Ron Berger —
For people of my generation, the baby boomers, Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (Penguin Press, 2017) is a trip down memory lane. It was not only a year that changed U.S. politics, but our very lives.
For starters, there were the traumatic assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. There were Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to the incumbent presidency of Lyndon Johnson, the second presidential bid of Richard Nixon, and the independent candidacy of George Wallace. Hubert Humphrey, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan—and many others—are among the fascinating cast of characters.
Although I remember much of what transpired that year, there is a lot in this book by the host of MSNBC’s The Last Word that was new to me. And while O’Donnell takes a chronological approach to the events of 1968, he also weaves backward-looking and forward-looking material that places this momentous year in broader historical context.
McCarthy and the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War is arguably the central thread of O’Donnell’s narrative, because the escalation or deescalation of the war was the key issue in the presidential campaign of that year. And this is where Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota, played a pivotal role.
A few years earlier, in 1964, McCarthy had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, along with nearly every member of both houses of Congress, to give President Johnson the authority to send more troops to Vietnam. Johnson had assured the country that the troop escalation would be temporary, but by 1967 there were some 485,000 men who continued to be deployed indefinitely. And the body count on both sides of the conflict—U.S. troops and the South Vietnamese on the one hand, and the North Vietnamese on the other hand—was mounting.
McCarthy had had enough. “If I have to run for president” to stop the war, McCarthy said, that is what he would do. And so began the “Dump Johnson” movement, as McCarthy announced his intention to challenge Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination for president.
McCarthy was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1948, and to the Senate in 1958. Lyndon Johnson, a senator from Texas at the time, was the majority leader, and though McCarthy was more liberal than Johnson, the Texan took McCarthy under his wing. Better to have McCarthy “inside the tent pissing out,” Johnson said, than the alternative. In turn, McCarthy owed much of his clout in the Senate to Johnson’s patronage.
McCarthy could be a little self-righteous. He was both an intellectual and a poet, and in his youth he had contemplated becoming a priest. In 1960 he tried to block an effort in the Minnesota delegation to support John F. Kennedy for president, while nominating Adlai Stevenson, a fellow intellectual. Stevenson had also been the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956, losing both elections to Dwight Eisenhower. When told that he would have the support of “all thinking” people, Stevenson famously quipped, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”
JFK, as we all know, was elected president in 1960, and he picked Lyndon Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate because he thought the Texas senator could deliver the South. After Kennedy was assassinated, and Johnson became president, McCarthy thought he might have a chance of being selected by Johnson to be on the ticket in 1964. But McCarthy was too independent to swear absolute loyalty to Johnson, who chose Hubert Humphrey, the other senator from Minnesota, instead.
Always lurking in the background of McCarthy’s 1968 candidacy was Robert F. Kennedy. RFK had risen to national notoriety in the 1950s as a hard-nosed Senate staffer and later as his brother’s campaign manager and Attorney General. There was no love lost between RFK and Johnson, a feud that started during the 1960 campaign, when Johnson tried to block JFK’s nomination.
In 1968 some antiwar Democrats thought that McCarthy was just a protest candidate, and that only RFK could defeat the sitting president. If Kennedy had decided to run at the beginning of the campaign, McCarthy would have likely stepped aside; he was not in the race for personal glory or because of an overriding ambition to be president. But Kennedy balked, thinking a challenge to Johnson was risky and that he’d have a better chance of becoming president if he waited until 1972. Hence McCarthy decided, “I’m going to do it.”
The Democratic Primary
In 1968 fewer than a third of the states held presidential primaries, and only about a third of the convention delegates were selected in them. Most of the delegates were chosen because of their faithful service to the Democratic Party and willingness to follow orders. The system that we are now familiar with did not begin until 1972, a legacy of the ‘68 campaign. Johnson assumed he did not have to demean himself by campaigning in the primaries in order to be nominated. What Johnson and other party professionals did not know at the time was that everything they thought they knew about American politics was about to change.
As Johnson escalated the bombing in Vietnam, thousands of young antiwar activists flocked to New Hampshire in February to work for McCarthy in the state’s primary. The campaign’s strategy was to “win” the primary without getting a majority of votes, because even a strong second-place finish would undermine Johnson as the presumptive nominee. When McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote, while Johnson received 48 percent, McCarthy declared victory.
Meanwhile, RFK, now a Senator from New York, began speaking out more forcefully against any escalation of the Vietnam conflict, a policy he once supported. And after McCarthy’s New Hampshire showing, he began to reassess his previous doubts about running for president. One strategy was to pursue back channel negotiations with McCarthy to divide up the remaining primaries between them, so as to not divide the anti-Johnson vote—until the last and all important California primary, where the two would square off in a final contest to amass the biggest pot of convention delegates. RFK’s younger brother Ted, now a Senator from Massachusetts, was chosen as the liaison to the McCarthy campaign. But nothing materialized from the talks.
