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Winship writes: "Watching the mad, mad, mad, mad world that is the 2016 presidential campaign, I was trying to remember a presidential campaign that was as jaw-dropping, at least in my lifetime, and easily settled on 1968. For those too young to remember, imagine: As fighting in Vietnam rages on and the Tet Offensive makes us all too aware of the futility of our Southeast Asian military fiasco, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy decides to run as an antiwar candidate against incumbent President Lyndon Johnson."

Martin Luther King Jr. meeting with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in 1966. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Luther King Jr. meeting with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in 1966. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ghosts of '68 in Election 2016

By Michael Winship, Moyers & Company

15 May 16


Longtime observers of American politics have noted striking parallels between the unpredictable wartime election of 1968 and the bizarre presidential contest of 2016, another time of war and distress, as Michael Winship recalls.

atching the mad, mad, mad, mad world that is the 2016 presidential campaign, I was trying to remember a presidential campaign that was as jaw-dropping, at least in my lifetime, and easily settled on 1968.

For those too young to remember, imagine: As fighting in Vietnam rages on and the Tet Offensive makes us all too aware of the futility of our Southeast Asian military fiasco, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy decides to run as an antiwar candidate against incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

Supported by an army of “Clean for Gene” college students knocking on doors and making phone calls, McCarthy does surprisingly well, and then New York Sen. Robert Kennedy gets into the race, too. Johnson makes a surprise announcement that he will not seek a second term in the White House and McCarthy and Kennedy duke it out in the primaries.

In the midst of all this, civil rights giant Martin Luther King Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and riots erupt across the cities of the United States. Two months later, Kennedy is murdered in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel just minutes after winning the California primary.

In August, eight years after his defeat by John F. Kennedy, the Republicans bring back Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate and the Democrats select Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who has not run in a single primary, as their party’s standard bearer.

Simultaneously, a police riot against protesters outside the Democratic convention in Chicago leaves an indelible image of chaos, tear gas and blood. Nixon wins the election with a well-executed campaign set to the accompaniment of dog whistle signals against minorities and left-wing dissenters.

Oh, and one other thing — Alabama Gov. George Wallace, arch segregationist and race baiter, runs as the third-party candidate of the American Independent Party, campaigning as a rebel populist seeking the votes of the angry, white working class. He wins almost 10 million votes and carries five states in the South.

All of which brings me to one of the curiosities of that manic ‘68 campaign season, a slim volume written by Russell Baker, former New York Times columnist and veteran White House and congressional reporter. First serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, it was published as a book under the title Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections.

But here’s the thing: Baker’s book was written before all the events I just described. It was imaginary, a work of speculative fiction that soon found the real thing giving it a run for its money. And yet, much of what Baker dreamed up presaged what really happened and is eerily reminiscent of what’s going on in 2016 America.

In the book, President Johnson is indeed as besieged as the actual LBJ – “being ground in a politics of frustration more bitter than any could remember since the Depression election of 1932,” Baker writes. “A seemingly endless war, record food prices, rising taxes, intractable poverty, a surly unmanageable Congress and now an incipient revolution of race – and Johnson bore the burden of public blame for all.” It’s all too similar to the climate today.

But in Baker’s version of history, Johnson uses his legendary political wiles to create a scenario that he believes will lead to his reelection – Hubert Humphrey is made to step down as vice president, becoming secretary of state, and Kennedy is named as the next vice president, creating a Johnson-Kennedy ticket. Pandemonium ensues.

Art Anticipating Life

As in the actual summer of 1968, there are race riots that impact the campaign and as is the case in 2016, the Republican Party is in complete disarray, riven by a plethora of potential candidates, many of whose names may now seem unfamiliar but all of whom were genuine presidential possibilities – Mitt Romney’s father, George, the governor of Michigan; Ohio Gov. James Rhodes; former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton and Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, among others. There’s Nixon, of course, New York’s Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and, oh yes, California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

After much shouting and disruption, eventually they choose as their slate New York City Mayor John Lindsay and running mate John Tower, conservative U.S. senator from Texas.

George Wallace is prominent in Baker’s story, too, running just as he really did in 1968… and in 1972 (when he was shot and forever after wheelchair-bound)… and in 1976. Here’s Baker’s description of the Southern populist’s campaign:

“Wallace’s crude animal reaction to the complexities of American society found a sympathetic hearing that summer among millions baffled by the speed at which the future was hurtling upon them and frustrated by their individual impotence against the tyranny of vast computerized organizations spreading through American life. With his snake-oil miracle cures, Wallace satisfied a deep public yearning to be deluded with promises of easy solutions.”

And here’s Baker’s version of Wallace inveighing against protesters: “If I ever get to be president and any of these demonstrators lay down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car they ever lay down in front of.”

If, as Mark Twain supposedly said, history does not repeat itself but certainly does rhyme, Russell Baker’s description of the state of the union nearly 50 years ago and a Wallace candidacy that’s so very much like Donald Trump’s is as blank verse from the past, reflecting a national mood that today is perhaps even more confused and enraged.

I’m far from the first to draw the parallel. George Wallace’s own daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, recently told National Public Radio that both men have played to our basest instincts. “Trump and my father say out loud what people are thinking but don’t have the courage to say,” she said. “They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government.”

And back in January, Dan T. Carter wrote in The New York Times, “Both George Wallace and Donald Trump are part of a long national history of scapegoating minorities: from the Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern European immigrants and Jews to Muslims and Latino immigrants. During times of insecurity, a sizable minority of Americans has been drawn to forceful figures who confidently promise the destruction of all enemies, real and imagined, allowing Americans to return to a past that never existed.”

An aversion to spoilers tempts me to not tell you how Baker’s story ends but you may have trouble tracking down a copy of this long out-of-print little book, so here it is: the three-way election – Johnson vs. Lindsay vs. Wallace – is deadlocked in the Electoral College. As per the Constitution, the choice of president is turned over to the House of Representatives, and the Senate chooses the vice president. A series of maneuvers, miscalculations and skullduggery ultimately results in a second President Kennedy.

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+23 # turtleislander 2016-05-15 18:06
And indeed the DNC anointed Humphrey and he lost to Nixon. I wasnt old enough to vote but certainly understood the stupidity of thinking Humphrey would be elected.
It is regrettable if this sad story is repeated. Actually its beyond that. It would be tragic.
+61 # grandlakeguy 2016-05-15 18:19
This story IS being repeated once again by the Democratic party!
By serving as the Washington DC branch office of the Clinton campaign the DNC has once again decided that the voters have no right to choose their nominee! Hubert Humphrey had a poor perception by too many voters as does Hillary Clinton today. Richard Nixon was a terrible candidate and yet he managed to defeat Humphrey. Had Eugene McCarthy been allowed to run as the Democratic nominee, with the support of legions of energized young Americans, he would have beaten Tricky Dick and tens of thousands of young Americans would not have died or been maimed in a useless war which we LOST. A million Vietnamese would not have been slaughtered by our decision to invade their country. The war dragged on needlessly.

The Democratic party is doing EXACTLY the same thing this year. They are tipping the scales to put forth a highly flawed and unpopular candidate (with a terrible history of poor judgement and dishonesty) to run against a Republican candidate that has no business running for office. At the same time they are doing everything in their power to deny the American people the opportunity to elect the first genuinely honest public servant we have seen in our lifetimes. Bernie Sanders has been wildly embraced by American youth and dissatisfied Democrats AND Republicans as well as a vast majority of Independents!

Trump will beat Clinton!

Sanders will beat Trump!

+33 # Promoting Peace 2016-05-15 19:24
The DNC and Debbie Wesserman Schultz couldn't be more stupid in my opinion. They have been extremely blatant in their biasness, and unfairness towards Bernie, and it may very well bite them severely in the butt.

Sadly, many people are being turned off towards the DNC and if enough people get pissed off enough over the DNC's stupidiey, Trump will certainly win. And, yet the DNC is pushing hard to get Bernie to drop out, pissing off more and more people every day.

At least Trump isn't as bad as Cruz would have been, but still he's a lot worse than Clinton, especially considering the Supreme Court vacancies that will need to be filled. His tax plan gives almost $1,400,000.00 to each of the .1% each year, and just a hair above $0 to the middle class and below!

