[This is the eighth in a series of posts, going back several years now, on the topic of losing presidential candidates since 1960. I’ve actually had this one in the works for a couple of years, but these are supposed to be funny, that’s what I write, and it’s easy to run into roadblocks trying to do that when the subject is 1968. If you lived through it, and maybe even if you didn’t, you should be aware of one stark fact: 1968 simply wasn’t funny. It started bad, mostly ended bad except for the cool bit with the astronauts circling the moon on Christmas eve, and in between was some seriously fucked up shit. I will give it a go regardless; I like to write about history, and with 2016 being such a historic year now, I’m feeling inspired. In a year that saw such a momentous event, with Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman in history to accidentally e-mail the presidency to a cartoon billionaire, it’s time to get back to work. As always, most of what you will read is documented historical fact; some, though, is shit I made up whilst sitting alone in my room chain-smoking joints. I trust you will be able to tell the difference.]
Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr., was born on May 27, 1911 in Wallace, South Dakota. Yup, Hubert Horatio Humphrey. I’ve made fun of his cartoonish name in the past, but I’m not going to do that here. I will not. No more “Oompa-Loompa” jokes; nope, the man was Vice-President of the United States of America, after all, and deserves his dignity.
|Hubert Horatio Humphrey Hornblower Honk Honk Honk|
Hubert studied pharmacy in college (hey, so did I!) and ran the family drugstore before entering politics; he was elected mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1945 and senator from Minnesota in 1948. Known as a strong anti-Communist in his early political days, he became more known as a senator for his work in passing civil rights legislation and involvement in the creation of Medicare and the Peace Corps. Chosen by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be his running mate in 1964, he spent the next four years as understudy to a man who became less and less popular seemingly by the minute after 1965.
One more time: 1968 was a fucked up year in American history. Among other fucked up shit, there was this thing going on called the Vietnam War. While this is far too large a topic in its own right to be covered here, let’s just say that as the year dawned American combat soldiers had been engaged there for nearly three years, young people being conscripted and sent to fight and possibly die in a country most Americans still struggled to locate on a map. It may have begun as a well-meaning attempt to help the people of South Vietnam resist the evil encroachment of communism, but it was getting costly in lives and materials, and...three years? Vietnam was such a dink country, and we won World War II, goddammit. Now we can’t beat Vietnam? Fire the coach, already. Plus, as the first of our wars to be televised, it didn’t help the cause when we kept seeing shit like this:
|American tax dollars at work.|
|Hint: the guy with the gun was on our side.|
Added to this unrest were increasing racial tensions; the country was only a few years removed from the spectacle of the governor of an American state standing in the doorway of a state university, denying entry to African-Americans with a cry of “segregation forever!” (More on George Wallace later.) Inner cities were periodically erupting in violence.
Ah, but 1968 wasn’t all shit, was it? Surely something uplifting must have occurred during that long, brutal year to take our minds off things and bring us together? Well, let’s see...there was O.J. Simpson, dazzling us all on his way to a Heisman Trophy-winning season as the best college football player in the land. There was that.
|(Cue uplifting orchestral theme)|
So......yeah. Violence in the cities, unrest on college campuses, disturbing images on our TV screens, and, to top it off, many of the more privileged young people were “dropping out” of society, rejecting mainstream lifestyles, and taking strange psychedelic drugs that made them act weird and enjoy sitar music and other nonsense. It also made them want to have sex a lot, which was simply unheard of before 1968.
|Known then as “hippies,” you 20-somethings know them today as “Grandpa” and “Grandma.”|
As so often happens, the world was trying to die and many wanted to just let it. Setting the stage for...
Hubert Humphrey began the year, not as a candidate for president, but as the vice-president to an incumbent president who, having taken office in 1963 and winning re-election the following year, was eligible to run again in 1968. As the year began, Lyndon Johnson was presumed to have control of the party machinery and thus a stranglehold on the nomination. His only announced competition was coming from one Eugene McCarthy, a senator from Minnesota running an anti-war campaign
The high-minded McCarthy and his idealistic young followers were elated; that elation, born of having risked a challenge to a sitting president where others (cough Kennedy cough cough) dared not, lasted roughly seven minutes. That very night, Robert F. Kennedy issued a statement that he was “re-assessing” his position in the race for the highest office in the land. As one of McCarthy’s student workers put it, “we woke up after the New Hampshire primary like it was Christmas Day. And when we went down to the tree, we found Bobby Kennedy had stolen our Christmas presents.”
