Once more into the snows of New Hampshire! Once more the tear gas of Chicago! There's no escaping the 1968 election. The relentless newspaper and television coverage at the time, followed hard by all those authoritative magazine articles and dinner-party autopsies, and, at length, the books,1 which, by now, one approaches in duty rather than desire. An egregious case of journalistic overkill, and those of us who lived through the year are doomed to go into our dotage boring juniors with tales of the fall of the House of Johnson. Yet the event did compel inspection, and does invite retrospection. Nineteen sixty-eight, after all, was a most extraordinary political year.
Among the exhilarating victories and punishing defeats of that year, liberals can look back with least anger to the McCarthy movement itself. In its spontaneity, its unprofessional character, its concentration on issue rather than on party, it was very much the New Politics. Despite efforts to broaden the candidate's appeal by moving on to other matters and despite a rankling within the ranks of discontent with the entire system, the Establishment, the style of American politics, McCarthy for President remained from first to last a one-issue movement. Vietnam is what brought out these rebels with a single cause, and sustained them to the bitter August and beyond.
This progression, of the issue finding the man, has one striking equivalent in this century—the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948, no invidious comparisons intended. The man found in 1968, after others had turned prudently away (Robert Kennedy having checked with Mayor Daley and decided that opposition to Johnson promised no profit), was an unusual type for American politics, but in him one could recognize a bit of Wilson, a bit of Stevenson. (They all could put an English sentence together, for example, without perspiring.) An important part of his support came from people whose first campaigning was done in 1952—but Stevenson had been handpicked by Democratic bosses whereas McCarthy was the people's own. It was on their issue that he would stand and, predictably, fall. But though he was the candidate of a movement—and not even its first choice—he remained very much his own man, to the pride, the concern, and the exasperation of his supporters. “I am what I am,” he told them, “and I won't be changing.”
McCarthy proved to be a politician with a flagrant disdain for politicking. One could sometimes sense such disdain in Stevenson too, of course, and even in John F. Kennedy. But Stevenson's ironies tended to be directed at himself and Kennedy's were mastered as he attended most professionally to the business at hand. McCarthy's darts were aimed outward; in 1960, he said that he was “twice as liberal as Hubert Humphrey, twice as intelligent as Stuart Symington, and twice as Catholic as Jack Kennedy.” His air of weary superiority became a feature of the primary campaign. Theodore White, by now the Establishment chronicler, tells us that Robert Kennedy thought of McCarthy as “vain and lazy.” Not a wildly unfair judgment—and one can understand that in the eyes of the restless Bobby, ever on the move, ever on the lookout for the action, McCarthy's languid airs would come down to that. McCarthy was a rare embodiment of the intellectual in politics—a somewhat petulant intellectual by all accounts, and a peevish politician, lacking the graces that permitted Adlai Stevenson to soften the image.
At the outset, for his supporters in universities and publishing houses, his low-key manner, his private gags, his rejection of electioneering clichés, were sources of great pleasure. The hated figure in 1968 was Lyndon Johnson, a man so mired in the ways of Texas back rooms and the Senate cloakroom that he could not bring himself to utter the most straightforward sentiment without making it seem hokum. It was an art. Against him, in refreshing contrast, stood McCarthy, cool of style, free of baloney. At the funeral of Martin Luther King, Herzog reports, McCarthy purposely kept himself out of the TV camera's eye.
It has happened before that, at a certain point, a political leader's most engaging qualities begin to wear upon his followers. Wilson's firmness became rigidity; Theodore Roosevelt's outspokenness turned to bluster; Stevenson's penchant for public reflection came to seem mere indecisiveness, a form of ineptitude. As the primary campaign progressed, it became evident that McCarthy's style, too, had its limitations. It did not work in the ghettos; he could not give black audiences what they wanted, needed. Either it was not in him, or if it was, he did his damnedest to repress it: “Stirring up the people . . . was not my style.” He could barely abide the hyped-up stage manner of some of his hardest-working supporters—upon whom he did not lavish gratitude, either in his campaign or in his book.
This characteristic coolness of his, whether constitutional or, as he holds, a matter of principle, led McCarthy into self-defeating actions. When the Russians marched into Czechoslovakia, his initial response, to the anger and despair of his counselors, was to pass it off with a crack about the pointlessness of Johnson's summoning a night-time meeting of the National Security Council. For a liberal, such a reaction to the Soviet aggression was hardly defensible—and yet one may spare some admiration for the man's reluctance to do the easiest thing in the American political world, the most banal thing, to do what could not possibly harm any candidate in any U.S. election, to do what every hack in Congress was doing—blow hard against the Communists. (Herzog, a partisan, tells us McCarthy regretted the incident—but in his own book he makes no apologies for his “restraint.”)
