America on the Brink of a Nervous Breakdown
Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen has written a very engaging history of the 1968 presidential race and why it matters today. To me it is very personal as I remember voting for Bobby Kennedy in the California Democratic primary via absentee ballot while in the U.S. Army and my wife to (unknown to me at the time) was a student volunteer for him during the Indiana primary. America was under siege facing an unwinnable war in Vietnam with casualties mounting, the cities ablaze as a consequence of the assassination of Martin Luther King and ongoing campus demonstrations against the war which were extended to the riots at the Democratic Convention. America was truly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Into this milieu comes the presidential campaign which is set afire by the unexpected withdrawal from the race by President Lyndon Johnson. Cohen’s dramatis personae are on the Democratic side Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace (running as an independent) and Hubert Humphrey and on the Republican side Richard Nixon, George Romney, Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. Although Cohen is a liberal and is dismayed by some of the failures of Johnson’s Great Society which were apparent as early as 1966, he by and large treats his subject even handedly. In fact of all of the candidates the careful and calculating Richard Nixon comes off the best. He quotes at length Nixon’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention which if given today would be viewed as a breath of fresh air in a much polluted political environment. Further the 1968 convention was another stop on the road to the demise of what was once called liberal Republicanism.
We see in the Democratic primaries the forerunner of today’s Democratic Party which is an amalgam of the elitist liberals and students who backed Eugene McCarthy and the African American and Hispanic voters who backed Bobby Kennedy. It was the white working class, which at the time was the core of the Democratic Party, who were thrown under the bus. They would at first be become Wallace voters as a weigh station on their way to the Republican Party of Nixon and Reagan.
People tend to forget that Wallace running as an independent with a coalition of southern segregationists and white working class voters was running very strong in September 1968 garnering over 20% of the preferences as measured by the pollsters, but his nomination of General Curtis “Nuke” Lemay scared off planeloads of voters reducing his Election Day share to 13.5%. It is important to note four years later, Wallace was on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination. On the day he was shot he was the big winner in both the Maryland and Michigan primaries. In many respects he was the Donald Trump of his day with a brand of white working class populism.
Thus we see in 1968 the breakdown of the New Deal coalition of southern segregationists, urban workers and liberal intellectuals into ultimately a new party of liberal intellectuals, African Americans, Hispanics and a menagerie of identity politics interests. Although still there in name, the white working class voters have moved on. Where they were once the core of the party, they are now on the periphery.
In contrast the Republicans picked up the southern segregationists, much of the white working class and lost their liberal bloc as typified by Nelson Rockefeller. Remember the classic “limousine liberal” was the Republican mayor of New York, John Lindsay.
Cohen has very acute descriptions of the arrogance of Eugene McCarthy, the hold Johnson had over Humphrey, George Romney’s lack of depth, the ego of Nelson Rockefeller and the fact that Bobby Kennedy, the sainted liberal hero of today, ran to the right of McCarthy. In fact Cohen notes that Reagan spoke approvingly of Kennedy. Thus I view “American Maelstrom” as a very readable and important work of history.
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