With RFK an announced candidate, a Gallup poll released at the end of March showed him leading Johnson 44 to 41 percent, with Johnson leading McCarthy 59 to 29 percent. Johnson hoped that the split in the antiwar vote would enable him to emerge victorious, but he was also compelled to announce a deescalation of the bombing. Regardless of presidential politics, the lives saved through this deescalation were already a victory of the McCarthy campaign. But suddenly, on March 31, Johnson made a surprising announcement: “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
As if this wasn’t enough shock to the body politic, four days later Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the hotel he was staying in Memphis, Tennessee. Kennedy was on his way to a campaign rally in the heart of Indianapolis’s black community when he heard the news. Mayor Richard Lugar told him he could not guarantee his safety and advised cancelling the rally. Kennedy went anyway and spoke movingly to the grieving crowd with words aimed at uniting the nation:
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between human beings, and he died in the cause of that effort. … For those of you who are black and tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust … I would only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. … But we have to make an effort … to go beyond these rather difficult times. … What we need … is not division; what we need … is not hatred; what we need … is not violence and lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black.
Rioting broke out in cities all over the country, but Indianapolis remained calm.
Meanwhile, a few weeks after the King assassination, Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, announced his intention to seek the nomination. Humphrey did not want to compete in the primaries, however, saying, “The people who voted for me for Vice President have every right to expect a full four-year service in that office.” His strategy was to try to play the “inside game” by going after the delegates who were free to vote for whomever they wished at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago.
All told, with Kennedy winning some primaries and McCarthy others, the June 4 primary in California would decide who’d be the front-runner going into the convention. Kennedy won that primary by a margin of 46 to 42 percent. But during his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was shot and killed by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. The soul of the nation was shocked once again.
The Democratic Convention
The delegates and candidates were not the only ones who arrived in Chicago for the August 26-29 Democratic Party convention. Thousands of antiwar and countercultural “new left” protesters, who had already been active in other parts of the country, also descended on the windy city. Among the leaders were Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society and the flamboyant Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party, better known as Yippies.
While the delegates and candidates plotted and schemed inside the convention hall, the protestors gathered in the parks and streets of Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley and Governor Samuel Shapiro mobilized thousands of Chicago Police and National Guard troops.
A loosely-knit coalition of antiwar groups calling itself the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, better known as MOBE, assigned a team of marshals to instruct the protestors in passive resistance, but also in how to break through police lines if necessary. Hayden began talking about a revolutionary takeover of the city, exclaiming, “The North Vietnamese are shedding blood. We must be prepared to shed blood.” Rumors circulated that the protestors planned to put LSD in the water supply, storm the convention hall, and loot high-priced stores.
As police in riot gear tried to disband the protestors, some started throwing rocks. The police charged the crowd, beating them with clubs, along with reporters and cameraman in their midst. Chaos and tensions mounted, with Hayden declaring, “Let us make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city.” Black Panther Bobby Seale urged the crowd to “pick up a crowbar. … Pick up a gun.” The police escalated their assault, spraying the protestors with tear gas and Mace. A group of officers jumped out of a police truck, shouting, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Some called it a full-scale police riot. The protestors’ mantra became, “The whole world is watching.”
Inside the convention hall, the protest did not go unnoticed, but more important to the nomination itself was the insider maneuvering. One point of contention was the “unit rule,” which permitted the leaders of state delegations to require their delegates to vote as a bloc for the candidate who had the most votes in their delegation. The McCarthy campaign challenged this unit rule in the Rules Committee. The Committee deferred a decision to a floor vote, where it was abolished.
Another point of contention involved challenges to some of the state delegations for violating the Party’s new rules on fair racial representation. The Credentials Committee resolved the dispute with some compromises, while also recommending a review of all delegate selection procedures before the 1972 presidential campaign.
Importantly, the Party’s platform on the Vietnam War was a point of contention. The McCarthy campaign wanted what was called the “peace plank,” calling for an unconditional halt of the bombing. The Humphrey campaign, on the other hand, wanted whatever Johnson would allow; and Johnson had a few conditions for ending the bombing. He was reluctant to make them public, however, fearing it would undermine his negotiating clout with the North Vietnamese. Party hardliners for the war also claimed that an unconditional halt of the bombing would cost American lives. The Platform Committee, once again, deferred the decision to a floor vote, where Johnson’s position was approved with 60 percent of the vote.
George McGovern, Senator from South Dakota and later Democratic Party nominee for president in 1972, also rose to national prominence during the latter stages of the ’68 campaign. Doubtful of McCarthy’s chances of winning the nomination, McGovern declared his candidacy in early August, hoping to poach delegates from the McCarthy antiwar camp.