Trump couldn't be any worse for the common people, but of course many people can readily see that he certainly appears to be an inflated air bag, egotistical, racist, heartless person,(using that word loosly), who is filled with greed and arrogance.

The DNC is stupid beyond belief!!!
-12 # rocback 2016-05-16 09:44
The Democrats moved to far to the left and we continued to lose with McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis. It wasn't until Clinton moved towards the middle that Democrats started winning again and we have won 5 of the next 6 presidential popular votes.

It would be a mistake to go back. Do you really think if properly vetted, and Republicans would vote for a 75 year old socialist?
+3 # tigerlillie 2016-05-18 07:04
In a word, yes.
0 # jsluka 2016-05-16 01:05
I agree with everything you say, except that Trump will not beat Clinton. Not a chance. Even then, I won't vote for either of them.
+2 # Buddha 2016-05-16 09:33
Quoting grandlakeguy:


"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair

The DLC and now the DNC "New Democrats", unfortunately perhaps correctly, believe that they as politicians and the Democratic Party as a whole cannot survive without prostituting themselves to the wealthy Donor Class. Bernie is proving that to a certain point NOT being a whore for the 1% can work...but let's face it, in a post-"Citizens United" America, the ability of the plebs to fund a whole raft of populist not-corrupted candidates to fight against the Borg of bought-and-paid -for candidates is limited. Sure, Bernie has gotten millions of donors at that average of $27 each...but there need to be loads of down-ballot candidates also willing to be funded solely by those small donations and enough people able to fund more than just our Presidential candidate. And I just don't see it. The working class simply cannot fund hundreds of candidates at the local, state, and federal level, whereas billionares can do it out of their couch change.
+2 # MsAnnaNOLA 2016-05-18 08:58
The media has been running a constant psy-op against the people of this country making sure they are very, very afraid of the other. Now we are wondering why people are afraid of the other.

In a world of radical islamic terrorists and no jobs, vilification of the other does not seem so unreasonable.

After all we have been in how many middle eastern wars? How many drone strikes? Where is the outrage?

The Democrats better start standing for something if they want to beat Trump.
+16 # CarolynScarr 2016-05-15 20:25
I remember also the McGovern campaign, when we on the left succeeded in nominating our candidate who was shot down by a combination of failure to properly vet the proposed VP candidate, Eagleton, who dishonestly concealed his mental health history, and even more importantly by the decision of the Democratic partly leaders to sit on their hands and not put the resources of the party to work to elect the Democratic candidate. I remember seeing Dalley sitting in his balcony glaring down at the convention floor. We worked our tails off getting out the vote for McGovern, whose defeat was called by the media before the polls even closed her in California. But the real key factor was that the Democratic partly preferred to throw the election to supporting McGovern. Very like FDR's opposition to Upton Sinclair for gov of California. He threw the election to the Repubs rather than support a socialistl Look it up.
+13 # margpark 2016-05-15 20:37
What I remember from that election is simply the riots in Chicago and "They are our children." and I guess they were. Sander's supporters are our children also. Although I am 78 and a Sander's supporter. The youth vote is important to Sanders. However can he lead the youth after the election. I hope so.
+17 # Patriot 2016-05-15 20:44
The DNC and Democratic Party have made perfectly clear--Wasserma n-Schultz by her actions/pronoun cements; the rest, and all the superdelegates (the Party officials), by their silent complicity, and by the rush of many of the superdelegates to endorse Clinton before Sanders had even opened his mouth, let alone his campaign--that they have absolutely no intention of changing government from the way it is today.

If you doubt that, look at the voting record of Senate Democrats for the last seven plus years: They have, all too often, and on the worst possible pieces of legislation, tamely voted with McConnell's policy of trying to destroy Obama's presidency, and, with it, almost all benefits of being an american citizen for everyone who is not at least a multi-milionair e, as almost all Senators are, Dems & Rethugs alike.

Watch the videos of Sanders' crowds: Almost an entire generation of young Americans, who will vote this year for the first time--or not--has turned out to embrace Sanders and his plans for a more egalitarian society, as has a comfortable chunk of seniors and all of those between the youngsters and the oldsters.

