The 2016 Presidential Election is U.S. presidential politics at its very worst, right? Hardly!
That premise, promoted by addle-minded baby boomers who smoked too much weed to remember their own history and by millennials desperate to find something to suffer, is the luxury of a generation that sees too little adversity and too much social media.
It's not the worst in this writer's memory. It doesn't even come close. Historians often point to the election of 1800 as the most divisive and bitter of our nation's history. But it isn't necessary to reach that far for a year and an election, that was worse than 2016.
For this writer, 1968 must certainly rank as the worst in memory. Everyone lived under the shadow of the Cold War and fear of nuclear war. School children were drilled in what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Public buildings posted signs designating them as shelters from nuclear fallout.
In many ways the 1968 election began in 1963 – November 22, 1963 to be precise, when a dynamic leader and young father, President John Kennedy, was assassinated. Two days later, with live television cameras rolling, Oswald himself was killed by Dallas strip club owner, Jack Ruby. It's difficult to imagine a time without YouTube, social media and instant news, but we were media virgins then. Live violence was rarely broadcast and TV violence was heavily censored.
Murder and assassination was the rule in the 1960's. Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963, five months before JFK, by a Klansman. In 1965 Malcom X was murdered by three members of the Nation of Islam.
The national mourning lasted through the 1964 election when a Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, won the election in an electoral landslide. Johnson was arguably the most corrupt, racist and misogynistic president of the 20th century. Johnson was a bully, demanding that secretaries follow him into the bathroom to take dictation. He was abusive of his wife and subordinates. He consistently called Civil Rights legislation that "n—–r bill."
By 1968, a Presidential Election year, the country was reeling from social upheaval caused in part by the manner in which LBJ and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were micromanaging the war. 1968 was the worst year of the war for Americans, 16,899 died that year; that's 325 deaths per week.
Anti-war protests, which began in 1965, reached their peak in 1968 and were becoming increasingly violent. The Tet Offensive, launched by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese in January, had demonstrated that the war was nowhere near an end and possibly unwinnable.
Add to that mix the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Because of Dr. King's leadership and influence, the movement was a pacifist one up to 1968, enduring attacks, lynchings, beatings and indignity by turning the other cheek.
It was natural that the Civil Rights movement began to join forces with the Anti-War protesters and the violence and destruction grew.
The 22nd Amendment allowed Johnson to run for another term; however, faced with opposition from anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Johnson announced in March that he would not seek reelection. With Johnson's unexpected departure his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, announced his candidacy. Altogether, Democrats fielded nine candidates at one time or another in the 1968 primaries.
Republican Richard Nixon, loser of the 1960 contest against John Kennedy, easily defeated California Governor Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination.
Southern segregationist and Democrat George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate on the American Independent ticket, hoping to win enough electoral votes to prevent anyone from winning electoral majority. Wallace calculated that he could be the power broker for the winner if the House of Representatives were to determine the election and that he could negotiate an end to federal desegregation of southern states.
Wallace received 46 electoral votes (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas electors plus one faithless elector from North Carolina pledged to Nixon) and was the last candidate to receive electoral votes who was not a member of one of the two major parties. He received 13.53% of the vote, concentrated mostly in the southern states.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated by a sniper on the balcony of his Memphis hotel. Blacks rioted in major cities across the country, except Indianapolis where Bobby Kennedy, still grieving the loss of his brother five years earlier, calmed angry African-Americans, reminding them that he, too, had lost someone at the hands of an assassin.
Just two months later, on June 6, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night he won the California primary.
America watched Hubert Humphrey receive the Democratic nomination in Chicago, alternating between scenes of the convention and live television of Chicago police beating mostly peaceful protesters. The specter of Chicago haunted Humphrey through the fall.
American cities were burning and the culture was in chaos – the worst in living memory.
But the Republic survived. It survived the corruption of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It outlasted segregationists, assassins, Vietnam and Nixon.
That was a bad year. What we see today is little more than bad entertainment by comparison. Yes, it looks bad. Americans are on the verge of living fully documented lives and what we see just isn't that pretty.
There appears to be no great statesman out there. We didn't think we had one in 1968 either, but Ronald Reagan sure looked good 12 years later.
*The photo used in the article above is a scene from 1968 Washington, D.C. after the D.C. riots. It was taken by Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress.