1968, Then and Now


Review of American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, by Michael A. Cohen

New York: Oxford University Press, 2016

Some of these characters seem familiar. Here’s a flamboyant demagogue who spews insults at liberals, boasts of his independence from the political establishment, and reigns over public appearances that are spattered with violence. Here’s a dark horse Senator, the darling of intellectuals and the righteous hero of college campuses, trying to reclaim the progressive soul of the Democratic Party. And here’s a figure in the center – not particularly beloved or trusted, but the frontrunner for the Presidency, just so long as they can float above the flawed alternatives, earning just enough grudging respect for their competence.

In Michael Cohen’s American Maelstrom, the year is 1968, not 2016, and we cannot draw straight parallels between the two presidential elections. George Wallace was a third-party outsider, while Donald Trump is the nominee of a major political party. Eugene McCarthy rallied votes around opposition to the Vietnam War, while Bernie Sanders focuses on wealth inequality. Richard Nixon was a Republican, and Hillary Clinton is a Democrat. The 2016 election, moreover, lacks anyone with the Shakespearean complexity of Lyndon Johnson, the tragic glory of Robert Kennedy, or the jelly spine of Hubert Humphrey. Ted Cruz is no Ronald Reagan.   

But it is with good reason that pundits, seeking to understand our current chaotic election, have been looking backward. As Cohen illustrates, the 1968 election forged the terms of our modern political conversation. The Republican Party, fueled by surging grass roots conservatism, found a language that equated individual freedom with limited government, aggressive foreign policy, and domestic “law and order.” The Democratic Party, fractured by the Vietnam War, was typecast as dominated by elitist, tax-and-spend softies.     

American Maelstrom adds to a huge body of books on the 1968 election and its surrounding events, which include the in-depth reporting of contemporary journalists, popular histories that take national and global perspectives, doorstop biographies of its principals, and analyses of both the demise of the old Democrats and the rise of the new Republicans. As Cohen admits, a modern definitive history of the election might comprise more pages than anyone is willing to read. His book thus eschews any detailed backdrop of that year’s key events, such as the student uprisings at Columbia University or the Soviet repression of the revolt in Czechoslovakia. It also avoids deep investigations into the candidates’ backgrounds or personalities, and it chooses not to linger over particularly dramatic scenes, such as Robert Kennedy’s assassination or Chicago’s street violence during the Democratic National Convention. Instead, it stays close to the parties and the election.  

Cohen is a political columnist for the Boston Globe, and his book mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of his genre. American Maelstrom deflates some of the election’s narrative pop, but it is filled with thoughtful insights, informed by deep research and contextualized by an understanding of how 1968 shaped the politics of the next half-century.

If Cohen tackles one main theme, it is the fracturing of the liberal Cold War consensus of the 1960s. For most of the decade, mainstream Democrats and Republicans shared a commitment to an activist federal government that contained communism, managed economic growth, and passed progressive legislation. Lyndon Johnson embodied that consensus, championing programs that fought poverty and ensured racial justice. But by 1968, some conservatives, fueled with racial resentment, were blasting the Great Society for coddling criminals and black militants. Meanwhile Johnson tried to hold the center on the Vietnam War, gradually escalating the American military presence without entertaining a broader discussion about its purpose, scope, and cost.     

Eugene McCarthy did not just oppose the war – as Cohen writes, “McCarthy directly challenged the pretensions of global leadership and the inflated view of American power that dominated the nation’s politics.” (p. 127) It is difficult, however, to imagine a less likely candidate to lead an insurgent movement. He fancied himself an intellectual, exuding a haughty disdain. He was a tepid campaigner. He could barely admit that he was running for president. But he drew the intense loyalty of an army of volunteers (many of whom were too young to vote) because he had the courage to challenge his party’s incumbent over the Vietnam War. That winter, the Tet Offensive crumbled Johnson’s claims that the United States was winning the war, and then McCarthy won 42% of the votes in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, a shocking repudiation of LBJ.  

The New Hampshire primary propelled a dizzying swirl of events: Robert Kennedy entered the race, and Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek another term. Soon after, Martin Luther King was assassinated, sharpening the sense of national crisis. Some writers have painted Kennedy as the lost savior of liberalism. Their accounts highlight how crowds flocked to him, wanting to see and touch him, the politician-cum-Beatle. When he won the Indiana primary, he preached law-and-order to white working class audiences, even as he offered hope to African Americans in wake of King’s murder. In this tale, Kennedy’s own assassination that June, on the heels of his triumph in California primary, shattered the dream of a united Democratic Party.

Cohen debunks this myth of RFK. White voters in Indiana favored other candidates. Kennedy had also alienated labor unions, a key member of the Democratic coalition, and white southerners resented his support for the civil rights movement. Many political insiders shuddered at the passions that Kennedy aroused. Because state conventions, rather than a few primary elections, chose most of the delegates for the national convention, Cohen sides with those scholars who see the Kennedy campaign as “informed more by hagiography than history” (p. 147).  