Those young people are a political party's dream-come-true . But the Democrat politicians delude themselves that Clinton will carry their votes once Sanders is effectively squashed.

+17 # Patriot 2016-05-15 20:45

What they have forgotten is that 42% of voters are Independents, and, thus far, when allowed to vote in Dem primaries, have shown themselves as disenchanted with Clinton, and as supportive of Sanders, as our youngsters.

The Dems' arrogant, dismissive, pig-headed determination to crown Clinton, the worst Dem candidate in decades, will either throw the election to Trump, or launch a revolution--and maybe both.

But, whatever happens, with Clinton or Trump, without Sanders, in the White House, NO ACTION WILL BE TAKEN TO HALT THE DAMAGE TO OUR CLIMATE AND OUR ECOSYSTEMS.

And that damage already is progressing so rapidly, and is so grave, that, by the time 2020 rolls around, we may well have passed beyond the point at which we could reverse, slowly, over far too many years, the higher temperatures, violent weather, rising sea levels, and rush toward mass extinctions.

Why? Why ignore a candidate who is the personification of all the values and policies Dem politicians have claimed their party stands for, to support a person who is widely disliked, distrusted, and has changed her stance on so many issues so many times and so often that even she, in all probability, has absolutely no idea what she really stands for?

+11 # Patriot 2016-05-15 20:57

Why? So Dem politicians can ride the same gravy train of corruption, bribery, and utter disdain for the intelligence and the welfare of the people they still, very hollowly, claim to represent and support, as their Republican counterparts, who have been on it at least since the Reagan years.

This election, as far as the Democrats, (and the even more idiotic, narcissistic, short-sighted, and corrupt Republicans) are concerned, is about power and money, period: power for themselves, power for the very wealthy and the multi-corporate polluters and criminals to whom the rest of us are but dirt beneath their feet, and money in all of their pockets.

We are witnessing the willful, deliberate destruction of history's brightest dream by the most avaricious, ignorant, self-centered bunch of people ever gathered under one roof--the United States Capitol--and in one party, in the history of mankind. They will run us and themselves right over the edge of planetary habitability. They will go happily, clutching their money, with a blissful smile on their stupid faces, because they managed to run the world for a very, very short time--and ruin it.

We are dealing with lemmings who have lost all ability to reason and cannot even recognize or admit that they are at a precipice.

+15 # Patriot 2016-05-15 20:58

That is why I will NOT vote for Hillary Clinton. I am not taken in by any of their rhetoric, nor will I accept responsibility for Trump's election--God forbid!--if I and others cannot manage to write in Sanders' name enough times to secure him as our next President.

The calamity that follows will not be my fault, nor the fault of my vote. It will be the fault of the Democratic Party, which has rejected a truly democratic candidate in favor of an unprincipled, undisciplined egotist, a liar, a cheater, and a coward--in favor of their own self-aggrandize ment, regardless of the consequences.

May God have mercy upon us.
0 # MsAnnaNOLA 2016-05-18 09:05
"-that they have absolutely no intention of changing government from the way it is today."

That my dear is why Dems will lose with Hillary.

It is not good to be the status quo in an anti status quo election cycle.

If you are sick of lies and war and basically evil practices like torture and extra-judicial killings, um I mean murder being perpetrated in your name you can't vote for Hillary.

Remember something like 40% of the electorate is independent. They will not even start paying attention until after the conventions. They and the rest that are fed up are not going to vote for status quo Hillary. Even more so that she is tied to the Hope and Change guy that gave us no such thing.
+20 # elkingo 2016-05-15 20:51
"Why of course the people don't want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don't want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." -Hermann Göring [A leading member of the Nazi Party; From an interview with Gilbert in Göring's jail cell during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (18 April 1946)] 87 “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer,..." Only here in MoronAmerka, the people (too many of them) do want war.
+2 # MsAnnaNOLA 2016-05-18 09:09
Well I think only because they have bought the lies. Sky scrapers of steel never collapsed after fires until 9/11. The giant sky scraper fire raged in collapse. The video was front page on CNN but only for a bout 1/2 hour. No sky scrapers have collapsed since.