Again, in his television “debate” with Robert Kennedy, for which the McCarthy camp had been pressing for weeks and on which they pinned hopes for victory in the California primary, McCarthy started off strong and then seemed to lose interest in the whole point-scoring exercise. It was as though he could not rouse, or fake, the enthusiasm required to spend an hour in competing with Bobby over who could say nicer things about Israel and Negroes. Vanity, without doubt, but not bad taste.
For his campaign workers, committed to the good battle, their man's default in the debate (McCarthy himself counts it “a draw”) and his other periodic withdrawals were immensely frustrating. They wanted more fire from him, more aggressiveness; nothing immoral in this—and, in all likelihood, tactically sound. Yet in calling on him to come out slugging, they were closer than their candidate to the spirit of the old politics. The remarkable thing about McCarthy in the dim galaxy of America's political aspirants was that he did not have to win. Life would go on, the world would go on, poets would write their poems even if Richard Nixon occupied the White House. He seemed to draw strength from knowing who he was and was not—an uncommon certainty for a politician in heat—and retaining his sense of himself when all around him were trying to turn him into something else. (His book, seemingly detached, but highly defensive and somewhat evasive, conveying mainly the negative side of the man's style, doesn't much help us understand how he came through 1968 intact.) The long view of history, basic to the intellectual's equipment, is no asset in a tough campaign, and will always raise problems for the intellectual as campaigner. As much because of his temperament as of his intellect, McCarthy did not resolve those problems in 1968, and his subsequent actions, such as leaving the Foreign Affairs Committee and his announced decision to depart the Senate, indicate a turn toward that more private existence where the intellectual tends to be most at home. Still, one imagines he will find it a strain after all these years to forgo politics altogether. He is already under pressure to come forward again, and the pressure will continue to build in the absence of another liberal champion.
To do one's thing in politics with some hope of success a politician had best not be noticeably ironical, introspective, or philosophical—that is taken for granted. One need only contrast the joy that Harry Truman found in the kitchen of politics with the vague discomfort that hung about Adlai Stevenson. In 1968, the contrast, by no means of an identical kind, was between Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, who, on his belated entrance into the campaign, immediately filled the “passion gap” which McCarthy's supporters recognized and lamented. Bobby was a smash in the ghettos. Every account of his campaign plays heavily on the eager, reaching,. rather unnerving crowds which his managers corralled. He sought them out, and they responded to him wholeheartedly. The only candidate who aroused a similar kind and degree of response was George Wallace. For the most part, of course, Kennedy and Wallace spoke to different audiences and, most of the time, with different appeals, yet in the rallies of both one sensed the personal impact, the man getting directly at his audience, the visceral thing. We saw the phenomenon of white lower-middle-class voters responding to both these men, tempted to vote for one and then for the other, despite the fact that they were on different sides of the major issues of Vietnam and the ghettos. (Except memorably, in Indiana, where the two seemed to come together on the desirability of law and order. Kennedy did not let his audiences there forget that “I was, for three and a half years, chief law-enforcement officer of the United States.”)
Kennedy as campaigner was a more familiar figure in American politics than McCarthy. He played the game like touch football, grabbing an issue, hugging it to him and charging with it as the cheers rang out. For those standing outside the crowd, the performances could seem a bit suspect. Kennedy was prone to that flaring demagoguery familiar in our populist tradition, which gives each audience what it seems to want and gives it in a manner not usually conducive to clear thinking. Not that he was a charlatan. Certainly he was moved by the ghettos, by the poor—and he was certainly moved by himself.
Kennedy worked the charisma line—probably he had no choice—and to persons attracted to the McCarthy style, the younger man's self-dramatization was off-key. Along with his reputation for “ruthlessness” and his celebrated ambition, his method of campaigning created a lack of trust that further embittered allies on the Left. But, then, the capacity of liberals and radicals to hate one another has always been astounding. (McCarthy himself writes that while he came to accept Bobby's commitment, at least after the assassination, he ended the campaign with doubts as to the integrity and judgment of some of his supporters, “who, it seemed to me, were more interested in having power, or being in the presence of power, than they were in the issues. . . .” McCarthy would carry his animosity to the Kennedy coterie into the convention and then to the Senate where he voted for Russell Long over Edward Kennedy as Democratic whip. Not a forgiving politician, our Gene.)
