In the United States, the 1960s were a period of unprecedented change and upheaval—but the year 1968 in particular stands out as a dramatic turning point. Americans witnessed the Tet offensive in Vietnam; the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; and the chaos at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the same time, a young generation was questioning authority like never before—and popular culture, especially music, was being revolutionized.
Largely based on unpublished interviews and documents—including in-depth conversations with Eugene McCarthy and Bob Dylan, among many others, and the late Theodore White’s archives, to which the author had sole access—1968 in America is a fascinating social history, and the definitive study of a year when nothing could be taken for granted.
“Kaiser aims to convey not only what happened during the period but what it felt like at the time. Affecting touches bring back powerful memories, including strong accounts of the impact of the Tet offensive and of the frenzy aroused by Bobby Kennedy’s race for the presidency.” —The New York Times Book Review
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Four Democrats, Three Ghosts, One War
"This nation will keep its commitments, from South Vietnam to West Berlin."
— President Lyndon B. Johnson in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, November 27, 1963
"The younger generation came on the world scene [after 1960], not having lived through any of these other events and so they think of communism as being in some cases a terrible system and, in other parts of the world, nothing much worse than some of our allies. [Those in] the older generation think back on all of these events and say, 'How can you trust a Communist?' or 'How can you ever accept the idea that there should be a Communist?' When we talk in our country of the struggle between the young and the old, I think part of it at least is due to that."
— Robert Kennedy to David Frost, 1968
EUGENE McCarthy would seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 because of the War in Vietnam; after a painful interval, Robert Kennedy would emulate him. Lyndon Johnson would retire from politics because of the war, and Hubert Humphrey would be emasculated by it.
All four Democrats had complex, interconnected histories that stretched back over two decades. Each of them had served in the Senate; Johnson and Humphrey had both served as vice-president. The other two — McCarthy and Kennedy — had wanted to become Johnson's vice-president in 1964. For the victor in 1968, the prize was the heart of the Democratic party and — if that could be won without destroying its soul — the possibility of four years in the White House. But these men were not only running against each other; they also had to grapple with three ghosts.
Because these spirits were invisible, their existence was not always acknowledged. However, they had great influence over all the candidates. These were the ghosts of John Kennedy, Joseph McCarthy, and a crucial summit meeting called "Munich." How each aspirant dealt with these spirits, whether he chose to embrace them or exorcise them, would determine his position on the war, the dominant issue in America in 1968.
FROM 1956, when John Kennedy lost his fight for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, until 1980, when Jimmy Carter beat back Edward Kennedy's challenge in the presidential primaries, every Democratic politician (and many Republicans) who aspired to national office measured his success largely in terms of the Kennedys. No other family had so dominated the dialogue in a major American political party for so long. Their larger-than-life presence in the minds of the public produced absolute devotion and almost unbelievable hatred. Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired emotions of equal intensity, but even his unprecedented twelve-year presidency lasted only half as long as the political era in which one's position on Jack, Bobby, or Teddy was the threshold question for every active Democrat. When national political correspondent David Broder quit the New York Times in 1966 to join the Washington Post, among his complaints was the fact that "Kennedy stories of any variety" were one of the "few stimuli" to which editors of his former paper always reacted. In 1986 Caroline Kennedy was the only presidential daughter whose wedding would still rate the page-one treatment the Times normally reserves for royalty — twenty-three years after her father's presidency.
All the leading major-party candidates for president in 1968 were very much a part, if not a prisoner, of this syndrome. Richard Nixon had run against John Kennedy (and his brother Bobby, who was JFK's campaign manager) for president in 1960. Nixon lost the popular election by just 112,881 votes, out of nearly sixty-nine million cast. In 1968 he planned to avenge that humiliation, running as "the New Nixon" to distinguish himself from the pallid man with the five o'clock shadow who had been defeated by a dashing Bostonian eight years earlier.
