Campaign 1968: I: The Majority

Commentaries by the Editors

First, a few sights and sounds from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a spectacle that wrested from the Republicans the Gold Cup for Most Dismal Abuse of the Democratic Process, on which they won first leg in 1964:

“Lyndon Johnson insists on a subservience which demolishes the giver. He has seen in Hubert Humphrey this subservience and decided that Nixon will make a better President” — a onetime close servant of Lyndon Johnson.

“Free Sirhan Sirhan” — a placard carried by a demonstrator on Michigan Avenue.

“Good morning, this is the Conrad Frightful” — from the only cheerful operator at the Conrad Hilton.

“Why Arthur Krock Split with the Kennedys” — most irrelevant ad of convention week, by the Saturday Evening Past in the Chicago Daily News.

“Welcome to Fort Daley” —placard at Chicago’s O’Hare Field.

“Take care of my wife; she’s had her foot broken, and she’s been teargassed” — a delegate in a hurry to get to the Amphitheater.

“Humphrey is shit!” — chant of a young demonstrator outside the Conrad Hilton.

“Nixon + Spiro = Zero” — a sidewalk graffito.

“There are only 53 bathrooms in the White House, which would mean that the President ought to be a plumber” — Senator Eugene McCarthy, on being asked by a California delegate for his views on the qualities necessary in a President.

“You have never been closer to the truth before — vote for Richard Nixon” — scotch-taped above a urinal in a Chicago men’s room.

“I have never bitten anyone in my life” — David C. Hoeh, chairman of the New Hampshire delegation, on a national TV network.

Onward and upward

A campaign that begins with such a general display of cynicism, suspicion, bad taste, and vulgarity could hardly go anywhere but up, or so one might presume. It is no wonder that the Republicans, guilty in their convention this time only of banality and quiet suffocation of all dissent, imagination, or venturesomeness, should look on the Democratic shambles with a sense that opportunity overfloweth. Not only had the Democrats made fools of themselves, but they had nominated a candidate who (no one who knew Humphrey could have predicted this three or four years ago) seemed determined to be as boring as Nixon himself, and without the sheen of confidence that distinguished the Nixon of 1968 from that of 1960. The loser acted like a winner this time. When his campaign was barely under way, Nixon was already thinking about how he would deal with Moscow after the election.

Also, the Democrats had chosen a vice presidential nominee who, though demonstrably more experienced, candid, and attractive, and plainly more talented politically and administratively than the Republicans’ choice, was chosen for not much better reasons than the GOP applied in choosing Agnew. Spiro was firm with the blacks, and his father had changed the family name; Ed Muskie was a Polish American, and his father had changed the family name. (Refrain by the chorus: Ethnic days are here again! Let’s scratch that backlash vote to win. *)

True reflection?

The temptation is to judge both conventions in the way Gene McCarthy assessed the Democratic one after his defeat in Chicago. “I think we lost,” he said, “because the political procedure isn’t responsive to the will of the people.” That is not so, however. It is more realistic to recognize that what happened in Miami Beach and Chicago and what is about to happen in the national voting for President must be reckoned as a true reflection of the mood and desires of a majority of Americans in this bizarre election year, moods and desires that grow (as subsequent reports in this section will attempt to show) partly out of conscious will and clarity of ideas and

*Not to be confused with a song based on the Nixon campaign strategy, lyrics attributed to James Symington and sung to the tune of another old favorite:

My name is
Richard Milhous Nixon
And I hope that you’re
All fixin’ to
Just tiptoe
Through the issues
With me.
Don’t want to analyze,
I’d rather generalize
So please don’t criticize.
Simply close your eyes
And tiptoe
Through the issues
With me.

partly out of fear, confusion, and the distortions that have particularly marked our politics in the last few years.

Charisma of change

“There are,” as William Phillips writes in the latest issue of Partisan Review, “too many facile generalizations about the spread of violence, which do not say anything about specific questions, and hence are easily absorbed into an empty and dangerous rhetoric about law and order, mouthed by people who would do little or nothing about the problems tearing the country apart. . . . At the same time, there is something awful, and ominous, about the assassination of so many public men in this country whose charisma was the charisma of change.”