After the Walpurgisnacht of the Chicago convention, the free-flowing bitterness was all directed at Hubert Humphrey, personification of the Democratic party, circa 1932. This amiable public servant, with a record of accomplishment in the Senate that made Bobby Kennedy seem puerile and Eugene McCarthy lazy at best, was now vilified on the streets by youths who saw him only as Mayor Daley's serving boy and Lyndon Johnson's doormat. Our young scholars, of course, are resolutely uninterested in history, except as it suits their predilections, and now many persons of middle age, who had no difficulty in remembering the dreadful things that Nixon did to Helen Gahagan Douglas twenty years before or Bobby Kennedy's connection with Joe McCarthy, allowed themselves to forget Humphrey's lifetime of devotion to their battles. Where Kennedy, by instinct, was to be found at the center of every new, vital, or seemingly vital, impulse, Humphrey, who had been in the fore of most of the liberal causes that had engaged America since World War II, who had worked his way up to the respect of all the strong men of his party, was now, despite everything, an outsider, burbling about his Politics of Joy.
Humphrey, a simple man compared with a Kennedy or a McCarthy, is assured of his place among the most decent as well as the most effective politicians produced by the conventional political process in his generation. One does not operate in the Senate as productively as he did without becoming adept at ordinary, gross give-and-take; that was his strength and his weakness. He accepted the Vice Presidency under Lyndon Johnson, and gave his loyal all in that high, demeaning role, never grasping the extent of his personal disaster. Whereas Bobby Kennedy died without having quite found his manhood in politics, Humphrey, who had found his long before, allowed himself to be unmanned by Lyndon Johnson. By 1968, even Johnson understood that “Hubert is just too old-fashioned, he looks like, he talks like he belongs to the past.” So much for Hubert, who wept when he first read Johnson's statement that he would not run in 1968: “No, Mr. President, you don't mean it.” There is no more telling scene in the books on the election than the one in which Humphrey settles himself before the TV set in his hotel suite to count the delegate votes he knew he had, while madness raged on the streets below. Both McCarthy and Kennedy, in their distinct ways, could understand something of the madness, but not Humphrey. Perhaps twenty years before he would have understood; perhaps he would have been in the streets.
The insults of the street troopers after the nomination scarcely touched Richard Nixon. But then Nixon, after all, had been innocently making money in New York and Florida and eating chicken at GOP banquets everywhere while a half million soldiers were being sent to Vietnam. Thus it came about that one of the most detested figures in American politics in this century was allowed to conduct his campaign in relative tranquility while one of the best-liked men was treated to hollers of “Hump the Hump!”
The changes which eight years had wrought in Nixon's personality have been remarked by all observers, and all agree that they were for the better. Despite an invincible awkwardness that made it seem he was being fitted for a suit of clothes every time he raised his arms in victory, he was more at ease, with himself and with the world, than in the dark days of 1960 and 1962. A certain resignation had brought his ambition under control; the combination of political defeat and private success after joining Mudge, Stern, Baldwin, and Todd had evidently tempered the man. (Nevertheless, McGinniss reports at second-hand, he positively hates psychiatrists.) There is not much to be said in praise of Nixon the candidate; beside Humphrey his record was insignificant; beside McCarthy he was unprincipled (he had a solution for the war, you remember, but was keeping it secret); beside Bobby Kennedy—who had also changed greatly over the years and was still changing, in a direction that is far from clear even now—he was pale gray. In the Oregon primary, Bobby lost and was, as usual, mobbed; Nixon won and White came upon him dining quietly, unmolested by autograph hounds in a hotel restaurant.
One goes through the Shadegg book as one went through Nixon's own book, Six Crises, looking in vain for what it is, even in a general way, that Richard Nixon is committed to on matters of the public interest. (The McGinniss book about Nixon's TV campaign doesn't help either, but at least it's funny.) As good a characterization as any of his political position comes from the aide who saw him as “neither a conservative, nor a liberal; he's a centrist.” The Nixon strategy for the 1968 campaign—that famous Southern strategy which gave up the Negroes and the big cities and went for the border states and the Great White America Out There—was conceived from necessity and then shrewdly developed. Nixon celebrated “the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators,” and patronized them shamelessly: “They are good people, decent people; they work, they save, they pay their taxes, they care.” His motto for a time was “Bring Us Together”—but he did not mean all of us. No welfare cases here, no snotty kids or wise-aleck intellectuals, no unmannerly blacks. Nixon understood his constituency as well as Kennedy and McCarthy understood theirs, and Nixon's was bigger.
Nixon, as President, is past that period of his life when it was necessary for him to behave like a vicious opportunist. He has arrived, and if the first year of his Presidency is a guide, he would like now to be the master of a cruise ship where all the passengers above tourist class have an agreeable time. Our captain, with an eye to avoiding storm centers, with a delicate hand on the wheel (somewhat biased toward starboard but not so much as to disturb the deck games), aspires not toward any far lands but merely for a placid journey. The ship's chaplain, Dr. Billy Graham.