Hubert Humphrey had been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate every four years since his 1948 speech on civil rights — and every time he ran for national office, he bumped into a Kennedy. When he sought the Democratic nomination for vice-president in 1956, he came in fifth — behind Estes Kefauver, John Kennedy, Albert Gore, and Robert Wagner. In 1960 the Minnesota senator ran an underfinanced campaign for president; eighteen weeks after he announced his candidacy, the Kennedy machine had demolished him. The end came in West Virginia, where Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., campaigning for Kennedy, made the false charge that Humphrey had been a draft dodger in World War II. (He had actually flunked his physical.) Later Humphrey confronted Roosevelt over the smear.
"Frank," he said, "you know goddamn well that what you said wasn't true."
"I know that," said Roosevelt, "but Bobby asked me to do it."
After West Virginia, Humphrey had flirted with the idea of coming out for Kennedy before the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, until McCarthy told him sardonically that it was the "right decision," adding that "all those stories about Bobby bringing FDR, Jr., into West Virginia and calling you a slacker — they're totally unfounded." A furious Humphrey immediately abandoned the idea of endorsing Kennedy.
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson chose Humphrey to be his running mate, and the Minnesotan was finally elected to a national office — but only after Johnson felt strong enough to ignore the movement urging him to make Bobby Kennedy his vice-president.
Gene McCarthy was the other senator from Minnesota, and two disparate facts made his relations with the Kennedys particularly intricate. First, like them, he was a Catholic, but a very different kind of Catholic. Second, he was from the same state as Hubert Humphrey, a geographical coincidence that made him Humphrey's ally when he ran against John Kennedy in 1956 and 1960.
McCarthy entered the House of Representatives in 1949, two years after John Kennedy. Fred Marshall, another Minnesota Democrat elected to the House in 1948, remembered the young academic from Minnesota being briefly infatuated with the Irishman from Massachusetts. ''A lot of things attracted them to each other," said Marshall. "I remember that Gene was more or less enamored of Jack Kennedy and his family at first." McCarthy was even invited to Kennedy's wedding in 1953. But it was a doomed romance: Those early feelings of friendliness rapidly dissolved into rivalry and resentment.
Their common religion caused other complications. Many of McCarthy's friends thought part of his resentment of the Kennedys came from his conviction that he should have been the first Catholic president. McCarthy denied this. "Why be first anyway?" he asked. "That had nothing to do with it."
The fact that Kennedy was not particularly religious actually made him the ideal Catholic to break the chain of prejudice that had confined the presidency to Protestants since 1789. From a political standpoint, it was also helpful that abortion was not legal — or even widely debated — in America in 1960. As a result, it was not yet an issue that would put a liberal Catholic into conflict with his church. (The landmark Supreme Court decision striking down restrictive abortion laws wasn't rendered until 1973.) The enlightenment of Pope John XXIII, who led the church from 1958 to 1963, was another blessing for the Kennedy campaign.
Anticipating criticism of his Catholicism, Kennedy told a national magazine in 1959, "Whatever one's religion in private life may be, for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts — including the First Amendment." This was a pragmatic, political approach and — perhaps for that reason — offensive to McCarthy. The Minnesotan was more devout than Kennedy; he had even spent ten months in two monasteries before deciding he was not cut out for the life of a Benedictine monk. Writing in America, a Catholic weekly, he disputed Kennedy's more secular view: "Although in a formal sense church and state can and should be kept separate, it is absurd to hold that religion and politics can be kept wholly apart when they meet in the consciousness of one man." The implication, of course, was that they did not meet in Kennedy. McCarthy continued, "If a man is religious — and if he is in politics — one fact will relate to the other if he is indeed a whole man." When Kennedy saw the piece, he recognized it as an attack on himself.
Everything about the way Kennedys — especially Jack Kennedy — lived suggested that they believed what happened here on earth was more consequential than whatever might occur in an uncertain hereafter. The same could not be said of McCarthy, whose slightly mystical bearing made many of his friends unsure of the ultimate importance he placed on earthly events. This resulted in very distinct campaign styles (and levels of commitment) when Jack, Gene, and Bobby ran for president.
