Most of us would agree that this presidential year and its political landscape is an absolute mess. Though the chaos might appear new, we’ve nevertheless been here before. Therein lies a lesson and this opportunity to remind.
In the last year or so, I’ve been itching to write a memoir about what I’ve learned and experienced since graduate school and thought that a good working title might be Speak, Memory. But that won’t work. Someone named Vladimir Nabokov beat me to the gate about 50 years ago with that idea.
If you’re 65 and older, there’s something tantalizing about looking back nearly half a century to gain insight into what was experienced – and certainly learned. (If you’re not that old, trust me, this memory will speak some truths that can be applied to the present.)
Let’s pick a year to start – 1968, to be exact. Not only was that year one of the most tumultuous in American and World History (Headlines – Tet Offensive; Assassinations of MLK and RFK; Near-Revolution in France; Prague Spring; Debut of the Musical “Hair”; Riots at the Chicago Democratic National Convention; First Orbit of the Moon by Manned Spacecraft Apollo 8 – but that’s only the abridged version). Indeed, with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, 1968 gave us something else.
Let me make this perfectly clear. The year 1968 gave us non-Aquarian Richard Milhous Nixon.
Yes, Richard Milhous Nixon, aka Dick Nixon, aka Tricky Dick, aka I’m Not a Crook, I Pay My Taxes Dick Nixon.
And no, Frank Sinatra did not say that 1968 was a very good year.
Sure, no one in their right mind would attempt to compare the present year entirely with 1968, but there are some similarities. That’s where my abandoned title of Speak, Memory comes to mind.
In spite of all the chaos with those campus days in that most chaotic of years, the most immediate memory I have of that year is that I had come of age – not in the Aquarius sense, but something more basic: I was old enough to cast my first vote. (The 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971, three years after this fateful election.)
After years and years of learning history and studying problems of democracy, with impressions of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Truman in my head, I tried to keep track of all that was going on in the world and at home to base a decision in which my first vote would be cast.
In that election year of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson dropped out after a contested primary in New Hampshire, where Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy captured 42% of the popular vote. New York Senator Robert Kennedy then entered the race, while Alabama Governor George Wallace campaigned on a Third Party ticket with his running mate, Columbus native and Ohio State University grad, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who, before Ted Cruz was even born, promised to bomb the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age. (Cruz, who neither attained star rank or quality, by contrast said last year that “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”)
Add to that, among other fringe candidates, Louis Abolofia of the Cosmic Love Party, and later with the Nudist Party. Appropriately, his slogan was “What Have I Got to Hide.” Comedian Dick Gregory of the Freedom and Peace Party, along with other obscure candidates, rounded out the crowded field.
Did I miss any? I’m sure that I did.
It was that kind of year. Even a scorecard to track all of the candidates might not have helped. And with a plethora of candidates and passions stoked by angry and absolutist rhetoric, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was fought outside in the streets as well as in the convention hall itself.
On the way to Chicago, Eugene McCarthy fell by the wayside, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and somehow Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, emerged as the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, but only after TV images showing police attacking demonstrators in Grant Park, with the crowds chanting “the whole world is watching.”
Most of us know the rest of the story. Humphrey lost and Richard Milhous Nixon won. Not by much, but enough. A little more than 500,000 votes separated the two, with Nixon winning 43.4% to Humphrey’s 42.7%. Though the Electoral College result was wider, the election was nevertheless close, as the popular vote numbers attest.
So where is the lesson from 1968 and this year’s race?
After the murder of RFK and the brutality of Chicago, the polarization of the country and the Democratic Party deepened. And when Election Day arrived, people stayed home. Or skipped voting for president.
In 1968, voters knew all about Nixon. They knew about his smearing of Jerry Voorhis and the red-baiting of Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponents for office, and his famous Checkers Speech, when, as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952, he was under intense scrutiny over an account set up to reimburse him for political expenses, but what others thought was a slush fund. No wonder he was called Tricky Dick.
In spite of all that was known in 1968 about Nixon, thousands upon thousands of good Democrats, angry at Humphrey for his close association with Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, stayed home on Election Day. Others did vote for candidates that year, but chose not to vote for anyone in the presidential column.
I was one of those voters.
It was my first vote, and I have regretted the mistake of not voting for president ever since. Hubert Humphrey, with all his flaws, was a good and decent man. Richard Milhous Nixon was not. For those who did not know that in 1968, they were soon to learn that simple fact.
People like me punished Humphrey and, by doing so, also aided Nixon; for then, like now, perfection is the enemy of the good. Like-minded friends in their early twenties saw flaws and judged Humphrey in absolute terms, not thinking of the consequences.
And we’re doing it again.
This year, a bruising primary fight between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is causing deep wounds in the party. One Facebook page hosted by Bernie Sanders supporters, for example, used Fox News commentary supplied by Jeanine Pirro, a former New York-area prosecutor, to tear down Hillary Clinton.
Certainly, all’s fair in love, war and politics, but in trying to make a credible argument, is your message discredited by having to rely on an inflammatory Fox News commentator? One wonders.
And speaking about Facebook, here are a few examples of recent posts at one Bernie website:
“I will never vote for an establishment candidate. Bernie or bust2016.”
“I will never vote for that repulsive creature! I won’t call her “woman”, I think too highly of women. I’ll write Bernie in if necessary! I do think Trump would be a disaster of unequaled proportions, still, I would NEVER vote for Hillary!”
