I’ve agreed to tell this story from 1968, not because it may or may not be instructive, but because I realized that many younger people have only the haziest impressions of that period, a time that indelibly marked an entire generation of Americans.
Last week, I wrote that I’d been disappointed in the Democratic party for fifty years. Actually, it’s fifty-two.
The presidential election of 1968 is a known pivot point in American history, the beginning of a shift in government power from left to right, a shift that might finally be reversing itself.
For me, entering my freshman year of college, it was an exercise in holding my nose and voting for a candidate I didn’t want. It was about learning to live with second, third, or worse choices — a lesson I’ve since had ample occasion to relearn.
History has been kind to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and rightly so. Through sheer force of will, he designed and pushed through the “Great Society” legislation that expanded civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, and other equally seminal initiatives that, looking back from our current deeply polarized perch, seem astonishing both in scope and bipartisan accomplishment.
But to my generation of students, Johnson was a monster whose endless drawing out of the Vietnam War made him a roundly hated figure.
The Vietnam War was to that time what Covid is to now — a catastrophe of life-threatening proportions. As I’ve written previously, our college years were lived in terror of losing our student deferments and being drafted into the Army. This was, in effect, a ticket to Vietnam, where young Americans were being killed and maimed in numbers unrivaled until Covid came along.
By 1968, students all over the country were rising up in numbers that haven’t been seen since. Antiwar protests had become a national movement, merging with the civil rights movement, and with an eccentric but enduring counterculture, to create something quite new — and quite prone to backlash. It was as polarizing a time as the country has ever been through.
Into this fraught political climate stepped an obscure senator, Eugene McCarthy, to challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination. The first openly antiwar candidate we’d ever seen, he was an immediate sensation on the campuses. Especially after he finished a close second to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.
And especially when Johnson, who now knew he was playing a losing hand, rocked everyone’s world by dropping out of the race. He declined to seek a second term, which was unheard of.
The war had now overwhelmed the political landscape, and all candidates were now defined by their positions on it.
Enter Robert F. Kennedy, heir to the “Kennedy magic,” which is barely perceptible now, but was a force of nature then. When Johnson dropped out, Bobby saw his chance to run as an antiwar candidate.
We screamed bloody murder at this treacherous usurping of Gene McCarthy’s rightful place at the top of the ticket. But the Kennedy magic had a life of its own, and over a series of primaries it became clear that Bobby would ultimately go into the Democratic Convention with more delegates than McCarthy.
Meanwhile, there were the old-line Democrats to reckon with, that coalition of unions and machine politicians that had dominated the party since the New Deal. They were, in retrospect, on their way to irrelevance, but they were still undeniably the center of gravity in the party, and they dutifully lined up behind Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.
Before ascending to veep, Humphrey had been a popular, well-respected liberal senator. Right-wing Republicans — there were other wings then — considered him a dangerous radical socialist. Yes, they were that way even then.
But while most of us had once liked Humphrey, he was now forever associated with Johnson’s war, and he showed no sign of wanting to change its course. On the campuses we had no choice but to hate him as well.
By June, Bobby Kennedy had all the momentum going into the California primary, and we were more or less resigned to it. He was, after all, antiwar, which was all we really cared about. Plus, we had ourselves been brought up under the spell of Kennedy magic, and were still susceptible to it. Most of us still wanted McCarthy, but we would settle for Bobby.
Of course, the night Bobby won that primary was also the night he was shot and killed. This was just three months after Martin Luther King had been shot, and the country was now in the darkest place I’d ever seen in my young life. Only our current time is darker.
The Democratic Convention in Chicago was ugly. The well-chronicled confrontations between belligerent antiwar groups and an edgy Chicago police force broke out in violence, even as Humphrey successfully maneuvered within the party to secure the nomination.
We were angry. I still am. Humphrey, the least desirable option was now the Democratic candidate.
I won’t tell the Republican side of this nomination process, except to say that the least desirable option won there as well. Richard Nixon had long been well-loathed in liberal circles, and we regarded him as a cancer on the body politic. Humphrey was brilliant by comparison.
Which brings me to whatever point this story may have. Which is that my peers and I were backed into choosing the lesser of two evils, knowing that either evil would improve our chances of dying in an insane but very real war.
I held my nose. I voted for Humphrey. It wasn’t enough. Nixon won the election and began the Republican takeover of the country, which reached its culmination almost fifty years later with the election of Trump.
But even in my deeply alienated, royally pissed-off age group, none of us even considered not voting. Or voting for a third party. That would’ve been the same as voting for Nixon.
This year, Joe Biden wasn’t my first, second, third, or fourth choice. But when he emerged as the front-runner, I was immediately on board. And to this day, few things upset me more than people who throw away their vote.
They might as well just vote for Trump. No, I take that back.
P.S. As many of my readers will surely have recollections of this time, perhaps you’d like to share some, either in the comments section below, or by email.