Bobby Kennedy: A Wedgie Waiting To Happen
Robert F. Kennedy was the third son of Joseph P. Kennedy, who himself was a Harvard graduate, very wealthy businessman and former ambassador to Great Britain. Unlike some other wealthy businessmen in American history, Joseph decided that rather than buy the presidency for himself, he would buy it for each of his sons in turn. Eldest son Joseph, Jr., was unfortunately killed in World War II, becoming ineligible for the presidency, whereupon John F. Kennedy assumed the mantle of family expectations and was elected President of the United States in 1960. Younger brother Robert served as Attorney General and All-Purpose Lightning Rod until after John’s assassination in 1963. Controversial from the beginning, he was known for zealous and occasionally extra-legal pursuit of mobsters and others with mob connections and acquired a reputation for ruthlessness. Nevertheless, he benefited from the overly romanticized legacy of his brother and the family money, and, having won a seat in the U.S. Senate representing New York in 1964, could lay claim to a substantial base of support merely by announcing his candidacy. Like many who were close to John Kennedy, Bobby could never shake the feeling that Lyndon Johnson was a usurper and that it was he, not Lyndon, that was the true heir to the unfulfilled promise of JFK. Still, he hesitated, even as the Johnson administration thrashed about in the tarpit that was the Vietnam War and 1968 began to shape up as the clusterfucked mega-downer it was to become. Already branded a ruthless opportunist, the risk of causing disunity and possible destruction of his own party was too heavy a burden for his conscience to bear. If all he had to do was sneak in and swipe somebody else’s Christmas presents, on the other hand, well, that’s a different matter.
Johnson Sticks a Fork In Himself
On March 31, less than three weeks after his “victory” in the New Hampshire primary, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced he would not be a candidate for anything in 1968. Burdened by Vietnam, concerned for his health (he barely lived another four years even without the stress of the presidency) and realizing he would actually have to fight for re-nomination, Johnson had no taste for the battles ahead. It was time to retire to the ranch in Texas, and let others take the mantle of responsibility in these difficult times. Of course, none of this affected his right to control the Democratic party, choose the convention site, give out patronage jobs, reward loyalty, and all the other hallmarks of old-style party politics. This more or less added up to choosing his successor, his vice-president, as the party’s next nominee for president, primaries be damned.
|Typical Texas jerkwad.|
Thus Hubert H. Humphrey, loyal soldier of the administration and party stalwart, became the choice of the inner circle of the party, with Eugene McCarthy and, Bobby Kennedy, finally in the race, battling it out in a series of primary contests that may or may not have made a difference in the end. With party bosses still controlling the majority of convention delegates, Humphrey could contend for the nomination without contesting the primaries.
Then, four days after Johnson’s abdication, the next shock came.
It Gets Ugly
From the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 to the passing of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965, the legal barriers against integration of black and white people and the granting of equal rights to minorities had pretty much all come down. While some southern states were still fighting for segregation, the power of the federal government to enforce federal law couldn’t be resisted forever. But they were trying. And, unfortunately, economic conditions in black neighborhoods in northern cities meant the people living there weren’t too happy, either. So, from 1965 into 1968, the roster of cities that saw racial violence, riots and looting kept growing: Los Angeles, Washington, Cleveland, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland (again), Minneapolis...
And by this time, some (self-appointed) black leaders, notably Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, were publicly calling for more violence.
Fortunately, the civil rights movement had at least one calm and sane voice: a man committed to fighting for social and racial justice, fairness and equality, and freedom for all Americans, using peaceful resistance, saintly patience, perseverance, and appealing to the consciences and “better angels” of our nature. Of course, this being 1968, that meant he had to die.
|1968: About as funny as a hole in this guy’s head.|
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (you’ve probably heard of him, he’s a Day now) in April of 1968 during the primary campaign sparked a new wave of violence, sparked calls for “Law and Order” across the nation, and certainly required a response from the presidential candidates. The day after King’s assassination, Kennedy talked about violence that was “slower but just as deadly and destructive as the gun or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that affects the poor, that poisons the relations between men because their skin has different colors.”
Such sentiments coming from this recent victim of political violence against his family, this recently announced presidential candidate reaching out to minorities, dedicating himself to helping the underprivileged, achieving peace in Vietnam and unity at home, could only mean one thing: it was 1968, and he had to die, too.
|1968: About as funny as a submarine with screen doors--that lead to the kitchen, where this guy gets shot by some loser.|
On June 5, the night he won the California primary and minutes after telling a crowd assembled at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that it was “on to Chicago, and let’s win there,” Bobby Kennedy was shot in the kitchen by some loser, dying the following day. Another funeral, again with the flag-draped coffin, here’s another grieving widow...didn’t we just see this movie? Fucking 1968, already.
So, in August of that fateful year, the survivors staggered into Chicago for the Democratic National Convention: Hubert Humphrey, with enough support from party bosses and party luminaries to have the nomination essentially sewn up; Eugene McCarthy, still tilting at windmills and quoting Voltaire; and George McGovern, trying to marshal the Kennedy forces but who would need to wait four years for his own drubbing at the hands of Richard Nixon.
