps we would be more apt to compromise and share power with other minority groups.  We would be more likely to form coalitions on shared interests rather than on fear of the “other.”

For the GOP, 1968 marked the year that “liberal Republicanism” died.  Hailed as Rockefeller Republicans, after Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York and Vice-President under Gerald Ford (after Nixon’s resignation), this wing of the party accepted the New Deal and the larger government bureaucracy that went with it.  They also accepted and championed civil rights but were stalwart anti-communists.  Rockefeller Republicans (I guess we would call them “moderates” today but even then, RR would be to the left of a Susan Collins) supported government, they just believed they could do a better job governing.  Rockefeller Republicans were champions of ‘good government.’

O’Donnell describes in great detail how Nixon worked the GOP convention in Miami Beach, Florida to garner the delegates necessary to become the Republican nominee for president.  It’s enlightening to read.  Understand that in 1968, both parties were caught between the old and new way of nominating a president.  Primaries existed in some states, but not in all.  Candidates did not have to compete in all primaries and in fact, it was possible to win the nomination without entering a single primary contest (as would happen with Hubert Humphrey on the Democratic ticket) because the majority of delegates were controlled by the state parties (the old way).  So in 1968, the race saw candidates jumping in at various times – all the way up to and during the convention as would be the case of Ronald Reagan.  In ’68, there was still enough backroom deal-making that nominations could be corrupt and undemocratic.

But in 1968, both parties were going through an intense realignment brought on by civil rights and the public’s reaction to desegregation.  This response, sometimes violent, was felt not just in the South, but in the North and West, affecting all aspects of the nominating process.  The ’68 Republican National Convention saw the acquiescence of the GOP, the party of Lincoln, to the southern segregationists.  Racial animous ran deep; it has been only four years since the Civil Rights Act had passed and only three since the Voting Rights Act.  Southerners wanted Nixon to roll both back and expected the federal government to stay the hell out of local issues, especially education.  The south – specifically those states that had seceded just over 100 years before over the issue of white supremacy – pledged their support to Nixon, fully expecting him to fulfill his pledge to stay out of their way.  The GOP picked up votes all over the country from those fearful of what civil and equal rights for blacks (and women) would mean to them, especially those who were white working class.  Whether connected or not, it is hard to argue against the trend line within the GOP today.  We still see the racial animus but it has now spread to anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim rhetoric.  Same tone, different acronyms.

McConnell also paints a complicated portrait of Richard Nixon, his insecurities, and superior political skills.  In his description, we begin to see how Nixon’s personality not only drove him to come back after a disastrous California governor’s race (1962) to win both the Republican nomination and the Presidency.

George Wallace

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, was a racist.  Later in life, after an assassination attempt left him paralyzed from the waist down, he apparently had a “born again” experience which led him to renounce and apologize for his racist past.  On my list of “biographies” to read is one about George Wallace because frankly, I find a 180 of that magnitude just a bit suspicious.  Wallace was the governor who, in his inauguration speech, proudly uttered the words, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”  He also made himself famous when in 1963 he faced the US Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, who was ordered by President Kennedy to enforce racial integration at the University of Alabama.  Wallace lost.

As a side, one of the arguments conservatives made as that movement grew in strength was the growing power of the executive branch.  They pointed to acts like this – federal encroachment on the state – as an overreach of authority.  The better side of that argument, in my opinion, is that the federal government would never have had to step in had the states not abused the power of the majority by infringing on minority rights.  Moreover, had southern states followed the law, and Supreme Court “supremacy” by integrating their public schools, the federal government would have remained at arm’s length.  In this case, the white majority throughout the country had used its power to maintain a segregated status quo.  Even when corrective laws were passed, the majority maintained their obstinance.  Depending on your ideology, you could call it an abuse of power or use of that power to protect those being exploited.  George Wallace went with the first option.

