In 1968, I was working in the anti-war presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy. I was part of a group of anti-war activists who wanted to enlist a credible candidate to run in the Democratic primary against the sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Our first choice was Robert Kennedy, the brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy. He declined initially, but then entered the race in March of 1968 after McCarthy had proven that Johnson was beatable.
McCarthy stayed in the race, and most of us continued to work for him, even though we knew that Kennedy was by far the better candidate.
As the primary campaigns drew to a close, we decided to switch to Kennedy so that the anti-war forces would have one unified candidate going into the Chicago convention. The plan was to announce the switch after the California primary on June 6.
Kennedy won the primary and was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination and the general election. He was shot and killed the night he won the primary, and the rest, as most of you know, is history.
The ‘60s was an era of sex, drugs and rock n roll, to be sure, but it was also an era of politics and social change. Civil rights and race dominated the first half of the ‘60s, and then the war in Vietnam became the main focus of students and protesters. While the counter-culture was tripping out in San Francisco, the politicos were demonstrating for racial equality, and supporting anti-war presidential candidates.
1968 was the year that both movements, the counter-culture and the political, came together in a massive clash with the police in the infamous Chicago Democratic convention of 1968. After that, the political movements sputtered along, and the counter-culture got absorbed into the middle class at Woodstock a year later.
A BAD YEAR
1968 started out badly for Johnson. First there was the Tet Offensive in January which demonstrated that the presidents optimistic assurances about the Vietnam War were fundamentally untrue.
Next, in March, Senator McCarthy nearly beat him in the New Hampshire Democratic primary; then Robert Kennedy entered the race, and by the end of the month, Johnson himself withdrew from the race.
On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Nobel Prize winning civil rights leader, was assassinated in Memphis. His assassination led to riots in 120 cities, which were quelled only by calling out the National Guard.
By mid April, the stage was pretty much set: Vice President Hubert Humphrey would run for president as the establishment candidate who supported the war; Bobby Kennedy would challenge him as the reform candidate who wanted to end the war and unite the country. Senator McCarthy would continue to run, but was eclipsed by the much more charismatic and serious candidacy of Robert Kennedy.
In 1968, there were only six primary elections and many party bosses. Humphrey relied on the party bosses to deliver the state party conventions and caucuses. He did not enter a single primary election. Kennedy would have to run in the primaries to convince the party establishment that he was the electible candidate. He won most of the contested primaries in 1968 (he lost only in Oregon), and by June when he won the California primary the elections had pretty much convinced the party establishment that Robert Kennedy should be the Democratic nominee for president.
Kennedys assassination ended any prospect of an anti-war candidate running in the 68 election. The thousands of campaign volunteers who had worked so hard for Kennedy dropped out of politics and joined the protesters and hippies at the infamous Chicago convention. There, they demonstrated their profound dissatisfaction with a political process that nominated a pro-war candidate who did not win a single election vote on his way to the nomination.
The resulting clash with the police helped Richard Nixon win a narrow victory in the general election. Nixon ran on a law and order platform and promised to bring peace with honor in Vietnam, a war that continued for six more years. Nixons election began the long slide into the divide-and-win strategy that Karl Rove honed to a precise and finely tuned skill for George W. Bush.
CANDIDATE OF CHANGE
Robert Kennedy represented a unique kind of politics. In a time of great national divide he appealed to our better selves to unite the country. He asked that we celebrate our diversity; that we join in one community of Americans to end poverty and that we embark on a foreign policy based on real threats and honest objectives. He was the candidate of change.
Kennedy drew huge crowds of young people to hear his inspiring words and his call to a higher purpose. He brought thousands of new voters and workers into the political process. Then he was assassinated, ending any hope of merging the seemingly conflicting currents of the ‘60s.
We have never had anything like that until now. 2008 is an election out of central casting: a movie sequel featuring Hillary Clinton in the role of Hubert Humphrey, with Barack Obama playing Robert Kennedy. By their very presence, each candidate is proof that we have come a long way since 1968, but despite appearances, the two election contests, so far at least, are fundamentally the same.
Once again, party bosses, in the form of the super delegates, might decide who the Democratic nominee will be. It is conceivable that Barack Obama can win the most primaries; have the most elected delegates and garner the most votes during all the primaries and still not get the nomination. If this happens, then a repeat of 1968 is likely. All of the people energized by the Obama candidacy will stay home or vote for John McCain.
The country is as divided now as it was in 1968. The streets may not be teeming with protesters, but a bad economy, the fear of being labeled unpatriotic, and the lack of a military draft go a long way to explain the absence of visible protests.
A more basic explanation is how discouraged most citizens, especially young people, are about influencing the governments policy on war, terror or even the price of gas. In 1968, young people had a profound, almost arrogant, confidence that they could control their own destiny and even change the world. They thought their actions would affect government policy. That is not true today. Demonstrations in the streets are no longer considered a meaningful route to reform. The one place Americans feel they can safely and secretly express their dissatisfaction with today‘s policies is the ballot box. That explains the intense interest in the election this year.
The big difference between 68 and 08 is the “elephant in the room.“ In 1968 Kennedy never made it to the convention. Presidential candidates were not given Secret Service protection. It was Robert Kennedys assassination that prompted the government to provide protection to candidates as well as presidents. Senator Obama has had Secret Service protection for nearly a year. He will be at the convention in Denver this August.
This means that the super delegates can rectify the mistakes and misfortunes of 1968. They will cast the deciding votes for the candidate who won most of the delegates and most of the primaries and most of the votes. As things stand now, Barack Obama has the most in all categories. Watch Pennsylvania closely. Clinton was projected to win by a huge margin. If Obama can cut her lead to single digits, then there will be a gaggle of super delegates endorsing Obama. If Clinton wins by 20 points, she will take this thing to the bitter end. Even so, barring a meltdown, Obama will get the nomination.
And maybe, just maybe... the one big difference between 1968 and 2008 will be the winner.
Phil Moore is an instructor at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey.