Ugh is right. Are we back in 1968 again?
In a way.
As Americans try to comprehend the magnitude of all that has transpired in the past week, I can only wish that history could repeat itself, a half-century after a profound personal experience that my memory links to current events.
The setting back then was Lafayette Square, the prime parkland just north of the White House. As Maurice Chevalier once put it, ah yes, I remember it well – but with a bit more precise recall than the Frenchman’s famous retelling.
Those powerful images this week of the protesters fleeing chemical agents and smoke bombs launched by heavily armed police in Lafayette Square reminded me of that same park in a tumultuous year like the present, but also in marked contrast to our current eventful year and moment.
It was 1968 – the year when everything happened.
On a Saturday evening – March 30, 1968 to be exact, I was one of four graduate school students from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia who were in Washington for a short visit that was part of a long weekend break from classes. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, the four of us took a walk around the city and were surprised to find a large crowd that had gathered in Lafayette Square to protest the Vietnam War.
Like most students, we had little money and were happy to be merely entertained by the sights of the capital city. But that Saturday evening across from the White House served as a marker for all of the other incredible events which were soon to follow in quick succession in that fateful year of 1968.
We entered the park to see thousands of protesters add their voices to the growing unrest across the nation. Several speakers addressed the crowd and referred in strong terms to “that man across the street” and the turmoil his Vietnam War policies had launched among many Americans. After about 15 minutes of taking in the flavor of the crowd, our foursome left to take in some other parts of the city.
Although the crowd was loud and agitated that night about the policies of President Lyndon Johnson, there was no noticeable police presence. Nor was there any action to disperse the crowd on that Saturday evening, March 30, 1968 when, at age twenty-two, I went for a stroll in the park with my grad school friends in the midst of a huge demonstration across the street from the White House.
Yes, that was then.
By contrast, the New York Times described how a gathering of citizens in that same Lafayette Square protesting police brutality and racism were treated on June 1, 2020:
What ensued was a burst of violence unlike any seen in the shadow of the White House in generations. As he prepared for his surprise march to the church, Mr. Trump first went before cameras in the Rose Garden to declare himself “your president of law and order” but also “an ally of all peaceful protesters,” even as peaceful protesters just a block away and clergy members on the church patio were routed by smoke and flash grenades and some form of chemical spray deployed by shield-bearing riot officers and mounted police.
The Times had it right. It was indeed generations ago that Washington had seen such a spectacle – with some pundits guessing that the Bonus Army debacle in 1932 was the last comparable use of military-style force on protesters.
As the year 1968 dragged on, Richard Nixon and his accomplice, Spiro Agnew, came to use the term “law and order” over and over again. And just like some other things vintage 1968, that term is back.
Now back to the personal narrative.
After resting overnight, the four Marshall University amigos got in a car and left Washington, still excited about observing so much energy and passion just hours earlier in Lafayette Square. Before the days of smooth, relatively straight four-lane interstate highways, the car navigated the ever-winding, serpentine-like US 60, heading west through the rugged West Virginia hills on the way back to Huntington.
Somewhere around Gauley Bridge, after a drive filled with spirited conversation, we decided to turn on the car radio. In this time well before the advent of satellite radio, we picked up the crackling signal of a radio station, probably from Charleston, and heard an announcement that the President of the United States would soon address the nation.
The notice that the president would be speaking shortly got our attention, as we continued navigating through those winding, country roads that John Denver later made famous in song.
Twenty-somethings are easily distracted and, true to form, we were half-listening to the president’s words until we heard this sentence near the end of his speech – words that shocked the nation:
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
What? the four of us screamed. What the f*** did he just say?
Though the radio signal was not clear that night, we soon realized that we had just heard an American version of an abdication speech. Sure, it wasn’t as dramatic as the words uttered by Edward VIII in 1936 about the woman he loved, but it was an abdication speech nonetheless.
Yes, we were jubilant in that car all the way back to campus and joked that when Lyndon Johnson looked out his window and saw four po’ folks from West Virginia who had driven across the mountains and assembled in the park across the street, he decided it was time to hang it up the very next day.
But our joy in retelling that joke to others on campus didn’t last very long.
Four days after Lyndon Johnson’s speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A few weeks later, Robert Kennedy met the same fate. But that was only part of that year which started for us in the park across the street from that big marble mansion occupied by a very powerful man.
It was so long ago. But then it seems like yesterday.
Which brings us to the present.
In thinking back on that time, my hoped-for dream of history repeating itself is quite clear. It goes like this: several friends will journey with me to Lafayette Square, joining a group of protesters. We will then attempt to channel past presidential behavior, chant something like “it’s time to go,” and await the resignation of Donald Trump as he confronts the ghost of Lyndon Johnson and angry crowds across the street in the park. Add to that little old me, praying for a repeat of 1968.
The last time I tried this, it took less than twenty-four hours to have a result. Snicker.
Wouldn’t this sentence be music to the nation’s ears?
As a way to spend more time with my family, I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president of law and order and ally of all peaceful protesters.
Sometime before 1968, Shakespeare wrote that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” And in a very human way, dreams sometimes merge with memories of times past to form our aspirations for the future.
Right now, I’m dreaming about a better future, one that will start with a walk in a certain park. You know which one, don’t you?
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