McCarthy seemed to go out of his way to offend his fellow Catholic when Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960. After Humphrey had quit the race, the Kennedys asked Walter Ridder, a Washington newspaperman, to act as their emissary to obtain the support of the senator from Minnesota. Ridder's approach was immediately rebuffed. McCarthy "didn't say why," but Ridder gathered that the Minnesotan "didn't think Kennedy had been a very good senator or a very good Catholic and that he just didn't like him personally. ... From that point on, as far as I could see, Gene was dead with the Kennedys." McCarthy compounded the offense when he agreed to nominate Adlai Stevenson at the Democratic Convention in 1960.
Even though Kennedy's nomination was never really in doubt in Los Angeles, McCarthy briefly managed to steal the Kennedys' thunder. "We're going to have a lot of fun with this," he confided after receiving the assignment to deliver the Stevenson nominating speech. On that Wednesday evening in July, McCarthy revealed one of his finely tuned and seldom displayed talents: the ability to milk a moment for maximum emotional effect. Gene had never been particularly close to Stevenson. His target (the Kennedys) probably gave him more inspiration than his subject. Like Humphrey's peroration on civil rights twelve years earlier, it was that rare rhetorical event: a speech so powerful, it transforms its author into a national figure overnight. Destiny would offer McCarthy an even more dramatic opportunity for impromptu oratory eight years later; but never again would he speak so effectively as he did that evening for Adlai Stevenson.
"Do not reject this man who made us all proud to be called Democrats," McCarthy implored. "Do not turn away from this man. ... Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party." Stevenson's supporters staged a wild demonstration for twenty-five minutes; but this was really a wake masquerading as a celebration. When it was over, Kennedy had won the nomination with 806 votes on the first ballot. Johnson was second with 409 votes; Stevenson, a very distant third at 79½. A quarter-century later McCarthy said he didn't think Kennedy was ready to be president in 1960. "If I'd had my pick then, I would have picked Stevenson and Kennedy as a ticket," he said.
After John Kennedy was killed, McCarthy always insisted in public that he had admired him. Despite his ambivalence toward the young president, McCarthy was shaken by his death. On the Senate floor in 1963, he delivered this elegant tribute: "A mind that sought the truth, a will ready for commitment, and a voice to challenge and to move are ended for this age and time of ours." Mary McGrory, a Washington Star reporter friendly with both McCarthy and the Kennedys, said, "Gene really felt terrible about Jack Kennedy being killed. I think he was very jealous of him and resentful of him, but I can remember him calling me up and saying, 'Nothing's any fun any more.' He was minded at one time [after JFK's assassination] to go and see Bobby, and I said, 'I think you should.' And he said, 'Yeah, but he might misunderstand.' I said, 'I don't think he would: He's heartbroken.'" McCarthy never made the visit. And although he later claimed to be "more intimate with Kennedy in the presidency than with Johnson or anyone else," in 1963 the Minnesotan spent a long session with an old friend describing how much more effective Johnson was than Kennedy.
LYNDON Johnson became president in 1963 because John Kennedy had selected him to be his running mate in 1960. Kennedy had needed the South in order to win the election, and Johnson helped the Democrats carry seven Southern states, including the crucial one: Texas.
In 1968 Johnson was in danger of losing the presidency, partly because a substantial element of the Democratic party longed for a restoration of the Kennedy dynasty. To these dissenters, John Kennedy had been the glamorous product of a new generation, a Harvard man with a Boston accent and the perfect tailor. Lyndon Johnson, an unworthy usurper with an ugly Southern drawl, the vulgar alumnus of Southwest Texas State Teachers College, looked like a throwback to the generation of Kennedy's father, even though he was only nine years older than his predecessor. The babies in John Kennedy's White House were his own; in Johnson's, they were the president's grandchildren. But what was most unforgivable was Johnson's status as the one clear beneficiary of the Kennedy assassination. In Theodore White's words, "When Lyndon Johnson became President, all the yesterdays were restored. ... For Robert F Kennedy the title papers of Lyndon Johnson to the Presidency [would be] forever flawed — flawed by the bullet and flawed by the generation of his age."
