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« Chag Kasher v'Sameach | Main | More Thoughts On 1968 »

Contemplate '68

So in my copious free time, I've been reading Teddy White's The Making of the Presdient 1968. 1968 has always seemed to me a bit mysterious as well as a bit of a turning point itself. How did Nixon get the nomination when he was only one of a list of names in 1967? How did Humphrey win without entering any primaries? Why did Romney lose in 1968, while 2008? And given the evident political parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, what lessons can we draw 40 years after the fact?

White wrote a series of these books, the most interesting being 1960 amd 1968, as they were actually in doubt. By 1968, having established a reputation for trustworthiness, White had unprecedented access to the inner circles of all the campaigns. Their trust in White's probity was well-placed. And while White was clearly a liberal, he was no leftist, and was eminently fair to all the candidates.

The election was framed by two things: Vietnam and violence. The Dems tried to portray "law and order" as a racist issue, and in George Wallace's hands it was. But student violence and radical violence had competed with racial violence since 1965. While some nostalgic for "action" may want to "Recreate '68" here in Denver, there's no atmosphere of violence from which to draw, making their success in that wanton endeavor fairly unlikely. The violence in the streets in Chicago was of Tom Hayden's and Rap Brown's making, not Eugene McCarthy's. Republicans expecting mayhem-filled streets here this summer, take note.

A couple of things stand out in comparison to 2008. We may complain about the length of the primary season, but in fact, the campaign was just as long then as it is now. Nixon was planning in December 1966 for the 1968 race, and he pretty much knew who his opposition would be: Reagan, Rockefeller, Romney, and Charles Percy of Illinois. (I had forgotten about Percy, but then, who hasn't?) The difference was that much more of the race was in the hands of power-brokers, much less in the hands of regulars. So much more took place behind the scenes.

Even then, Romney knew by January that he was done for, after the famous "brainwashing" statement, which showed him to be naive in foreign policy. Simply keeping his mouth shut would have been enough. Americans in time of war will tolerate silence on foreign policy if it means not undermining the present administration. They won't tolerate naivite. Take note, Barack.

Mitt reprised some of the mistakes of his father, George. While never having a gaffe of "brainwashing" proportions, he still appeared to see the political campaign as a marketing campaign, which is something different. George, too, had tried to use polls to wrap up delegates in 1967, as Mitt had used them to create an Iowa-New Hampshire strategy. In both cases, a candidate with more apparent weight ended up looking more attractive.

Parallels between McCain and Nixon can only go so far, however. Nixon had campaigned tirelessly in 1966 for Republican congressional and senate candidates, building a base of support and favors owed that came back to him in 1968. McCain poked his finger in the party's eye at just about every turn over the last few years, showing constancy mostly on the war.

They both, however, have campaigned as centrists. Liberals and consevatives will both scoff at this description of Nixon, but in fact, in 1968, he needed to chart a course between the Scylla of a liberal Rockefeller, and the Charybdis of a conservative Reagan. Rockefeller and Reagan apparently came to an understanding that if together they could get enough delegates to deny Nixon the nomination, they would then fight it out on the convention floor between themselves.

In the end, failure spelled the end for Rockefeller. Having lost twice, he ended up as Tom Dewey without the nominations. For Reagan, it was probably a blessing. With Goldwater's shellacking in 1964, another conservative loss in 1968 could have devastated the movement.

Nixon's centrism brings us to the other misunderstood - and deliberately distorted - aspect of Nixon's 1968 campaign, the "Southern Strategy." Reporters of the day and Democrats ever since have assumed that this was a racist strategy aimed at denying Johnson and then Humprehy the south. In fact, the south had been lost to the mainline Democrats even in 1964, and the threat to Nixon's carrying those states wasn't Hubert Humphrey but the overtly racist George Wallace.

Nixon determined not to out-Wallace Wallace, to run a non-racist campaign to deny Walalce the border states. He campaigned as the sane unifier in the border states, sending the message that a vote for Wallace, however cathartic, was a vote for Humphrey. It worked, but it was neither racist nor an appeal to latent racism, as today's lefty revisionists would have it.

The Democratic meltdown at the Presidential level in the South was so complete that it led White to extend the trend into the future, projecting a Democratic party that would become captive to the blacks in the south, the unions in the north, and the campus radicals elsewhere. Democrats, take note.

That Humphrey almost came back to win the election, losing by fewer than 500,000 votes nationwide was a testament to the power of Vietnam as an issue. When news of an apparent breakthrough in Paris became public, people felt they no longer needed Nixon, and almost handed Humphrey the election. Harris actuall had Humphrey up 43-40 going into the weekend.

By Monday, however, it was apparent that the breakthough was illusory, and the public swung back to Nixon. Had the election been held only a few weeks later, Nixon would likely have won by millions. Had it been held only a few days earlier, he would have lost. With the motivation for the breakthrough coming from Andrei Gromyko, it's hard to escape entirely the conclusion that this was an attempt by the Russians to manipulate the US elections to their advantage.

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