BY MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
Excerpt from The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul
A political campaign is a dehumanizing rite. Its only purpose is power, and tends to bring out the worst in men. Repetition, exhaustion, anxiety, and pressure must be endured cheerfully. Instincts have to be disguised. Sleep and privacy are elusive. Each day brings some new temptation to compromise a little.
These words, written by journalist Jack Newfield in 1968, are as true today, in the era of social media and cable television, as they were in days past when campaign news was delivered by horseback, rail, sheets of newsprint, network television, radio, and person to person. The election of 1968, in which Newfield’s friend Robert Kennedy ran until he was assassinated in California on the state’s primary night, was one of the closest and most bitterly contested in American history, conducted against a tumultuous backdrop that even today seems impossible.
The world seemed poised for implosion. Soviet tanks and troops rumbled through the streets of Czechoslovakia, using military might to quash a reform movement. Thousands of Italian students, demanding reforms at the universities, battled with police. In France, students took over buildings at the Sorbonne, built barricades, fought with police, and touched off a national strike involving more than seven million workers. In Japan, more than twenty-five thousand students, demonstrating against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, touched off clashes with police.
The United States was the white-hot center of it all. During the 1968 election cycle, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Tet Offensive erupted in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek another term, George Wallace ran as a controversial third-party candidate, students took over Columbia University, violence exploded across the country in the wake of King’s death, and the Democratic National Convention was grotesquely disfigured by violent clashes between the city’s police and youths protesting the war and the old politics, among other issues.
When Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the race for the Democratic Party nomination, it was with great reluctance and little hope of success. Lyndon Johnson, despite his slippage in popularity among voters, was still very powerful, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would win the opportunity for reelection; his 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater had been the most dominant win in presidential election history. Still, there was a growing movement to unseat him, generated by antiwar groups. McCarthy knew, at least in the beginning, that he was likely to be a sacrificial lamb in his opposition to Johnson, but he agreed to run—no small act of courage—because he, too, felt strongly that Johnson needed to be challenged by a candidate dedicated to ending the bloodshed in Vietnam.
And so it began: McCarthy announced his candidacy late in 1967, and one of the most improbable presidential elections in modern U.S. history, continuously influenced by the events of the day, lurched out of the starting gate. Robert Kennedy joined the fray in late March—late enough to be accused of being an opportunist, as his entry came shortly after McCarthy’s impressive, unexpected showing against Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Hubert Humphrey committed to the race a few weeks after Kennedy. The campaign was contentious from the onset. McCarthy and Kennedy sniped at one another, despite their obvious similarities, and both attacked Humphrey, who, as vice president, represented the hated Johnson administration. On the Republican side, Richard Nixon ran virtually unopposed, with only token opposition from Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan; his greatest challenge was to defeat his loser image. Former Alabama governor George Wallace, hoping to gain support for his segregationist agenda, became a surprisingly popular third-party candidate.
Each of these men had compelling resumes and campaign teams. McCarthy pieced together a grassroots campaign fueled mainly by youthful volunteers, who went “clean for Gene” by cutting their long hair, shaving their beards, and setting aside their blue jeans and miniskirts to dress in a style that made them look professional to the people they met while campaigning door to door; the amused media tagged the campaign “the Children’s Crusade.” Kennedy combined the older, more experienced people who had worked on his brother’s 1960 campaign with younger, enthusiastic, idealistic staff members eager to reestablish a Kennedy legacy shattered so suddenly on November 22, 1963. Humphrey, entering the race too late to face the other candidates in the primaries, worked the caucuses, union halls, back rooms, and town halls, hoping to secure enough delegate support to win the nomination in Chicago. Nixon, a poor television presence, complemented his campaign team with a group of media specialists who would change the face of campaigning in the future. Wallace, unburdened by the need for delegate votes, zigzagged cross-country, meeting supporters at state fairs, shopping-center parking lots, medium-sized halls, fish fries, and barbecues—anywhere the “common folk” gathered. Taken together, the candidates created a mosaic of every type of campaign strategy America had seen in its history.
Two issues—the Vietnam War and civil rights (which later morphed as an issue into law and order)—raced to the forefront of discussion and remained that way throughout the election cycle. In researching and writing about the candidates and their attention to these issues, I found myself revisiting the historical events of the previous two decades and their connection to issues threatening to tear the nation apart in 1968. How could one write about civil rights without examining Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 speech that divided the Democratic Party, the Southern states splitting away and forming what became known as the Dixiecrats? How could one write about George Wallace’s segregationist politics without examining such seminal events as James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, Wallace’s attempts to bar two students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, the march on Selma, and Lyndon Johnson’s groundbreaking civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965? Could one write about Johnson’s decision to step away from the presidency without looking at the events in the Vietnam War and the rise of the antiwar movement that led him to his decision? History is nothing if not a collection of antecedents, one leading to the next.
America’s soul: When I thought about the subtitle for this book, I worried that might be hyperbolic, but the more I researched, the more I believed that, yes, the election was the culmination of a mighty struggle lasting for at least a decade, beginning with the early civil rights movement and continuing through the Vietnam protests, the battle waged over what America was and where it would be headed in the future. The continuum could be found in the history behind the development of the candidates and those who supported them.
The war for America’s soul was generational, fought between those who served in (and lived through) World War II and their children, the skeptics and opponents of the Vietnam War, the two generations disagreeing vehemently on what constituted America’s soul. Both sides offered valid points. The older generation had survived the Depression (or its remnants) and a global war. The 1950s, with the establishment of the middle class, homeownership, and movement in the way of travel and relocation, were a reward; the growth of the Soviet Union and its “empire,” along with the budding space race, interrupted the calm and further engrained the nationalistic older generation with what it believed was the soul of the American way. These were principles worth fighting for, no matter the cost.
The younger generation—the baby boomers—wanted none of this. They were as interested as their parents in the political climate, but they were removed from the events that shaped their parents’ lives. They were too young to remember the Korean War, and World War II and the Depression were ancient history. They rejected blind nationalism. They demanded a voice in determining the direction America was taking. They had been weaned on television—the glass teat, as Harlan Ellison called it—and unlike their parents, their views were based on images. When they saw the newscasts of the battles for civil rights or the war in Vietnam, they insisted on action. When results were slow in coming, they took action. They participated. Not all of them were motivated by the purest of intentions, of course, but their numbers were significant enough to force a discussion between the two generations.
This is an excerpt from The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul. Author Michael Schumacher is the author and editor of many books, including biographies of Eric Clapton, Phil Ochs, Francis Ford Coppola, and Allen Ginsberg. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg; First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg; and There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs were published by the University of Minnesota Press.