In 1968 he declared himself a candidate for president.  O’Donnell describes his candidacy in familiar terms now that we are in the Trump Era.  First, Wallace knew he would not win.  He wanted to siphon off enough votes, by appealing to white and working-class fears to deny Nixon and the Democratic nominee (Humphrey) an electoral college victory.  That would throw the election into the House of Representatives where the Democrats still had a sizeable majority.  Wallace believed that he would then have a great deal of leverage to negotiate concessions for southern autonomy.

O’Donnell points out similarities between the Wallace and Trump campaigns especially in the prevalence of violence.  Wallace found that by riling up attendees and then demonstrating toughness in dealing with the perpetrators, supporters were left with the perception that the Governor would stand up for them.  Wallace had no qualms about inciting violence or allowing his supporters to do so on his behalf.  He would happily start something and then get in his car, drive away, and watch everything play out on the news.  It was Wallace who coined the phrase “states rights.”  He learned that by 1968, a lot of voters did not want to be visibly associated with racism.  But they would support the idea of states rights and a push back to federal overreach.  It did not matter that the latter was simply coded words for the former.  States rights and law and order would be picked up by Nixon and later Trump in both of their races for the White House.

The Democrats

I left the Democrats for last because their convention was a political disaster never seen before or since in American history. It was not just a political catastrophe, but a public relations one as well.  The convention, occurring in late August 1968 was simply the cherry on an already melted ice cream sundae.  By the time the delegates began the nominating process on Wednesday, August 28, 1968, all hell had broken loose on the streets of Chicago.  Mayor Daley, who had refused to grant protestors permits to peacefully protest, had instructed his police officers to stop the Yippies using any means necessary.  That meant that the police used tear gas and billy clubs at will, beating up not just protesters but reporters and innocent bystanders.  All of this was captured by the network news and beamed to living rooms all across the country.

Inside the Amphitheatre, the convention itself had also devolved into a nightmare (on television).  The Rules Committee had divided over something called the “Unit Rule” which said that an entire delegation had to vote according to the majority of that delegation, giving states more power than they would have if delegates could vote as individuals.  This rule appealed to southern states specifically because they were looking to increase their importance as their region gradually moved to the GOP.

The Credentials Committee was also in a fine mess over objections to the seating of state delegation.  Remember, we were still the days of “segregation” and in some southern states, multiple delegations were sent to the convention.  Mississippi and Georgia were two of those contested delegations and the fervor over which one to seat, and the resulting compromise left no one happy.

Finally, the Platform Committee was intensely divided over a peace plank; that is, delegates could not agree to the Democrat Party’s stance on the Vietnam War given that its incumbent refused to halt the bombing of North Vietnam until certain concessions were met.  It’s important that I spend just a few more words on Vietnam because it was the war and Johnson’s escalation of it that led to the split within the party.

August 17, 1967

This event – or testimony – was new to me.  On August 17, 1967, Nicholas Katzenbach, who in 1963 with the aid of the U.S. Army, confronted Governor Wallace in front of the University of Alabama to force desegregation of public schooling, sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the Vietnam War.  In 1966, Johnson had moved Katzenbach to the State Department as Undersecretary of State.  On that August day, Katzenbach appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify about Johnson’s legal authority to wage war in Southeast Asia.  You will recall the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident which led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a Congressional authorization allowing the president to increase assistance to any Southeast Asian country battling communism.  In layman’s terms:  a blank check.

To summarize Katzenbach’s testimony (and I would highly encourage you to read this book because this is just one key aspect of the time period), Congress had given the president all the power he needed to wage war and that there was nothing that they could now to stop it short of rescinding it.  Rolling back the authorization would be political dynamite for either party because the mere thought would invoke threats to national security and to being soft on communism.  The dialogue between the witness and Senator Fulbright (the chair) and Senator McCarthy is insightful.  Katzenbach asks the rhetorical question whether the act gave the president the authorization to use the armed forces in any way necessary.  Senator Fulbright attempts to push back by indicating that it was the executive who wrote the resolution.  Katzenbach counters by stating that the resolution was not accepted without consideration (meaning – you idiots debated it didn’t you?).  Fulbright answers, “But I misinterpreted it.”