There is the point. The charisma of change got shot out of the atmosphere just as it was beginning to seem possible that the prospect of profound change in certain major American attitudes was to be an issue, a choice, perhaps even a result, of this year’s election. Too much should not be claimed; Martin Luther King was not going to produce a cure for the racial problem in America, nor was Robert Kennedy going to produce the magic to cure race or Vietnam (any more than his brother was to induce more than a beginning of the changes that were later claimed for him in the sorrow over his murder. Indeed, the impulse for a bold public reappraisal in the case of Vietnam was touched off first by Eugene McCarthy. Nonetheless — and it is no denigration of his act of leadership to say it — McCarthy’s effort was not going to be nearly enough by itself; he never did act like a man who wanted to be President; sometimes he didn’t even seem to want to demonstrate that he could be. The impetus added by Robert Kennedy, the magic of the name, the suggestion of a “new generation” acoming in were the added ingredients that made changes in policies, in national tone, in the generation of leadership at least possibilities.

The impulse for change simply did not get far enough before it was shut off. On the two great issues demanding strong leadership and brave solution — Vietnam abroad and the racial-social upheaval at home — the urge for radical change in our attitudes moved only a minority (albeit a growing minority in the case of Vietnam — the 40 percent vote for the peace plank at Chicago is probably a fair measurement, though it should be emphasized that the peace plank was supported by all the states whose delegations were elected by public primaries). The majority in America in 1968 combines two groups — those stern folk who prefer the present methods or even tougher ones against the Communists in Southeast Asia and against the disorderly blacks, the rebellious students, and the disturbers of the status quo at home; and those other Americans of “the silent center,” who are not yet enough stirred up by those issues to swing the balance the other way.

Follow the leader

The polls showed this, if read carefully, and even if the polls didn’t, the instincts of the Republicans, with the Nixon mentality in ascendancy and Nelson Rockefeller sputtering out of contention, first in indecision and then in a cascade of expensively spurious prose, would in any event have spurred them to try to shape a majority made up of the right and the silent center. To this extent, the Republicans can at least be credited with a willingness to “lead” the electorate. It was their good fortune in mid-1968 to find that they did not have to build such a majority. They could simply pick their prose carefully and tread quietly, leading only in the fashion of the storied French general who, observing his division running through the streets, rushed out to catch them, shouting: “I must follow them. I am their leader.”

For Hubert Humphrey and Edward Muskie, however, the prospect was not so simple. They could not both unite the Democratic Party and woo the hard-line-plus-silentcenter American majority, though there were many in the party, among them the labor leaders and tough pols like Governor Connally or Mayor Daley, who seemed to think the malcontent left-of-center and the intellectuals would come around in the end. (Though he gave the party a severe black eye with the disgraceful, contemptuous manipulation of the convention, Daley may have done the party a certain service among the hard-line electorate by showing that the Democrats could, by God, maintain order in the streets. Daley’s mail, and that received by the networks and the other news media and by the Federal Communications Commission, all suggests that the public favored Daley and his police against the Yippies and their supporters. This was, in view of the news and TV coverage, a most interesting commentary on “the power of the press,” and emphatic testimony to the seriousness with which much of the country has taken the “law and order” approach to America’s domestic dilemma. As for the other approach, the forgotten “war on poverty” — what’s in it for the well-off majority?)

So Hubert Humphrey found himself confronted with a choice which ironically echoed the one right-wing Republicans used to complain about — that of having to me-too the other party, in this case to go the way of “law and order” at home and “stick to it” in Vietnam, or of taking giant steps in the other direction: first, to break with his chief, Lyndon Johnson, over American policy in Vietnam; second, to take the unpopular side of the “law and order” issue at home; and third, to produce enough imagination and inspiration in the eight weeks of the campaign to change the makeup of the American “majority.”

Too much to expect

To those who knew Hubert Humphrey as one of the decentest men in American political life, it was not too much to expect that he would want to take that course, even if he didn’t. He had, after all, earned his medals as a courageous politician and creative legislator before many of the liberals who now reviled and abandoned him were old enough to vote. To those who had watched the ego and the appetites of Lyndon Johnson gnawing at the Vice President’s vitals for the past four years, and who knew the terrible vengeance Lyndon Johnson was capable of trying to wreak, even at the cost of putting the other party in the White House, it was expecting a great deal of Humphrey. To those who saw the mood of the country as it was in 1968, with fear and division and the instinct for property, for keeping or getting what’s mine, obscuring the need for change, and with the extremes on both sides diminishing the center, it was almost too much to expect.

Hubert Humphrey could win only by turning a big part of the country around, by persuading a majority to return to power the party that had been the party of government in the last eight of the years in which too many things had gone askew, years in which the problems of America seem to have outpaced the progress. It would take some man, some party, some system to achieve that. — Robert Manning