Jim Clark: Looking back at the political chaos of 1968
Special to the Bonanza
Political history buffs may be interested in viewing an upcoming PBS documentary titled: “1968: Ball of Confusion – A year of chaos that makes today’s political battles seem tame by comparison.”
It is produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Ball of Confusion” was a popular song about 1968 made famous by the Temptations.
Millennials may scoff at the idea that an earlier era could be any wilder than the current 15 Republicans (including a pompous real estate developer and a brain surgeon) competing to run for the top spot on the GOP ticket and a septuagenarian socialist trying to upstage a former first lady for the Democratic nomination. But let’s take a look at things 47 years ago.
Recall that Lyndon Johnson had acceded to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963; a year later, he buried conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential Election by the largest popular vote landslide in history.
The Democratic Party had overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate, and Johnson, the former Senate majority leader, knew how to exercise power in Washington. He proceeded to simultaneously escalate the Vietnam War and launch a domestic “war on poverty.”
Reports of alleged enemy action aimed toward two US destroyers, the Maddox and Turner Joy, resulted in a compliant Congress passing the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” ceding even more war powers to the President, who ended up sending 536,000 troops to the conflict.
By the beginning of 1968, even the military was unpopular because of its association with the Vietnam War. Johnson was the national focus of that unhappiness because of his aggressive pursuit of the war.
In January 1968, the North Vietnamese launched their Lunar New Year “Tet” offensive. Although allied forces repulsed the enemy, Johnson had promised “light at the end of the tunnel,” which the offensive proved false.
Sensing blood in the water, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) and Sen. Bobby Kennedy (D-MA) launched their campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
In the March 12 New Hampshire Primary, Johnson barely edged McCarthy. On March 31, Johnson announced: “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as president.”
Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, then joined the presidential contenders but did not enter any primaries because it was well known the Democratic convention would be controlled by power brokers.
On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. This was followed by widespread rioting despite King’s championship of non-violent methods. On June 4, Kennedy defeated McCarthy in the California Primary, only to be assassinated by Palestinian Sirhan B. Sirhan. The nation mourned for King and Kennedy as well as bodies returning from Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Richard Nixon was plotting to win the GOP nomination. He was opposed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-N.Y.) and Ronald Reagan but devised a “southern strategy” with Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.).
The deal was Thurmond would support Nixon and Nixon would appoint conservative judges to the US Supreme Court. Nixon easily won the GOP nomination. The Democratic convention in Chicago was the scene of rioting and police beatings, but Chicago Mayor Richard Daley delivered the nomination to Humphrey.
Humphrey was polling 20 points behind Nixon when former Alabama segregationist Governor George Wallace announced a third party run, seriously denting Nixon’s “southern strategy.”
In October, hoping to bolster Humphrey’s chances, Johnson announced a bombing halt and peace talks with North Vietnam. In the end Nixon beat Humphrey 43.4 percent to 42.7 percent in the popular vote, but 301 to 101 in the Electoral College.
Wallace won 46 electoral votes. At Nixon’s widely televised victory celebration, a little girl held a sign that read: “bring us together.”
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.