Worldwide, 1968 was quite a political year, but especially so here in the United States. With the country deeply divided much like it is today, there was discord everywhere you looked. The war in Vietnam was raging, the Civil Rights struggle was in full flower, civil unrest was the order of the day, and an all-important presidential election was on the horizon.
These events set the backdrop for the contentious political campaign that would follow. Luke A. Nichter, a history professor specializing in presidential studies at Chapman University, brings it all into sharp focus in The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968, a painstakingly well-researched (there are as many pages of footnotes as text) and largely engrossing narrative. With the benefit of a 50-year perspective and the opening of previously unavailable archives, Nichter (The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the Making of the Cold War) takes a fresh look at 1968 with an eye for reexamining some long-held but questionable beliefs on both sides of the aisle.
The book concentrates on four main characters: outgoing President Lyndon Johnson; vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey; former vice president and Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon; and, most interestingly, American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. (Evangelist Billy Graham appears throughout as a major supporting figure.) Besides devoting an entire chapter to each, Nichter weaves his narrative by deftly examining the fascinating relationships between all of these players, none more intriguing than that of Johnson and Nixon, longtime rivals realizing they have common cause.
In fact, LBJ was more partial toward Nixon than Humphrey because he felt the former would better sustain his legacy and a Republican victory would keep him as the most powerful Democrat, even out of office. Humphrey, as VP and candidate, needed to promise a quick wind-down of the war to satisfy his increasingly angry base while not undermining LBJ’s less dovish gestures toward peace, trying in vain to stay in the president’s good graces.
During all this, former Alabama Governor George Wallace proves to be a direct precursor to Donald Trump. A scrappy and effective campaigner running a third-party, populist campaign geared heavily toward the blue-collar, rural South, he eschewed his previous blatantly racist rhetoric and instead railed against Johnson’s Great Society programs (“big government”), public education, crime, and civil rights legislation. He would garner almost 10 million votes – 13.5% of all ballots cast.
Richard Nixon, having lost the presidency to JFK in 1960 and the California governorship two years later, would make a spectacular comeback in 1968. Running basically as a moderate between the anti-war, Great Society Democrats and the populist Wallace, Nixon had a huge lane he could fill. More highly organized and well-funded than his rivals, he became the “law and order” candidate, promising to quell the unrest in the cities and on college campuses, striking a nerve with the great “silent majority.” And quite frankly, after eight years of Democrats in the White House and a tumultuous nation seemingly out of control, the voters were more than ready for a change. It was Nixon’s time, and he would have won in a landslide had Wallace not been on the ballot.
Nixon was greatly disliked by the press, and Nichter seems to bend over backward to try and rehabilitate his image, especially in reexamining charges of treason leveled at Nixon for allegedly trying to undermine the Paris peace talks just days before the election.
I was particularly drawn to this book, as the first half of 1968 was my last semester of high school; indeed, Bobby Kennedy was shot two weeks prior to my graduation. My first semester of college coincided with the fall campaign, back when it didn’t get serious until after Labor Day. Under 21 and therefore unable to vote, my friends and I were still highly engaged, as being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam was a major concern for us. Nichter’s insightful scrutiny of such an extraordinary and ultimately prescient year has certainly helped to clarify events that, 50 years on, may no longer be top of mind.
The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968
by Luke A. Nichter
Yale University Press, 396 pp., $37.50