Ted Kennedy, too, flirted with a last-minute antiwar candidacy. Kennedy backers were trying to muster support for a “draft Kennedy” movement that might have a chance of succeeding if front-runner Humphrey failed to win a majority on the first ballot. But Kennedy decided against pursuing the nomination, and it would more than a decade before he tried to run for president again, in an unsuccessful bid to derail President Jimmy Carter’s nomination for a second term in 1980.
In the end, the final delegate count was Humphrey 1,769¼, McCarthy 601, McGovern 146½ , and Kennedy 12¾. Channing Phillips, who headed the Washington, DC delegation that was initially pledged to RFK, also received 67½ votes; Phillips was first the African American to be placed in nomination at a Democratic Party convention. Upon receiving the nomination, Humphrey chose Maine Senator Edmund Muskie as his vice-presidential running mate.
The Republican Primary and Convention
In 1968, it was not just the Democratic Party that was marked by political intrigue and historically changing developments. For one, there was the resurrection of Richard Nixon as the leader of the Republican Party. Nixon, who had served two terms as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, was the Republican nominee for president in 1960, losing to John Kennedy. In 1962, he made the unusual decision to run for a lesser office, losing a bid to become governor of California. In 1968, he decided to run for president again.
Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona, had been the Republican nominee in 1964. At that time both Goldwater and Nixon came to realize that the Democratic Party’s tilt toward civil rights offered an opportunity for the Republican Party to increase its support in the South. This was the beginning of what Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips dubbed the “Southern strategy,” which he astutely thought could form the basis of a winning Republican coalition that could last for decades.
Another Republican candidate of that year was Michigan Governor George Romney, father of Mitt Romney. Early polls had Romney in the lead, but his muddled position on both the Vietnam War and domestic “law and order” put him to the left of Nixon and made him seem indecisive. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who represented the liberal wing of the party, made a meek attempt during the primaries, opting instead to focus on the inside game at the convention.
Flanking Nixon on his right was California Governor Ronald Reagan, the apparent heir to Goldwater Republicanism. Reagan, as is well known, began his career as a movie actor, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Initially a Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party in 1962 and became a corporate spokesman before being elected Governor in 1966, emerging as the chief voice of the view that the federal government had gotten too large, too liberal, and too friendly to organized labor and was thus an enemy of American business and freedom. Never a first-rate actor, Reagan was a first-rate politician, whose folksy demeanor and way of talking made right-wing Republicanism sound good-natured and commonsensical. He also was the favorite of Southern segregationists, including the influential South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who had abandoned the Democratic Party and become a Republican in 1964.
Going into the August 5-8 convention in Miami Beach, Nixon was the clear front-runner, staking out an ideological position between Rockefeller and Reagan (by now Romney had become inconsequential). Yet, it was unclear if Nixon could muster the 667 votes he needed to win on the first ballot.
A key part of Nixon’s convention strategy was to convince Thurmond to support him, and not Reagan. Thurmond had said, “I love Reagan,” believing he was the future of the Republican Party. But this was not the time for a Reagan candidacy; doing so would only help Rockefeller.
Both Rockefeller and Reagan hoped that the other would receive enough votes to force a second round of convention ballots, at which time anything could happen. But once the votes were cast, Nixon received 692, enough to secure the nomination. Rockefeller and Reagan received 277 and 182 respectively, with the remaining votes divided between Romney and 7 other minor candidates. Upon receiving the nomination, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his vice-presidential running mate.
The General Election
In early September, Nixon was 15 points ahead of Humphrey in the polls, and could have run a conventional front-runner “play it safe” campaign if it were not for George Wallace. Wallace, who served as Governor of Alabama from 1963 to 1966, was a pro-segregation Democrat.
In his inaugural speech as governor, Wallace famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He had made an unsuccessful bid against Johnson in the 1964 Democratic presidential primary and decided to run as the American Independent Party candidate in 1968. In doing so, he had no illusions about winning the presidency, but he did hope to garner enough votes to prevent an electoral college victory and throw the election into the House of Representatives. At that point Wallace intended to use his leverage to extract policy concessions on race in exchange for his support. But Wallace made a big mistake in selecting General Curtis LeMay as his vice-presidential running mate. LeMay, who had urged President John Kennedy to bomb Soviet missile sites during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, didn’t take more than a few minutes after his selection to scare even the most hawkish proponents of the Vietnam War when he said that if North Vietnam didn’t stop attacking the South, the United States would “bomb them back to the Stone Age,” possibly with nuclear weapons.
Nonetheless, Nixon was cautious about losing votes to Wallace. Wallace’s racial rhetoric was typically coded in the language of “law and order,” and Nixon’s appropriation of this phrase sent a message to southern voters that he could be trusted to support their interests. He also made a broad appeal to what he called the “forgotten Americans,” whom he later dubbed the “silent majority.”
