In our fifth and final installment of “1968: Year of Discontent,” we look at one of the most improbable comebacks in American political history. WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody reports what was prelude then, became prophesy later.
In the wee hours of November 6, 1968 — the day after Election Day — Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States, eight years after losing to John F. Kennedy, and falling short in the race for governor of California in 1962. After the Golden State loss, he told the media….
“You’ve had a lot of fun; you’ve had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken,” said Nixon. “Just think how much you’re going to be missing; you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
By 1968, Nixon had rebuilt his standing in the Republican Party, wedging his presidential run between the more conservative elements of the GOP and its northeastern liberals. He took the nomination on the first ballot, and picked Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate.
Andy Barbero, a historian at Pensacola State College, says Nixon’s main focus was on conservative Southern Democrats who he considered to be up for grabs.
“That was exactly who Nixon and the GOP were targeting,” Barbero said. “He called them the ‘Silent Majority.’ He said the majority of Americans aren’t out on the streets protesting; they don’t smoke dope, they don’t have long hair. They look at America and they are flabbergasted.”
The “Southern Strategy” had its genesis in the 1964 Voting Rights act signed by LBJ — a southerner. Afterward, Johnson said that the new law would cause the Democrats to lose the South for a generation.
“If you had to pick one, that’s the moment where you see the South going from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican,” said Barbero. “Sure, [Jimmy] Carter’s still going to get elected on his outsider status, but those same people that put him in office [in 1976] are going to turn against him really quickly.”
Vice President Hubert Humphrey carried the Democratic banner, having been nominated during the party’s tumultuous convention in Chicago.
“I choose not simply to run for President; I seek to lead a great nation,” Humphrey said in his acceptance speech.
Johnson went to some unprecedented lengths to help his VP – such as a halt to bombing North Vietnam and work on a peace agreement. None of that, says Barbero, proved to be helpful.
“The United States has stopped bombing North Vietnam! But – there are still upwards of half a million young men in-country in Vietnam, and the American people by this time are pretty clear that there is no strategy,” Barbero said. “That’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid on an amputated arm.”
Nixon vs. Humphrey alone would have been a tough race; but there was a the American Independent Party. Its presidential nominee was former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who chose retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay as his running mate.
“This movement is not a sectional movement, it’s a national movement,” said Wallace at one campaign rally. “But again I want to emphasize that the strong support we have in our region of the country, from whence this movement originated, gives us an excellent base.”
The Wallace campaign appeared on the ballot in all 50 states – but not in the District of Columbia. It won Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The campaign ads reflected Wallace's segregationist position.
Voiceover: ‘Why are more and more millions of Americans turning to Governor Wallace? Follow as your children are bussed across town.’ [Visual of a bus driving away]
Wallace: ‘As President I shall, within the law, turn back the absolute control of the public school systems to the people of their respective states.’
LeMay later embarrassed the Wallace campaign by suggesting the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.
George Wallace wasn’t just a concern for the Republicans. He was popular among working-class people in the North and Midwest, taking votes which otherwise would have gone to Humphrey. All of this played out, says Barbero, as the counter-culture was becoming a political force of sorts.
“At this time, there were many counter-culture revolutionaries that believed that the system is going to break down, that there’s going to be some sort of Marxist revolution," said Barbero. "
"That’s encapsulating everything.”
But, there was also a lighter side to the presidential race in 1968, one of the first to come under withering satirical fire from the media. Late-night comedians such as Johnny Carson began using more political material, and the prime-time "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" had its own in-house candidate – Pat Paulsen.
“As the Stag Party nominee I propose a simple dollars-and-cents solution to Vietnam,” said Paulson at a “campaign rally.” “If you figure the number of enemy casualties and the amount we’re spending on the war, you discover it’s costing an average of $600,000 for every Viet Cong. I think we can buy ‘em off cheaper than that.”
Even Nixon joined in the fun, appearing on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” with one of the day’s catch phrases.
“Sock it to me?” Nixon said, staring at the camera with an incredulous look on his face. Hubert Humphrey declined an offer of a similar appearance on “Laugh-In.”
“Nixon is trying to play the media; he’s trying to be the likeable guy,” said Barbero. “Because in 1960, he had the opposite effect. So maybe [he’s] trying to regain some of that momentum.”
While Humphrey and Nixon each won about 43 percent of the popular vote, Nixon took the White House on the strength of the Electoral College, carrying 32 states with 301 electoral votes, compared to Humphrey's 13 states and 191. George Wallace garnered 46 electoral votes.
“I saw many signs in this campaign,” Nixon said in his victory speech. “But the one that touched me the most was one that I saw in Deshler, Ohio. A teenager held up a sign ‘Bring Us Together.’ That will be the great objective of this administration at the outset, to bring the American people together.”
Divisions within the nation; a contentious election, and an ongoing war in Afghanistan. These are some of the issues in 2018 that parallel those from 1968.
Looking back a half-century TIME Magazine wrote: “In the midst of another period of protest and partisanship, those who lived through and studied 1968 point to lessons from one of America’s most tumultuous years that may help make sense of the country today.”