On November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey for the presidency of the United States by less than one percentage point of the popular vote (43.42 to 42.72)—slightly more than half a million of the 73 million votes cast nationwide. George Wallace, running as an independent, received 10 million votes, or 13.52 percent. But in the Electoral College, Humphrey's defeat was resounding. Nixon won thirty-two states, for 301 electoral votes, whereas Humphrey—the sitting Vice President—won only thirteen states (and the District of Columbia), for 191 electoral votes. Wallace, a race-baiting demagogue, won five states, for forty-six votes. Given these results, the election could be viewed as a repudiation of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Racial unrest, the riots of 1967 and 1968, the Vietnam War, the unfulfilled promise of the War on Poverty, and the chaos at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August—all this had combined to curdle much of the idealistic pro-Democratic sentiment that had until recently prevailed.
Interviews: "The Call to Service" (April 9, 2004)
Scott Stossel, the author of Sarge, talks about the life and legacy of Sargent Shriver.
And yet it is not hard to imagine the 1968 election's having gone a different way. It is well known that events surrounding Vietnam (specifically, the likelihood that a peace settlement was imminent) had turned the tide in Humphrey's favor in the weeks before the election—and that the tide turned back at least in part because Republican operatives meddled unethically, trying to persuade the South Vietnamese government to pull back from negotiations with suggestions that a Nixon Administration would generate a more favorable settlement.
There was another factor as well—one that might have tilted the election to Humphrey in spite of the stalling of the Paris peace talks. It was the matter of Humphrey's vice-presidential selection.
In the spring of 1968 Sargent Shriver—the founding director of the Peace Corps, the head of Johnson's War on Poverty, and, as the husband of Eunice Kennedy, a brother-in-law of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy—was appointed U.S. ambassador to France. His appointment was not without controversy in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party—and in his own extended family.
The problem was that during the fall of 1967 Bobby Kennedy had begun contemplating challenging Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy had been increasingly opposed to LBJ's handling of Vietnam, and he and Johnson had never had much use for each other; Kennedy had to stifle his distaste when his brother selected LBJ as his running mate in 1960. Even though their mutual dislike was no secret, for the most part the two had maintained an outward truce, and Kennedy had resisted seeking the nomination for fear of creating a damaging rift within the party. Late in 1967, however, Senator Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, began his own campaign; now RFK could not be held solely to blame for any rift.
In late January of 1968 the Tet Offensive destroyed any remaining credibility LBJ had with liberal Democrats and lost him the support of the American people generally. Johnson had been insisting for months that victory in Vietnam was nearly at hand; the penetration of 67,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong deep into South Vietnam that winter suddenly made an American victory seem very distant, if not impossible. McCarthy's previously anemic campaign got a burst of energy as he became the repository of Democratic hopes for ending the war. Kennedy knew if he wanted to make a move, he had to do it soon.
The President had offered the ambassadorship to Shriver earlier that winter. So while Kennedy was considering whether to run against Johnson, Shriver was considering whether to go to Paris. Shriver monitored Kennedy's deliberations closely. It clearly bothered Kennedy that his brother-in-law had remained in the Johnson Administration long after many other former JFK aides and Cabinet members (including RFK himself) had left. But as long as the veneer of a truce existed between LBJ and RFK, Shriver could stay with impunity. If that truce were broken by Kennedy's entering the Democratic race, however, Shriver would be seen as sleeping with the enemy if he continued to serve the Administration in any capacity.
"The Unfinished War" (December 1988)
A product of the conflicting ambitions of the men who shaped it, the War on Poverty was ill-fated. By Nicholas Lemann
"The Unfinished War (Part two)" (January 1989)
An inside look at how personal enmity, political calculation, and policy misjudgments prevented any effective prosecution of the War on Poverty by either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Part two of a two-part article. by Nicholas Lemann
It was a no-win situation. Ever since John F. Kennedy's assassination, when Johnson had reached out to him in an effort to signal continuity with the Kennedy Administration, almost anything Shriver did (or didn't do) for Johnson had been fraught with symbolic weight. For good or ill, both sides saw him as The Kennedy in the Johnson Administration. Shriver had always supported the Kennedy family's political aspirations, but he was still working for Johnson, and he believed it was his patriotic duty to serve the President's interests. Meanwhile, although he remained unwaveringly devoted to the anti-poverty program, that wasn't enough for the President, who pressured him to accept the Paris appointment. As LBJ's adviser Joseph Califano observed in his book The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1991), the President "couldn't look at Shriver without trying to see whether Robert Kennedy was in the shadows behind his brother-in-law." It was bad enough, in Johnson's view, that Bobby Kennedy, who had once served as his Attorney General, was now threatening to run against him; he didn't want another member of the Kennedy family, one who was still working in his Administration, to join an opposing campaign. He wanted Shriver out of the country—and out of RFK's orbit.