There was a brief movement to draft Edward M. Kennedy for the nomination, but like all Ted Kennedy For President movements its attention quickly waned and it drove off a bridge shortly after leaving the cottage
Also descending on Chicago for the convention were thousands of anti-war protesters, disaffected youth, leftist radicals, and general ne’er-do-wells. Already there waiting for them were the Chicago Police, soon to be joined by the Illinois National Guard. Confrontations ensued, misunderstandings were had, tempers flared, and things got a little out of hand. Eventually, the police remembered they had billy clubs, riot gear and tear gas, and television viewers were treated to the sight of young protesters and sometimes members of the press being beaten senseless by Chicago law enforcement under the direction of Mayor Richard Daley, a major player at the convention.
|“Convention’s going well, don’t you think?”|
Meanwhile, inside the convention center, the Democrats were busy at work choosing their presidential candidate. This got some of the TV coverage that week. And, in the end, as everyone knew would happen, the party chose Hubert H. Humphrey to be its standard bearer in 1968. Humphrey, who hadn’t entered a single primary that year, who excited no passions on the level of Bobby Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy, whose support of Johnson’s Vietnam policies fed the protests and violence at his nominating convention, was the nominee. After all the excitement, after McCarthy’s youth movement, after Kennedy’s meteoric campaign, the Democrats offered up what Hunter S. Thompson called a “withered booby prize.” Of course, Thompson also once called Humphrey a “treacherous, brain-damaged old vulture” who should be “put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current,” so we might take his phrasing with a grain of salt. But the sense of anti-climax and disappointment was palpable. There was a feeling that the Democratic Party hadn’t so much chosen a presidential candidate as they had...coughed something up.
The General Election Campaign: Richard Nixon
By 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon had been a national political figure for 20 years. Elected to the U.S. Congress from California in 1946 and the Senate in 1950, he was noted for his anti-Communist rhetoric and for running two of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. Basically, the guy was always a shit, and how he got on the ticket and became Vice-President under someone as decent as Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of those odious accidents of history that no one notices right away, like when the cat pees in the toaster.
I’ve written about Richard Nixon before, and all I will say in his favor is that his campaign was well-run, well thought out, and exactly the kind of boring and vague oatmeal barf that many people seemed to need to calm the fuck down in 1968. The contrast in conventions, the chaos of the Democrats vs. the order of the Republicans, was glaring. He pledged to “bring us together,” and he may even have meant it. Still, Nixon was a shit, if I haven’t mentioned that before.
|Richard M. Nixon, our creepiest president since the white curly wig days.|
The General Election Campaign: George Wallace
The 1968 general election had a third party candidate in the race, one George C. Wallace, former governor of Alabama. He was a feisty little lifer in the game of southern politics, a conservative who offered simple solutions to complex problems, usually blaming “pointy-headed” intellectuals in Washington for the nation’s problems. He was for states’ rights and local control of government and schools. He had much appeal in the southern states, and at least some support in some of the northern industrial states among blue-collar working people. He was also racist as fuck.
This was the man who, as governor, stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama in 1963, defying (at least symbolically) the federal government’s orders to desegregate. He famously cried “segregation today, segregation tomorrow...segregation forever!”
|Yeah, Wallace was a shit, too.|
As the fall campaign got under way, Wallace was polling above 20% nationally, and a real threat to win enough states to prevent either Nixon or Humphrey from winning enough electoral votes to win the election.
What Went So Horribly, Horribly Wrong
Essentially, what went wrong for Hubert H. Humphrey was everything I’ve written about above. All those factors worked against him to some extent; through happenstance, he became the frontman for the party in power in a year when everything seemed to be falling apart. Or, rather, when everything was falling apart. The country was losing its collective shit and the Democratic Party, though technically in power, was fractured. Humphrey failed to distance himself from Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies until it was too late in the game, and Nixon was allowed to get by with mumbling empty lawyer-ish phrases about not wanting to undermine the ongoing peace negotiations by something so irresponsible as outlining a position on the most important issue of the campaign.
Humphrey was, at bottom, an old-school liberal with populist leanings, “fighting for the little man,” and, maybe above all, a career politician. He got his big career break in a year when the shit was hitting the fan. Some of that shit hit him square in the face, and he had to deal with that first. He was seen, rightly, as the heir apparent to Lyndon Johnson, who because of his Texas drawl and mishandling of the Vietnam War was seen by many as a sort of President Cowpie, Killer of Children. The chaos and violence at the Democratic National Convention suggested that the Democrats could not stop the chaos and violence in the nation. Humphrey’s campaign had to stumble out of the blocks chained to that pile of rocks, and began the fall trailing in the polls by 15% or so. This discouraged money from coming in at the beginning, when it was most needed. It was only through the efforts of organized labor, notably the AFL/CIO, that the gap began to close, and eventually Humphrey was able to establish his own identity and differentiate himself from President Cowpie, Killer of Children.
But it was too little, too late, with Nixon holding on to win 43.2% of the popular vote and 301 electoral votes against Humphrey's 42.6% and 191. George Wallace won five southern states, with 12.9% of the vote nationwide and 46 electoral votes.
So that ghastly year finally drew to a close. Martin Luther King was dead, Bobby Kennedy was dead, the war dragged on, and Richard Nixon was about to become President of the United States. Not the best of times, 1968. It smelled of death and failure, pure and simple.
|But we’ll always have Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.|