In early 1967, Allard ‘Al’ Lowenstein, a Democratic operative from New York City, went looking for someone to take on, and ultimately take out Lyndon Johnson, the increasingly unpopular President of the United States. The same Lyndon Johnson, who, just two-and-a-half years earlier, had wiped out Barry Goldwater, losing only four states.
But 27 months after “Landslide Lyndon” won, he was besieged, bogged down in a war in which the United States had no business being in — Vietnam. LBJ, by the spring of 1967, had come to see himself and his presidency falling apart. Years after his death, his daughter, Linda, said her father was a manic-depressive who, despite being 6'5", was insecure. It was that insecurity which destroyed his presidency.
Lowenstein went looking for someone to challenge Johnson on just one issue — the war. He went to the one person who could beat him, Robert Kennedy. Bobby said no. He then approached other anti-war Senators and a few governors, they all refused as well.
In his book, “Playing With Fire — The 1968 Election and The Transformation of American Politics” Lawrence O’Donnell retells history with a clear style and well researched tome that reflects not only those times, but the parallels of today as well. The usual suspects show up along the way, but O’Donnell’s main focus is Eugene McCarthy.
McCarthy was a quiet, unassuming man, who considered becoming a priest until he met his future wife, the last person you would think to upset the order of American politics. He was literally the last person Lowenstein sought out to challenge Johnson.
In the spring of ’67, they all said no. By the fall, things had changed. Riots had happened it Newark and Detroit and more and more troops were being sent to fight a war that wore on America’s conscious and patience. Lowenstein’s persistence paid off when Gene announced his candidacy.
Most considered it a fool’s errand. In any other year, in any other election, it might have been. But this was 1968, a year unlike any other in our history. In telling the story of hope, triumph, tragedy, betrayal and a bitter end to 120 years of politics as usual, the centerpiece of the story remains McCarthy.
By 1967, McCarthy had been in Washington for nearly 20 years. He was the ‘quiet’ Senator from Minnesota, as opposed to the bombastic Hubert Humphrey, whom LBJ made his Vice President (over McCarthy) in 1964. Suddenly the quiet one was the senior senator, a position he held until 1970.
Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones who end up making the most noise. O’Donnell writes it was his daughter, Mary, who ultimately convinced him to run. O’Donnell also spotlights his being passed over in 1964 and his almost non-existent relationship with the President by the time 1968 rolled around, compared to when Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader, as reasons to run.
In 1968, very few states had primaries. It wouldn’t be until 1976, eight years later, that every state held a primary or caucus. McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire and the entry of RFK into the race a week later, history tells us, which led to Johnson dropping out. The truth was that LBJ was very ill and right up until he uttered those famous words “accordingly, I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party to (seek) another term as your President,” only his wife, the resolute Lady Bird knew of his decision. Right after the speech ended, Johnson walked into his wife’s arms and for the first time since that fateful day in Dallas, the accidental president shed all his burdens.
Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Then, two months later, Bobby Kennedy. It seemed the country wouldn’t survive the summer, let alone make it to November. Richard Nixon emerged from exile (not really, but that’s Rick Pearlstein’s book) to win the GOP nomination over Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsey and others and then watched with glee as the rest of the nation (and the world) watched in horror of the events that followed in Chicago the last week of August.
Those kids who were “Clean for Gene,” in New Hampshire were now getting beaten up and arrested in Chicago. Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and other anti-war protesters were thrown in jail, tried and convicted of inciting a riot. Senator Abraham Ribicoff was called a “Jew son-of-a-bitch,” by Mayor Richard Daley. William F. Buckley called Gore Vidal “a queer,” on ABC, to his everlasting regret. Paul Newman, a friend of Vidal’s, threatened to punch his face out. Humphrey won the nomination even though he entered no primaries or declared until mid-July.
By the time November rolled around, Nixon had run a carefully constructed, (by Roger Ailes, William Saffire and Pat Buchanan, of the vile’s) non-committal campaign and third-party candidate George Wallace had peeled off five Southern states. But it’s what Old Tanned, Rested & Ready did in the weeks before the election that parallels to 2016.
In late September, Johnson, stung by Humphrey’s Salt Lake City speech denouncing the bombing of North Vietnam, finally got all sides to agree to Peace Talks in Paris. Nixon knew if those talks succeeded, he would lose. So, he pulled off what O’Donnell described as “The perfect crime.”
No screenwriter, novelist or newspaper reporter could have thought this up. A modern-day Marta-Hari, Anna Chennault, whom Nixon called “a chatterbox” contacted the South Vietnamese Ambassador and told him to hold off on sending a delegation to Paris, even though Saigon had agreed to the Talks. Johnson got word of this sabotage a week before and Nixon denied it (of course he did) and ended up winning the election by a razor-thin margin.
Of course, Nixon being Nixon, this all came back to bite him and we all know how that turned out. But the one who remained “clean” was McCarthy. Even after leaving the Senate in 1970, allowing Humphrey to return, he remained a force in politics.
The major parties changed the way they selected their nominees, taking the power out of the hands of party chairman, senators, governors and big-city mayors. Much like Henry Wallace a generation earlier, he is a forgotten figure today. O’Donnell, in his book, changed that.
In what other year did you have two politicians quoting poets, like McCarthy and Kennedy did? In what other year did you have a man who didn’t even enter a single primary get the nomination? In what other year did a Republican nominee collude…Oh wait.
1968, a year like no other. All because of one man: Eugene McCarthy.