In Which We Compare 1968 & 2008: The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowin’ In the Wind
Having been eligible for the draft and an all-expenses-paid trip to Vietnam since I was 18, 1968 was the year that I turned 21 and finally was old enough to drink and vote, which I did in that order and with great enthusiasm.
I had a front-row seat for this year of great change — including antiwar protests, the King and Kennedy assassinations, and the coming of age of the civil rights and women’s movements — but nowhere were those changes manifested so powerfully than in the presidential race that year.
This presidential election year also is shaping up to be one of potentially great change, which begs the question:
Were the changes of 1968 more important than the changes of 2008 could be?
That is a difficult question because America and the world have changed (there’s that word again) in myriad ways over the last four decades, so for the purpose of trying to tease out an answer, I’ll reframe the question thusly:
Were Americans individually and the nation generally better off in 1968 than in 2008?
Thus framed, the answer to that question is a big fat “yes,” and so the answer to my initial question is that the changes of 2008 — at the very least the much anticipated end of the Age of Bush — may indeed be more important.
Since we’re looking at year versus year through the prism of presidential politics, it should be noted that there is an obvious similarity and two obvious differences.
The similarity is the looming presence of costly and unpopular wars in both 1968 and 2008.
The first difference is that unlike 1968, the U.S. today is the sole superpower, has an unprecedented global reach and is the subject of profound loathing abroad, notably among the people whose most radical elements can do the American homeland harm.
The second difference is that in 1968 most of the opposition President Johnson faced was from within his own party over his stewardship of the Vietnam War, which prompted him to opt out of running for reelection, while in 2008 President Bush has gotten a free pass from most of his prospective heirs apparent, who dutifully worship at his altar although he is extraordinarily unpopular and is the chief reason the Republican hegemony in Washington is coming to such an unceremonious end.
But there are less readily obvious differences that decisively tip the scales and make 2008 more important: Americans are under attack today in ways that were, for the most part, unfathomable in 1968, and their biggest enemy is not the global Islamic jihad but their own government.
This is a most potent statement and on its face seemingly hyperbolic until you consider that:
Unless they are fortunate enough to breathe the rare air of the rich, Americans are struggling more than ever to pay for their homes, send their kids to college, keep them well so they won’t have to go to an emergency room because they lack adequate health insurance, and have the comfort of knowing that their enfeebled Uncle Leo will get around-the-clock care in a nursing home.
Their every activity can be monitored by a fear-mongering government that does not believe in using warrants but does embrace Nazi torture techniques, while the hallowed principle of habeas corpus is for sissies.
They are asked not to sacrifice their sons and daughter for a war in order to make the world safer or push back against falling dominoes, but merely pay for a war with ever changing rationales from which big oil companies will accrue the greatest benefit.
If they do not agree with their leader they are accused of being unpatriotic. He declares himself to be unbound by the constitutional balance of powers and his minions unanswerable to investigators and their subpoenas. Incriminating evidence is hidden or destroyed on orders from on high. When Congress passes a law with which their leader does not agree, he merely issues another signing statement stating that he’ll ignore it.
They are told by their leader that the fate of the republic depends on allowing telephone companies to break the law without the threat of being sued, while the enfeebled CIA is beset by scandal, and one-third of the key positions at a post-9/11 creation called the Department of Homeland Security go unfilled because there is a shortage of political hacks. There is bipartisan agreement that FEMA, the agency charged with responding to domestic disasters, is itself a disaster.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Americans suddenly had all of that bad stuff happen to them when the calendar was rolled over to January. But the 2008 presidential race will be – or at least should be – a referendum on the kind of place that the U.S. has become over the last seven years. And whether there is the will to try to undo that.
While the 1968 campaign was wrenching, it pales in comparison to 2008.
First of all, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were longtime political insiders who owed their nominations to party loyalty and not breaking with the past.
There also was a formidable third-party effort that year by former Alabama governor George Wallace, whose racism won him 13.5 percent of the popular vote. Meanwhile, Nixon campaigned on a “law and order” plank, a subtle appeal to white voters upset over race riots and protests, and he characterized Humphrey’s embrace of LBJ’s Great Society welfare programs as giveaways to the undeserving.
In the end, Humphrey broke with Johnson over the Vietnam War too unconvincingly and too late. While Nixon’s assertions that he would end the war were deliberately vague and it was to drag on for six more years, he squeaked by, triggering a fundamental realignment of American politics that would result in Republican victories in seven of the last 10 presidential elections.
Let us pray that 2008 heralds not only a new realignment but that the year lives up to its promise.
The initial omens are good. Whether prodded by the repo man or concern for personal freedoms, a gratifying number of Americans have awakened from their slumber.
Judging from the Democratic presidential race — its sheer excitement and dynamism standing in marked contrast to the dreary, under-subscribed Republican affair that has breech-birthed a change-allergic septuagenarian from a field of white men virtually undistinguishable on the issues — many voters view choosing a successor to George Bush as a referendum on change.
Make no mistake about it: America has not necessarily transcended race, let alone gender. But many of the voters who will determine who the next president of the United State is are desperate to transcend the darkness visited upon them by Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales.
That is why, in the first big change unfolding in this infant year, the wind is at Barack Obama’s back, Hillary Clinton has her back against a firewall, and John McCain has little chance of getting the Republican Party back in the game.