No one doubted the hatred between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy: Both men could be brutal, almost to the point of bloodthirstiness. President Johnson realized the Kennedy clique thought of him as an accidental pretender to the throne. He responded to these muttered feelings with all the cruelty he could muster. Johnson used Pierre Salinger as his messenger, knowing that Kennedy's former press secretary would deliver his vicious parable to the dead president's brother. After Bobby heard the story from Salinger, he repeated it to Arthur Schlesinger. Kennedy called it "the worst thing" Johnson had said.
This was Bobby's recollection of the president's words to Salinger: "When I was young in Texas, I used to know a cross-eyed boy. His eyes were crossed, and so was his character. ... That was God's retribution for people who were bad, and so you should be careful of cross-eyed people because God put his mark on them." Then Johnson suggested John Kennedy might have been another victim of one of God's "marks": "Sometimes," he said, "I think that when you remember the assassination of Trujillo and the assassination of Diem, what happened to Kennedy may have been divine retribution."
The campaign to convince Johnson to choose Bobby as his running mate in 1964 enraged the new president. "A tidal wave of letters and memos about how great a vice-president Bobby would be swept over me," he told his biographer, Doris Kearns. The president considered himself "the custodian" of John Kennedy's will, "but none of this seemed to register with Bobby Kennedy, who acted like he was the custodian of the Kennedy dream, some kind of rightful heir to the throne." (In the early days of John Kennedy's administration, Washington wags twitted these dynastic notions this way: "We've got Jack until '68, then Bobby until '76, and then Teddy — and then it doesn't matter anymore, because then it's 1984.")
"It just didn't seem fair," Johnson continued. "I'd waited for my turn. Bobby should've waited for his. But he and the Kennedy people wanted it now. ... No matter what, I simply couldn't let it happen. With Bobby on the ticket I'd never know if I could be elected on my own." He was just as blunt with historian Eric Goldman: "That upstart's come too far and too fast. He skipped the grades where you learn the rules of life. He never liked me, and that's nothing compared to what I think of him."
Johnson recalled a visit to a poor family in Appalachia with special bitterness: "They had seven children, all skinny and sick. I promised the mother and father I would make things better for them. ... They seemed real happy to talk with me, and I felt good about that. But then as I walked toward the door, I noticed two pictures on the shabby wall. One was Jesus Christ on the cross; the other was John Kennedy. I felt as if I'd been slapped in the face."
Like the other competitors for national office, Bobby and Lyndon were both prisoners of John Kennedy's legacy. Each of them would always feel inadequate after 1963 because he was not the late president — but they probably tried to disguise that fact from themselves, as well as each other.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1968 In America"
Copyright © 2012 Charles Kaiser.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Bringing It All Back Home,
One: Four Democrats, Three Ghosts, One War,
Two: Blowin' in the Wind,
Three: Like a Rolling Stone,
Four: Tet: The Turning Point,
Five: The Truth Comes Home,
Six: The Chimes of Freedom,
Seven: Tears of Rage,
Eight: It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,
Nine: Rock of Ages,
Ten: Desolation Row,
Eleven: This Wheel's on Fire,
Twelve: The Long and Winding Road,
Epilogue: If Tomorrow Wasn't Such a Long Time ...,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I initially read this book only because it was assigned in my American History class. But wow! I am hooked on it. I didn't live during 1968, so sometimes it's hard for me to fully grasp the importance of the events that occured during the time. I've been living with the effects and consequences of the events of 1968 for the 25 years I've been alive, but I took for granted that this was just the way things are. Reading this book has very much 'enlightened' me to the way life was pre-1968, and to the national and political events that took place during that year. My professor is a fantastic lecturer, but even he was unable to make me 'feel' 1968 like this book did. I am emotionally attached to this book now--I almost feel now as if I did live during the period--and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to gain a better understanding of American politics in general. Nothing has opened my eyes like this book, especially combined with my professor's lectures and my own interest in 20th century American politics. This is one book I won't be selling back with the rest of my textbooks at the end of the semester.