That assessment may shortchange the contingency of Democratic politics in the summer of 1968 – the party needed a charismatic figure to maintain the Oval Office, and Kennedy had important allies, as well as the ideological flexibility to capture the party’s center. But it is also true that his mutual antipathy with Eugene McCarthy prevented a genuine alliance against the party establishment, which already resisted the prospect of Kennedy’s nomination.     

Cohen notes the contradictions of the Kennedy-McCarthy rivalry. Kennedy stirred the passions of the masses, but he advocated centrist policies, such as encouraging private businesses to relocate to inner cities. McCarthy failed to inspire poor minorities, even as he echoed Black Power advocates by comparing African Americans to colonial subjects. In any case, after Kennedy’s assassination, McCarthy failed to pull together the two wings of Democratic protest. He grew only more indifferent to campaign details or potential voters. “While Eugene McCarthy might have been a hero simply by choosing to run,” writes Cohen, “his behavior in the summer of 1968 provided compelling evidence that he was no leader.” (p. 156)

Hubert Humphrey stepped into the political void left by Johnson’s abdication, Kennedy’s murder, and McCarthy’s ennui. For a generation, Humphrey had been the mouthpiece of liberal ebullience. Now he was the man of the Establishment, backed by power brokers and business interests, winning commitments from the majority of delegates at state party conventions. But he was also drawing weak crowds and eroding the liberal base – as Johnson’s Vice President, he not only defended the Vietnam War (against his own misgivings), but became its peppiest cheerleader.     

Accustomed to kowtowing before LBJ, Humphrey failed to establish his independence. He thus damaged both his party and his prospects. Before and during the Democratic National Convention, he backed a compromise plank for a bombing halt of North Vietnam – until Johnson nixed it. Humphrey could have reached out to his party’s anti-war wing. Instead, he alienated them. Despite owning all the advantages heading into the convention, he acted out of calculated ambition and excessive caution.  

So when Chicago erupted in violence, the Democratic Party stood for nothing more than chaos, with Hubert Humphrey its weak-kneed standard bearer. After radical “Yippie” activists engaged in provocative street theater, the Chicago police reacted with gross, wanton force. On the convention floor Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff famously condemned the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago,” while television cameras caught Mayor Richard Daley mouthing “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.” Cohen explains the scene as a distillation of the Democratic split: “white collar versus blue collar, college educated versus working class, socially liberal versus socially conservative. On one side stood a liberalism defined increasingly by an adherence to principle, expanded democratic participation, and an emphasis on social justice – and less on the economic populism of the past. On the other side resided the politics of order and parochialism, transactional to the core.” (pp. 281-282)   

George Wallace exploited this split. The former Alabama governor won over the white working-class voters who had once seen the federal government as their instrument of security, and who now saw it as the vehicle of their oppression. Resistance to civil rights legislation drove that swing. Yet when Wallace ran in 1968 under the American Independent Party, he eschewed the openly racist language of his recent past, instead decrying the hippies, professors, and liberal newspaper editors who trampled over the rights of common people. In 1968, the phrase “New Politics” reflected a hope for a transformed, genuinely representative democracy. Ironically, no one represented the New Politics more than Wallace, who relied on grass roots voters and donors, even if his campaign was staffed, in the words of one aide, by “a motley group of segregationists, Southern rednecks, Northern ethnics, John Birchers, corporate executives, right-wing kooks and assorted bigots.” (p. 236)

Yet as Cohen explains, Wallace was not a traditional conservative. He wanted federal funds for transportation, education, and job training. Though he lambasted anti-war protestors, he was ambivalent about the actual Vietnam War. His great insight was that his supporters, both in the South and beyond, saw government resources as a zero-sum game, and they resented the Great Society’s allocation of those resources to poor minorities. Wallace found a resonant language of white populist rage.  

Meanwhile, the liberal Republicans met their demise. In 1968, it was still possible to be a Republican that favored vigorous, reform-minded government. But it was getting harder. The moderates’ initial candidate, Michigan Governor George Romney, was doomed by his own clumsy honesty – when explaining how his position evolved on Vietnam, he blamed generals and diplomats for giving him “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” (p. 188) In February, he withdrew from the race. In March, despite expectations that we would again seek the Presidency, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declined to campaign. But in April, he decided to run. By then, it was too late to win primary elections, so he could only try to convince his fellow Republicans that he was their best chance to actually win the Oval Office.


Cohen charts Romney’s gaffes and Rockefeller’s waffles. But the true reason for their failures, he demonstrates, was the rightward shift of the Republican Party. The party’s rank-and-file hated Rockefeller, who had been the most vocal critic of Barry Goldwater, the conservative nominee for President in 1964. An internal memo from the Rockefeller campaign captured his dilemma: “the candidate’s own following outside the GOP is larger than within.” (p. 207)

By contrast, Ronald Reagan enchanted the Republican faithful. Goldwater had seethed with blunt demands for small government and aggressive anti-communism, but the new governor of California cast the same message with human anecdotes and a hopeful spirit. It went down like Reagan’s beloved vanilla ice cream. Conservative delegates, especially from the South and West, gravitated toward his speaking appearances, which served as a type of underground campaign. Reagan did not formally announce his candidacy until that summer’s Republican National Convention, when it was too late. But he had hit upon a political formula that, in the coming years, would unite the disaffected Wallace voters and the true conservatives.