Eugene McCarthy had started his career as an ardent anti-communist.  He still was.  But he had come to realize that the war was a lost and unjust cause.  After that hearing, he said to a reporter, off the record, (so it would not be public for some time), that the only way out of Vietnam would be to remove Johnson from the Presidency.  “If I have to run for president to do it, I’m going to do it.”

“The Whole World’s Watching”

The 1968 Democratic presidential race began with McCarthy and Johnson.  In the middle, it included McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, “state-level favorite sons” and ultimately Hubert Humphrey.  As a side, in those days, state senators, “aka – favorite sons,” would enter their state’s presidential primary (and only their state’s presidential primary) to gin up and win delegates to the national convention.  Holding delegates meant wielding power over the eventual nominee, especially in a contested convention.  To describe the ensuing chaos would result in a book so I would suggest reading Lawrence O’Donnell’s.  Given the number of transient nominees AND the emotion of the Vietnam War, it was no wonder that the event itself was filled with intense drama.

The Democratic Party fell apart at the end of August 1968.  It literally dissolved before America’s eyes and yet Hubert Humphrey almost won in the general election that November.  Ironically, looking back from 2017, 1968 was the first time we definitely know that a presidential campaign (Nixon) colluded with a foreign government to interfere in the results of an election.  Nixon and his aides developed and cultivated a back channel to the South Vietnamese president which he used in the last days of the campaign to force the collapse of the peace talks, telling the South Vietnamese that they would “get a better deal” when he was President.  Sound familiar?  Johnson and his closest aides knew about the collusion and made sure that Nixon knew he knew about it but did not go public because he felt it was not in the nation’s best interest.

The police riots in the streets of Chicago and in Grant Park were horrific and hard to read.  Innocent bystanders and reporters covering the story were beaten along with protesters.  Mayor Daley had refused to grant permits to those applicants intending to protest against the war, which guaranteed a confrontation.  I think it is important to understand that by 1968, the anti-war and even the civil rights movements had in places become violent.  It was this violence against which the “Silent Majority” reacted and the conservative movement gained traction.

But in telling the story of violent confrontation, riots, and destruction of property, we fail to explain how and why the activism turned radical.  Particularly in the anti-war movement, activists believed that no one listened while American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were killed.  It was as simple as that.  No one listened.  Anti-war activists were lumped together with the communist enemy.  Those liberals who saw the North Vietnamese as simply wanting to reunite their country under the Vietnamese flag and to throw off the yoke of imperialism were scorned.  We have White House tapes of both Johnson and Nixon speaking of their fellow Americans exercising their constitutional right to assemble and to speak freely with condescension and disgust.  Activists believed in their movement.  They believed that they were saving lives of both American soldiers and Vietnamese citizens.  The United States government waged a covert war against those activists, splitting the country into pieces from which we have not yet recovered.  So yes, the protests did get violent and some of that violence was unjustified.  But some, including that of civil rights activists, occurred because no one listened and when they finally started to take action, it was at such an incremental pace, that change could hardly be felt.

I wish we would remember that when castigating NFL players for their peaceful protests against police brutality.  We should listen more and address concerns not chastize over protest methods.  But I digress.

“The Whole World Is Watching” was the chant that the entire world heard on that Wednesday night when the police beat up the protesters on the streets of Chicago.  O’Donnell describes a scene in which the police chased protesters and reporters into a glass window of a restaurant.  The window shattered.  The police then jumped through the window and continued to beat people with billy clubs.  All of this was captured on TV.  Inside the Amphitheatre, the delegates continued to debate the party’s stance on Vietnam and that too led to chaos and mass dissent.

