Thursday, May 08, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

In May, the turmoil continued:

On May 2, in France, the university at Nanterre was shut down by its administration after several weeks of student protests. The next day, students at the Sorbonne held a protest of the events in Nanterre, and police responded by surrounding the campus and shutting it down. The National Union of French Students and the Lecturers' Union called a strike, and on May 6 they marched to the Sorbonne. Police charged the crowd and the students created barricades. Rioting and conflicts with police would continue, including an all-night riot on the rive gauche on May 10. The Communist Party responded by calling for a national one-day strike on May 13. That day, a million people marched in Paris. Workers continued the protests, shutting down factories, around the country. The situation would continue through the month.

On May 7, the Indiana primary gave Robert F. Kennedy his first big win, with 42 percent of the Democratic vote (27 percent for McCarthy, 31 percent for Indiana governor Branigan, standing in for Humphrey, who wasn't running in primaries.) He had spent lots of time in Indiana, motorcading across the state and giving a memorable impromptu speech the night King was shot. There had also been a whistle-stop campaign on a train following the route of the Wabash Cannonball. Richard Nixon easily won the Republican primary, and had barely campaigned there.

That day Alabama governor Lurleen Wallace died of the cancer that had been diagnosed after she agreed to run as a stand-in for her husband George, who had to give up the office because of term limits. She took the office in January 1967; George Wallace became a candidate for president on the American Independent Party ticket.

On May 10, peace talks began in Paris but soon stalled as the U.S. insisted that North Vietnamese troops withdraw from the South, while the North Vietnamese insist on Viet Cong participation in a coalition government in South Vietnam. It was the first diplomatic discussion between the two sides in the Vietnam war but would only lead to on and off talks over the next five years.

On May 11, the first marchers in the Poor People's March began to arrive in Washington DC. Led by the late Martin Luther King Jr's deputy Ralph Abernathy, nine caravans had started from different sections of America on May 2 and picked up demonstrators along the way. In Washington, they would begin setting up a shantytown-style campsite, called Resurrection City, on 16 acres of the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King had spoken in 1963.

More on the events of the year at the Guardian: 1968, year of revolt.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post's library, I was learning the ropes and the news archiving and research systems, in the days before computers.

I'd long been a hoarder of news clippings, especially political cartoons, so the job appealed to me: It was a simple system of clipping and filing. Every day several library staffers would organize several copies of each page of the newspaper, and mark each story with the date and one of several different file headings. A story about Bobby Kennedy's campaign in Indiana might be marked with headings like "Kennedy, Robert F: presidential campaign", "Kennedy, Robert F: Speeches", "Presidential Campaign, 1968: Indiana primary", Presidential Campaign: Democratic Party", "Indiana: politics", etc.

Then another staffer would take a metal bar and strip each story from the pages and fold into envelope size. Next several other staffers would alphabetize the clips, and file them into envelopes in file drawers.

It was tedious, particularly the filing. New envelopes had to be labeled when it was a new category or when the old ones got too full. Typewriters were kept on carts in the aisles for this. Since filing was the most boring job, it got put off the longest.

There was always a backlog of clips to be filed. Of course, the second part of the job was finding those clips for reporters. Since the latest weren't always filed yet, sometimes they had to be retrieved from several places. The specific clips requested were pulled from the original envelopes (which didn't leave the library) and placed in check-out envelopes, and logged. Copy boys (or girls) would pick them up and deliver to the reporters or editors who requested them. Hopefully in a day or two they would be returned and refiled.

If a reporter needed other sources of information, there was a book collection, mainly reference books like encyclopedias, almanacs, Who's Whos, etc. Plus a large magazine collection. Sometimes the only way to find a specific piece of information was to use the New York Times' index, in book form, the only one available. Or Facts on File, a monthly report of news from around the world, collected in book form at the end of the year.

Several of the library staff specialized in answering reference questions. As a new employee I was relegated to the files. But I was interested to watch as the others went through the research routines.

Some jobs were specialized: for example, one staffer, an ex-Navy submariner, answered the military questions. He also had the job of calling the Pentagon each Friday for the Vietnam 'body counts' (both U.S. military and VC/NVA) which would be published over the weekend. Another researcher specialized in local politics; she was active in the northern Virginia Republican organization.

The library was tucked in the far northwest corner of the newsroom, in the old Post building facing south on L St. (It would be a couple years until the construction of a new, larger addition facing 15th St.)

The library's front counter faced rows of reporters' desks, with editors' offices on the far side. Just near the library corner were the offices of cartoonist Herblock and political reporter Chalmers Roberts.
(In the photo, the only one I have from the old library, Joe Wright answers a research question at the front of the library facing into the newsroom. One of the reporters standing at front: Hollie West.)

I was getting to know the staff, and meeting some of the reporters. I was getting a regular paycheck, somewhere around $120 a week, which seemed like a fortune to me at the time. Some time during these first few weeks my boss, Mark Hannan, took me to meet Howard Simons, assistant managing editor. He was a wonderful man who would encourage my advancement at the Post over the next several years. I was feeling pretty lucky to be there.

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