Until we expose the truth we will never have democracy.
+13 # Shorey13 2016-05-15 20:52
I was 28 years old in 1968, and active in Democratic politics in Connecticut. On February 29, Eric Severaid, on CBS News, reported on two committees: the Kerner Commission, which concluded that we were two separate societies, white and black, and that drastic action would be necessary to stop the rioting in many US inner cities; meanwhile, the Tet offensive in Vietnam had exposed the lies we were being fed by the Johnson Administration. Convinced that Johnson was incapable of responding to either of these situations, I reluctantly joined the Republican Party (there were still moderates in the Party then). A few months later, NIxon was nominated and the police rioted at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, while Mayor Daley was drawing his finger across his throat as a threat to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (i saw it live on TV!), and I was through with both parties for almost half a century. I voted that year for Pat Paulsen (a comedian on the Smothers Brothers TV show--he got a million votes running as a joke!).

Carolyn Scarr is absolutely correct about FDR throwing Upton Sinclair to the wolves. And again I say, somebody please try to convince me that democracy is not just another failed utopian scheme.
+2 # curmudgeon 2016-05-15 22:21
A Muslim friend told me of a saying of the Prophet Muhammed (PBS)

"People get the leaders they deserve"
+5 # Realist1948 2016-05-16 06:51
Any Democrat who believes the saying above must be wondering what we did to "deserve" Hillary Clinton as a candidate. Last I checked, Hillary had 524 super-delegates , while Bernie had just 40. None of us lowly citizens has a say in awarding these votes.

That said, I just hope we don't deserve Trump as our next president.
+4 # Johnny 2016-05-16 10:25
If the demublican nominees are Trump and Clinton, you need not embrace evil: vote for Jill Stein.
-10 # Robbee 2016-05-15 22:42
# pat riot 2016-05-15 20:58
"... I will NOT vote for Hillary Clinton ... The calamity that follows will not be my fault, nor the fault of my vote ..."

- so says king herod! - who washes his hands!

pat, you are a baby! burning all bridges! that not even our movement's !best hope, bernie! can or will ever satisfy

what will you do if bernie does not win the dem's nod? quit voting? riot? throw away your vote by voting 3rd party? or by writing in bernie?

we all admire you udealists - that you never compromise anything - except that, by never compromising, you never accomplish anything either

- one might suppose that self-identifyin g bernie supporters support bernie? - not so!

bernie says hill would make an "infinitely better" prez than any gop slime!

supporting what bernie advises is where all smarter-than-be rnie folks here draw the line! - listen to bernie? what? - bernie asks us to "compromise our moral values enough to vote for HRC"? no way! - we're way too smart for that! - we're not fallin' for what bernie says!

bernie thinks he's starting a "political revolution" - hah! few of us could compromise our moral values enough to follow his advice

pat, you are not the boss of bernie's movement! - you are just smart enough to break away and start your own movement! - however smart that is? - that's all!

a proud supporter of bernie, i even listen to, and follow, his advice! - go bernie! - and in any case, go dem!
+5 # Billy Bob 2016-05-16 05:58
Why did you take the trouble to capitalize "HRC", but not "bernie", or anything else?

Are you e.e. cummings?
+5 # Johnny 2016-05-16 10:23
How could anybody vote for the proven sadistic murderer who has promised to continue her regime of sadistic murder if she becomes president?
-2 # Robbee 2016-05-16 08:31
i confess!
+5 # Johnny 2016-05-16 10:22
"Futility of our military fiasco?" The U.S. military murdered 5 1/2 million Vietnamese in Vietnam. No Vietnamese harmed the hair of one American in America. That was a Holocaust, not a "military fiasco."
-5 # Robbee 2016-05-16 13:41
i confessed to billy! -
# Billy Bob 2016-05-16 05:58
Why did you take the trouble to capitalize "HRC", but not "bernie", or anything else?

Are you e.e. cummings?

not! - # Johnny 2016-05-16 10:23
How could anybody vote for the proven sadistic murderer who has promised to continue her regime of sadistic murder if she becomes president?

- i am a lover! not a fighter!
+2 # tigerlillie 2016-05-18 07:20
At least they haven't assassinated anyone - yet. I well remember the despair of 1968, and my rabid avoidance of anything remotely political for decades afterward.

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