The Republican nomination belonged to Richard Nixon. As president, Nixon would embody the “politics of division” that grew out of the election of 1968, but during the campaign, no other candidate so consciously positioned himself in the center. When he lost the 1960 race for president and the 1962 race for California governor, the media had crafted his political obituary (quite literally – ABC aired a news special entitled The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon). From his perch as a New York corporate lawyer, however, he presented himself as a diplomatic statesman and a loyal campaigner for his fellow Republicans, including Goldwater. He could not captivate the hard-liners, but he could appease them. He intentionally kept his positions vague, avoiding any political fallout. Absent a genuine contest from Romney, Rockefeller, or Reagan, he dominated the primaries, shedding his “loser” label. His story resonated with the striving middle class that populated much of the Republican National Convention. “I like Nixon,” said one delegate. “He wipes his butt the way I do.” (p. 246)  

Still, until the convention, Nixon feared Reagan’s covert campaign, and he only secured the nomination after winning over South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, a political commitment that presaged the South as the new base of the Republican Party. Nixon’s vice-presidential pick, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, was unknown and undistinguished and ultimately unsavory, but he was perfectly positioned to win the Border States and steal Wallace’s white working-class supporters. Finally, Nixon was finding his own language to define himself against the chaos of the 1960s, placing himself among “the forgotten Americans – the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators.” (p. 258)

While Humphrey stumbled out of the calamity in Chicago, Nixon ran a smooth, deliberate general election campaign. He avoided specific positions on issues from the Vietnam War to school integration, instead emphasizing his experience and competence. Without giving many details about policy, he called for “law and order” to solve the urban crisis. His inner circle exploited television unlike any previous candidate – both through slickly produced advertisements that laid Nixon speeches over images of disorder under the Democrats, and through orchestrated “town hall” forums rather than press conferences with tough reporters.

Yet Nixon almost lost, thanks to Humphrey’s improbable comeback. At the tail end of September, during a speech in Salt Lake, Humphrey finally articulated an independent policy on Vietnam, in which he approved a bombing halt in North Vietnam in exchange for good faith peace negotiations. Over the campaign’s last month, Humphrey found his voice, casting himself as the trustworthy unity-builder, as opposed to the suspicious Nixon. At the same time, negotiations in Paris were moving forward. If Johnson delivered peace before Election Day, it might have kept a Democrat in the Oval Office.

For the election’s final days, Cohen delivers a sober, if damning, analysis of the “Chennault affair,” a notorious controversy that foreshadowed the underhanded tactics of the Nixon administration. Anna Chennault of the anti-communist “China lobby” was clearly encouraging the South Vietnamese government to derail the peace negotiations, so that Nixon would win and South Vietnam would get a better deal. What did Nixon know? The initial journalistic histories of the election assumed that he was above it all, but Cohen has the benefit of FBI monitors and Oval Office tapes. He carefully notes that no direct evidence ties Nixon to Chennault, but his campaign manager John Mitchell certainly was involved. Had Johnson or Humphrey exposed such chicanery just before Election Day, it might have turned the election.

Nixon won the presidency with 43% of the popular vote. Wallace took the Deep South states away from the Republicans. If 42,000 votes in New Jersey, Missouri, and Alaska had switched over to Humphrey, the election would have gone to the House of Representatives, where the Democrats owned a majority. Thus the election of 1968, as Cohen writes, “did not immediately herald a major electoral realignment.” Instead, he demonstrates, the election set a long-term template for Republican success and Democratic failure, as well as “four decades of division, incoherence, and parochialism in American politics.” (p. 331) Republicans did not roll back the welfare state – even Ronald Reagan just contained it. But they successfully found a language that tied individual freedom to low taxes, law and order, strong defense, and “traditional values” while tabbing Democrats as the party of “special interests” such as blacks, women, and homosexuals. This was the language of George Wallace, sanitized for mass acceptability.

It is impossible to read American Maelstrom without considering its implications for this election. Ironically, as Cohen points out, Americans became more socially liberal even as their nation tilted rightward. What will that mean for Donald Trump, the George Wallace of our times? The Republican Party tapped into the economic and racial resentment of conservative whites. Trump exploits that resentment, but he does it openly, absent the subtly divisive codes once employed by Nixon or Reagan. Nor does Trump toe the party establishment’s line on fiscal or foreign policy.  

As for the Democrats, in 1968, Eugene McCarthy gave Humphrey a very late, half-hearted endorsement. If Humphrey had deeper and more energetic support from his party’s left wing, might he have prevailed? Will Hillary Clinton be asking the same question? The Democrats spent the 1970s becoming more liberal and inclusive, and since then have been playing defense against conservatives. To gain the Bernie Sanders voters, she must win back the true liberals. To gain the swing voters, she must present herself as nothing like a tax-and-spend, special-interest, 1970s-style Democrat. For the Democrats, in the gleeful words of one modern Republican, “it’s never stopped being 1968.”

Posted on 27 June 2016

ARAM GOUDSOUZIAN is Chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. His books include Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) and King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, (University of California Press, 2010).