Nixon tried to avoid outlining specific policy proposals during the campaign and was reported to have a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. These words were not really Nixon’s, however, but rather a UPI reporter’s, who used them to describe Nixon’s unstated position. Hubert Humphrey, in turn, seemed to have trouble figuring out what he wanted to say about the war; and since he represented the status quo, he drew even more war protestors to his events than the Republican nominee. Thus Humphrey decided he needed to make a break with Johnson and call for an unconditional halt to the bombing. Johnson was not pleased with Humphrey’s evolving position on the war, and even consulted with Nixon about how to rebut the Democratic nominee by asserting that any halt of the bombing would cost American lives. At times he feared that his legacy regarding the war would be safer with Nixon than with Humphrey as president.
As Wallace went down in the polls, and as Humphrey began to attract the antiwar vote, by mid-October the Vice President began polling within 5 points of Nixon. Nixon was desperate to stem the tide. At a time when the Johnson administration was engaged in negotiations with North and South Vietnam to begin peace talks, Nixon concluded that any progress on peace before the election would hurt his chances. He began to make public statements about how the North and South Vietnamese might get a better deal if he were president. His campaign even engaged in back-channel discussions with the South Vietnamese to try to scuttle the peace talks. The go-between was Anna Chennault, the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, who had extensive contacts in the region.
Nonetheless, on October 31, just days before the election, Johnson announced that he had ordered the halt of all bombing and that peace talks would soon be underway. Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, quickly contacted Chennault, who called the South Vietnamese Ambassador in Washington, DC. The next day South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu announced that he was pulling out of the peace talks, making Johnson’s announcement look like a last-minute attempt to tip the election to Humphrey.
Insofar as the FBI had wiretapped the Chennault call to the South Vietnamese Ambassador, Johnson was made aware of the contact. Johnson considered the intervention to be nothing short of treason, but he was unsure if Nixon had authorized it. He reached out to Nixon, who denied any prior knowledge. Johnson could have made the incident public and caused serious damage to Nixon’s campaign. But he was concerned that if he did, and Nixon was elected, the new president would immediately be vulnerable to impeachment, which Johnson thought would be detrimental to the country and the presidency. Thus he decided to let the matter rest.
Lawrence O’Donnell calls this incident the “worst crime in American political history” —a crime that arguably cost thousands of lives by extending the war. Years later, documents would reveal that Nixon did in fact order his campaign to use Chennault to throw a “monkey wrench” into the peace talks in order to help his election prospects.
In the end, Nixon received 43.4 percent of the popular vote, while Humphrey received 42.7 percent and Wallace 13.5 percent. Nixon’s Electoral College margin was even larger, as he garnered 301 votes compared to Humphrey’s 191 and Wallace’s 46.
The Nixon administration spent five years negotiating terms for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. During these years he expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos and ordered some of the heaviest bombing of the war.
At his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, decorated Navy veteran John Kerry, donned with medals and dressed in his old military fatigues, spoke on behalf of a group of Vietnam veterans with whom he had recently met. Kerry, as we know, was later elected Senator from Massachusetts, was the Democratic Party candidate for president in 2004, and served as Secretary of State during the administration of Barack Obama.
In his testimony, Kerry said:
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we’ve made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, “the first President to lose a war.”
And we are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Thirty-six percent of the 58,315 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam died during Nixon’s years in office. At least 1.3 million Vietnamese lost their lives during the course of the war, too. Two decades after the end of the war, in 1995, the United States and Vietnam established full diplomatic relations; full trade relations were established in 2001. Vietnam is now a tourist destination for thousands of Americans every year.
O’Donnell notes that there are many “what-ifs” about the 1968 presidential campaign that could have changed the outcome. For me, the biggest what-if has to do with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. But O’Donnell thinks the “biggest what-if of all is what if Eugene McCarthy had not run?” If McCarthy had not run, “Kennedy would not have run and would not have been assassinated on the night of the California primary. President Johnson would have run for reelection. Election night would have come down to Johnson versus Nixon. Whatever the outcome, [Kennedy] would have surely run for president as the antiwar candidate in 1972.” And so on … and so on … and so on.
But McCarthy did run, and in doing so O’Donnell thinks he “made the bravest decision of any candidate in 1968, a decision that changed his party, changed the campaign, changed the antiwar movement into an important faction of the Democratic Party, and changed the course of history.”
O’Donnell adds that the most important thing that McCarthy did in 1968 was save lives. “We have no idea when the Vietnam War would have ended if … McCarthy hadn’t made ending the war a presidential campaign issue in 1968. The war ended seven years after McCarthy ran. If the first antiwar presidential candidate did not run until 1972,” how long would it have been until the war ended? We simply do not know.