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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)
(See the posts in chronological order)

November 5. The election was upon us, a scary time. The choice, between LBJ's vice president Hubert Humphrey, a likable former mayor, congressman and senator from Minnesota who had for years been a reliable liberal campaigner, and Nixon. In 1948 HHH had been one of the first who stood up to the southern Democrats and demanded a civil rights plank. He introduced the bill that created the Peace Corps. He had tried for the presidential nomination in 1960 and gave up his senate post and majority whip position to become LBJ's VP in '64.
Despite all his good points, many Democrats and other voters, especially the young, deplored his complete loyalty to LBJ and support of Johnson's war effort and were upset he was the nominee instead of the dead Bobby Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy. A Tom Lehrer song "Whatever Became of Hubert?" went "I wonder how many people here tonight remember Hubert Humphrey. He used to be a senator..."

Some possible Humphrey voters were also voting for the third-party candidate George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who had attracted blue-collar voters to his campaign of racism and disgust with anti-war protests.

Nixon, on the other hand, was a polarizing candidate: you either loved him or hated him. Many voters had never forgiven him for his 'red-baiting' campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s, the Alger Hiss case, his win over Helen Gahagen Douglas for the Senate in which he accused her of being 'pink' (It was Douglas who dubbed him 'Tricky Dick', according to Wikipedia); his 'Checkers' speech.

As Eisenhower's two-time VP he was always expected to have a chance at the presidency but his close loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and his 1962 loss at the California gubernatorial race, in which he claimed he held his last press conference ( 'you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore') seemed to have ended his career.

His return -- and nomination -- in 1968 was a surprise to many, and disgusted many young voters in particular. He was old politics, and we didn't like his appeal to the so-called 'silent majority' and the outrageous campaign statements and attacks on anti-war protesters of his VP candidate, Spiro Agnew. Spiro Agnew watches were a popular fashion statement, by supporters but also by those who thought he was a joke (one campaign ad: "President Spiro Agnew? (laughter)).

So November 5th was an uneasy day. For my first election night in a newsroom, I discovered the library's job was to set up as an information center for Post readers. We were expected to come in a bit later that day, and work as far into the night as necessary.

We would get copies of wire reports on the returns as they came in; the copy staff had to make extra copies and drop them on our desks as quickly as they got other copies to the reporters and editors working on the night's stories. Readers had been told to call the library's number, and when a reader wanted results in Iowa, for example, we had to find whatever numbers we had amongst the piles of torn-off wire printouts. It could get frustrating, especially when callers couldn't understand why we didn't have the latest news. Even the TV in the corner with the network news coverage didn't always help.

I don't remember how late I had to work that night, or how soon we knew the results, but it was demoralizing. Nixon won with 43.4% of the vote to Humphrey's 42.6%. Wallace had taken 13.5% so may have made the difference. Worse, though, Humphrey took only 191 electoral votes from 13 states, whereas Nixon took 32 states and Wallace 5.

Headline in the New York Times the next day:
NIXON WINS BY A THIN MARGIN, PLEADS FOR REUNITED NATION; NIXON'S ELECTION EXPECTED TO SLOW PARIS NEGOTIATION
Allied Diplomats Suggest All Sides May Adopt a Wait-and-See Stance
NIXON'S ELECTION MAY SLOW TALKS

Many of my friends talked of moving to Canada, Paris, or somewhere else. A year later I'd leave for London (but stay only a few months). 1969 would be a sad year.

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