The “Peace Plank” was hotly contested and it ultimately failed, but barely.  Johnson, although not running for re-election, had his thumb firmly on the convention scale.  He adamantly opposed a peace plank that would call for a unilateral end to the bombing of North Vietnam unless the North Vietnamese met specific conditions (Johnson’s conditions).  Given that convention was contested and split over the anti-war movement, it should not be surprising that there was intense debate over that plank.   The fact that it failed by such a narrow margin AND that the eventual nominee for president was Johnson’s vice president, who at the time publicly supported Johnson’s Vietnam strategy, it is more surprising that delegations did not walk out.  The choice of Humphrey, the candidate who entered the race late and did not compete in any primary (thus not asking for, nor receiving any popular support via the democratic process), was simply an ironic twist in an already contentious and divisive campaign season.

Humphrey finally broke with Johnson and committed himself to peace which essentially meant putting a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.  In a move that helps prove skeptics’ perception that politicians are all corrupt, during a significant period of 1968, Johnson actually shared information with Nixon and his campaign aides that he did not disclose to Humphrey.  Johnson felt that Nixon would likely follow his Vietnam policy better than Humphrey and thus, preserve his legacy, one that he hoped would be positive.  In the end, Nixon betrayed Johnson, just as he would the American people, by collaborating with South Vietnam in order to slow down the Paris peace talks which he hoped would improve his chances at winning the election.

The Legacy of 1968

I think it is far too easy to reflect on historical events and conclude that if only we had made a different choice, the outcome would have been substantially better or different.  This view is naive and demonstrates a lack of contextual perspective.  Take Vietnam as an example.  When that war’s story is finally revealed to go back to Truman, we challenge the president’s decision to get involved and then we challenge every president’s escalation of a war they knew in the mid-60s was unwinnable.   To offer a simple example of how tough revisionist history can be, I would argue that Truman may have made the right political decision to send advisors to Southeast Asia.  Remember that in the late 40s and early 50s, the world was just entering the Cold War and by Truman’s second term, communism seemed on the march.  In 1949, Chinese nationalists fled to Taiwan after that country’s communist revolution.  Truman was blamed for “losing China” to the Soviets.  It was under this umbrella, that Truman decided to invest in Vietnam.  The fear of communism and perhaps, more importantly, the fear of losing to communism was very real and led to grave decisions made by many of Truman’s successors.  Insert “radical jihadi terrorists” and we see similarities to today.

1968 saw the emergence of many cultural trends still evident.  While still in its infancy, the power of the media, particularly television, became clear to many including Roger Aisles who made his debut on the Nixon campaign.  Some of his tried and true rating getters were first tested during the 1968 campaign.  “Debate” segments pitting conservatives versus liberals in a format conducive to yelling past each other rather than a genuine discussion of ideas was born in 1968.  Political discussions became entertainment, not education.  Nixon’s campaign was the first “corporate campaign organization” in American politics.  We take these for granted today but in 1968 the coordinated messaging,  fundraising appeals, and staffs responsible for the candidate’s “ground game,” were all new in ’68.  The sheer organizational output by Nixon had to be novel and perhaps even overwhelming to his opponents.

After 1968, primaries (and then caucuses) played a primary role in nominating a president.  This process is good and bad, and campaigns have adapted by appealing to voters directly rather than through party officers.  Certainly, our current system is more democratic than the pre-reform era, but it has a long way to go.  Finally, I do think it is important to note that yes, America has survived difficult elections and painful periods in our history.  We will likely survive Trump.  But I contend that mere “survival” should not be our goal.  In fact, surviving simply gets us to the next game.  It’s not a strategy, it’s a tactic.   Both parties made changes to the way we nominate a president after ’68.  Post-Watergate saw reforms addressing campaign finance and what was appropriate behavior between the executive and the Department of Justice.  Some of these changes did what they were intended to do; to revive faith in our democracy and electoral processes.

What will we do after Trump?  What will his legacy be in the electoral process and do we need to wait for him to leave office to start some of those reforms?  I certainly hope not.  Our democratic institutions are under significant strain and while that is good, survival is not enough.  They need to be hardened as to provide an even greater bulwark against the authoritarianism currently emanating from the alt-right.  Problem is, I’m not sure we have the courage to do what is necessary to stop this insanity.


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