It is depressing, but instructive, that the Year of the New Politics should also have been the year of Richard Nixon. He, no less than Robert Kennedy, spoke for the “people.” His victory ought to remind those of us who do not travel enough that Nixon country is a big place; its residents are comfortable but nervous; probably they don't like psychiatrists either. In the minds of millions last November, the riots, disruptions, muggings, pornography, and street rhetoric all came together like a threatening beast. And up against the monster rose Square Richard, so familiar from the good, quiet Eisenhower days.
The reason that the Nixon strategists could resign themselves to the loss of the big cities in 1968, aside from their deal with the Southerners, was that the old liberal alliance was in disarray, white unionists, black militants, and random intellectuals not finding quite so much in common as once they did. The alliance was not entirely unstuck, but it was far from solid. A late drive by the unions, fearful of Wallace's strength among their members, is credited with bringing Humphrey close to Nixon—but the drive was late, and discontent was evident. Honorable men divided for honorable reasons over whether to vote for Humphrey in November. To some it seemed absurd to depose the monarch and then crown his buddy; to others it seemed masochistic not to vote against Nixon. Had the Democratic dissidents gone all out for Humphrey, the election might have wound up in the House of Representatives, where Wallace would have exercised a certain leverage. (It has become almost gospel in liberal circles that had Kennedy lived, he would assuredly have been nominated in Chicago and if nominated, he would assuredly have won. Many persons would agree with Herzog that McCarthy, too, would have beaten Nixon. Well, maybe. To dispute this faith now would be neither kind nor useful.)
Against the feuding Left, the Republicans can, for now, count on their “centrist” movement, which has hardened in response to the commotion on streets and campuses. Your ordinary citizen cannot be expected to make nice distinctions between youths who bust up classrooms and youths who work in primaries; they all have long hair. As the ghettos and universities were being radicalized, the nation was drawing back; for the moment, Richard Nixon stands as the major beneficiary of the radicalization process.
Perhaps it is not unutterably guileless to assume that we are on our way to reducing our Vietnam commitment drastically—which would mean that among the problems of liberals looking forward to 1972 is that of rebuilding their alliance around issues that are not so passion-stirring as a futile war. The base of the renewed alliance will, we may assume, be the McCarthy-Kennedy cadres, their sources of strength in suburbs as well as cities; it will be more a white-collar movement than a blue. As for a candidate, a position that remains unclaimed since the scotching of Edward Kennedy, the 1968 experience holds out the hope that if the issues are important enough to enough people, leaders will come forward to argue them. May they be as unconventional as Eugene McCarthy.
For the foreseeable future the Republican political position is strong, but hardly invulnerable. George Wallace got ten million votes in 1968, four million of them outside the South, despite the handicap of his bomb-specialist running-mate, General Curtis LeMay. A Wallace movement in 1972 could give Nixon a bad headache, and he can look for no aspirin on the Left. So we can anticipate that his balancing act—Finch against Mitchell, Moynihan against Thurmond—will lose even the semblance of balance, as events draw the President and his party insensibly further and further to the Right. Observing this drift, the national Democrats will be tempted to follow, reasoning that the Left has no choice but to vote against Nixon, be he old, new, or supernew Nixon. Maybe that will work, but the course has its hazards. The South is gone or going, and the Democrats are in no position to compete with the Attorney General, that tough guy, in declaiming on law-and-order. In any case, it will fall to the McCarthyans and Kennedyites (who, let us hope, will have laid aside their quarrel by then) to direct their party's leaders onto a more worthy road. That seems feasible, for the Democratic chiefs must know that their machine is damaged and there is considerable interest in the air for a breakaway to a third (or is it fourth?) party. The more difficult job facing the liberal-radical alliance is to convince some millions of residents of Square America—who have shown themselves by no means unresponsive to appeals to their intelligence or their humanity—that the causes of peace, civil rights, and social justice are not in the exclusive possession of confrontationists.
1 The books at hand are: The Making of a President, 1968, by Theodore H. White, Atheneum, 459 pp., $10.00; An American Melodrama—The Presidential Campaign of 1968, by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, Viking, 832 pp., $10.00; The Year of the People, by Eugene J. McCarthy, Doubleday, 360 pp., $6.95; McCarthy for President, by Arthur Herzog, Viking, 309 pp., $6.95; The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss, Trident, 253 pp., $5.95; Winning's a Lot More Fun, by Stephen C. Shadegg, Macmillan, 278 pp., $6.95. [Several books that deal with Robert Kennedy's role in the political events of 1968 will be discussed separately in a forthcoming issue.—Ed.]