How about this example posted as a response to a photo that said “Share if you think this fencepost would make a better president than Donald Trump.” The reply on a friend’s Facebook page contained this: “I’d rather him than Hillary but batting for Bernie all the way.”
Or, even scarier, there was this recent exchange between Daylin Leach, a Pennsylvania state senator, and one of his Facebook friends.
Senator: DWS (Debbie Wasserman Schultz) is going to be working her heart out for Hillary. A lot of Bernie supporters have not yet pledged to do the same.
Friend Reply: Yes, we have pledged. WE WILL NOT! We will not support a candidate who had this election rigged from the beginning and continues to disenfranchise voters. The establishment wanted to stuff Hillary down our throats, they get what they deserve. We are not going away win or lose the nomination. We will return this party back to what it was before the Clintons sold it to the corporate elite back in the 90s.The voters don’t want Hillary and never did but by the DNCs/Clintons antics, that may be what the party has to offer. THIS is why it is and will be the fault of DWS. Leach. Again, I am shocked and saddened you chose the route you did. You could have stood up for your principles…”
If there are readers who don’t remember the history of the 1968 election, Senator Leach in his response reminded the absolutist Bernie supporter of a much more recent election result. Some of us might not know about 1968, but how about 2000?
Senator: I did stand up for my principles. Hillary is far more progressive than you alleged. This election was not “rigged”. Hillary simply got more votes than Bernie. A lot of them. That’s what elections are. But I too have my disappointments. I am disappointed that people like you learned nothing from Ralph Nader and are going to apparently do all you can to elect Donald Trump in the fall. How is that “standing up for principle”? He will set the progressive movement back a generation, with real consequences in the lives of people you say you care about. All so you can maintain some sort of self-righteous purity. Tell that to the people that Trump is going to “bomb the shit out of” or the women who will lose their reproductive freedom because he replaces Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Ted Cruz on the Supreme Court.
Never mind that recently, the Nevada state party convention was rocked by booing and shoving, as Sanders supporters, disappointed with the rules and the result, booed several speakers and the state party chair received some threatening emails.
The posts illustrated here are not to suggest that the Bernie-Hillary feud is one-sided. Far from it. But the tone of the Bernie folks, fueled by their fervor, seems to be more absolutist and shrill, and that is most disconcerting going into November.
Yes, I’m preoccupied with the past and the damage that Democrats are inflicting upon themselves. Indeed, when I read this article a few days ago about Ralph Nader and the 2000 election, it reminded me of an encounter I had with a college student in Downtown Columbus just a few weeks before that memorable election.
As I saw the student with his Nader sign, I congratulated him on his idealism and commitment and asked his age. He was born in 1980, he told me, and because of the 26th Amendment, had the right to vote for president at age 20 rather than my experience in 1968, at age 23. I then told him what I did in that fateful year, that I had chosen not to vote because of my ideals – yes, the ideals that helped to deliver the country to Richard Milhous Nixon.
The perfect is the enemy of the good. And the absolute, which can be a synonym for the perfect, blinds voters to the relative necessity of preventing the election of someone who will deliver evil in the form of judges that will punish us for a generation after an election.
Among other appointments, for example, Dick Nixon, who won in part because people like me were more interested in the lack of perfection in Hubert Humphrey, gave us William Rehnquist. In 2000, Rehnquist was part of the 5-4 majority that gave the election to George W. Bush. Elections are about consequences, and it might be fair to say that the moral absolutism of 1968 begat the debacle of 2000.
Back to that student for a moment. He did act a bit stunned when I explained to him all the details of the 1968 election and my everlasting remorse in not voting for president in my first vote. I wonder if I might have been persuasive and made him think some more about his support for Nader, knowing that a few weeks after our encounter Nader did bleed off many good Democrats and helped Dubya win an election that he lost by 540,000 votes – with the help of Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, Katherine Harris and the butterfly ballot.
Ironically, the 2000 popular vote total demonstrated nearly the same margin that separated the Democratic and Republican candidates in 1968. And with that simple statistic, I’ll leave what I hope is the best part of my argument for last.
In March 2016, I voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in the Ohio Primary, along with my wife and daughter. Bernie lost, we accepted the verdict, and come what may in Philadelphia in July, we’re with Hillary, or Bernie, however remote that possibility.
If I have any cred to contribute to this argument, it is this: dear friends, tone it down. Don’t use the words never or use Fox News clips to make an argument that is bound to come back and bite you in the arse in the form of judges that will be around for a generation. The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Remember 1968, as I do. And remember 2000, when we experienced the legal theft of an American election that was enabled in part by good people who threw away their vote to a Third Party candidate or who didn’t show up to vote. I’m supporting – and accepting – either Bernie or Hillary as the desired alternative to the Party of Trump, aka the Party of No.
Yes, I remember the past and worry about the future.
So I’ve traveled back to graduate school and remember a few quotes that have stuck with me all these years:
- For those absolutist Bernie voters – and I voted for him in March – who have decided (a la me in 1968) not to vote for Hillary Clinton or anyone else for president, I remind you of the advice of the theologian Harvey Cox: “Not to decide is to decide.”
- For those who are determined to “reform” the Democratic Party by voting for a Third Party candidate or even Donald Trump as a means of bringing change while ignoring the lessons of 1968 and 2000, be reminded yet again of the words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
Fellow Democrats and Progressives, we need to win in November. There is no alternative. The tone of our rhetoric has to change. Let us lower our voices and reason together. To paraphrase the refrain from a Pete Seeger classic, O when will Dems ever learn/When will we ever learn?
Memory, you have spoken.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.