1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his rather alarming opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by a record margin. But this already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme sidelined forever by the escalating war,
Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.
Michael A. Cohen’s book is especially effective in its portrayal of the hugely diverse range of characters who ran for president in 1968. President Johnson: a man so crude he would sometimes take his own “Johnson” out during meetings. Bobby Kennedy is also demystified. Tragic as his assassination was, Cohen dispels the myth that his victory would have been inevitable had he lived. In fact, he may well not have even won the Democratic Party nomination. McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.
But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. Everything shifted to the Right. Nothing was ever the same again.
Book review: American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A Cohen. Published by: Oxford University Press.