Remembering the 1968 Election: Politics, Snakes & Snakes

My onetime colleague Joe Klein gets this right: I too was among  many angry youth (even worse, an angry young Quaker) who  despised Establishment Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. I remember hearing Dr. King’s close aide Andrew Young pleading with an angry college crowd to vote for Hubert Humphrey.

Young made two memorable points: “Some black folk have a saying:’White people are snakes. But there’s snakes and snakes.’” And: “The Supreme Court.”

I was unmoved. Joe Klein wrote in a comedian; I refused to vote at all. Besides, Humphrey carried Massachusetts, where I was living then, so my indifference mattered not a whit in the electoral tally. But still: Andy was right.

Now in summer I have small snakes in my backyard. They eat bugs and stuff; they don’t bother people. And after Richard Nixon narrowly beat Humphrey in 1968, he appointed, among others,William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court. And it was Rehnquist’s fifth vote that stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush, than whom only 45 is worse, or as bad.

Joe Klein is snobbish about Bernie, and I don’t like that. But otherwise he’s still right. This year I’m an angry old Quaker, but if I make it to November, you bet I’m gonna vote.

Joe Klein, Washington Post: “I am trying to remember the person I was in 1968. I was 22 years old and a recent college graduate. I was angry, infuriated by the war in Vietnam and racial segregation. It was my first chance to vote in a presidential election. I was living in New Jersey — very briefly — and I voted for Dick Gregory, the brilliant comedian running as a write-in candidate, instead of Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat running against Republican Richard Nixon. It was a protest vote, obviously. I regret it to this day.

Black snakes: not a problem in my backyard.

Humphrey barely lost New Jersey to Nixon. Gregory’s 8,084 votes would not have turned the state. But I wonder: What would have happened if I, and hundreds of thousands like me nationwide, had given Humphrey the same level of energy, support and enthusiasm we lavished upon Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy in the primaries?

Humphrey was the Joe Biden of his day, a standard-issue establishment Democrat. He was known to be a lovely man who had a problem with his mouth: He talked too much. He had started out as a civil-rights crusader in Minnesota, but that seemed like ancient history to me. Worse, he was Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president and a supporter of the war in Vietnam until late in the campaign. We — the Bernie Bros of the moment — had driven Johnson from the race. It was infuriating that we’d done so in order to make the world safe for Hubert Horatio Humphrey. . . .

We were counseled by our elders: Vote the lesser of two evils. But Humphrey’s kindness and humanity simply didn’t register. We saw only this wimpy, old guy who was probably lying about his newfound opposition to the war. And it didn’t really matter if Nixon won: We were young; we had a world to win, an establishment to overthrow. We had a plenty of time. Four years of Nixon would bring the country to its senses. What was one election?”

The Supreme Court. Snakes and snakes.

The Supreme Court: a problem in my backyard.

4 thoughts on “Remembering the 1968 Election: Politics, Snakes & Snakes”

  1. Remarks of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey Hall of Nations, Leamington Hotel

    12:30 a.m., November 6, i968

    VICE PRESIDENT HUMPHREY: Thank you.

    (Applause)

    Well, first of all, may I thank you for your — is this loud- speaker working?

    May I take a moment just to thank you , first of all, for your patience tonight. You have waited a long time, and I have waited
    an equally long time, and I wanted to take just a moment to come here to express my thanks to all of my many friends, particularly here at home and many that have come from other parts of the Nation for your wonderful support, and to tell you that I feel sufficiently at ease so that I want to get a good night’s rest.

    (Applause)

    Some members of my family have already seen fit to retire in confidence and others have decided to stay up, but we have, as you know, several of the very important States nip and tuck, where the decision, I am sure, will not be known until some time at least late tomorrow, and if you want to stay up and wait for all that, I am all for you.

    (Applause)

    But you have been watching the television and you have been listening to the reports, and I believe that it is fair to say that
    we have done much better than most observers had thought we would do about as good as I thought we would.

    (Applause)

    Now, there are critical States yet to be heard from. They are not finalized as yet, States such as Ohio, Illinois, and the States such as California, the State of Washington, and, as you know, this is at best, as we put it, a donneybrook. Anything can happen.

    (Cries of “We will win.”)

    I understand from what I have been hearing from my friends on
    the television that it will be some time before we hear from California, and I thought since that was the case, since I just left California last night, that I maybe would retire and let both Hubert Humphrey and California have a night’s rest.

    I do want to express particularly to my friends in Minnesota sincere appreciation for this wonderful, wonderful display of support that you have given to us here. I know that my colleague, Ed Muskie. Maine feels exactly the same way about his State.

    (Applause)

    And I am sure that every one of you know that this campaign has been a great opportunity for me and for Mr. Muskie and for those associated with me to carry a message to this country. I couldn’t possibly be any happier than in the knowledge that we have done the right thing. we have said what we believed, we have spoken the hard facts of our country as we saw them.

    He has offered what we thought were the alternatives and the solutions. We placed our case before the American people. We did it in a short period of time against tremendous odds, and all I can say tonight to the American people is they have been mighty good to us. They have given us a great vote of confidence in this popular vote.

    (Applause)

    I am especially indebted to Larry O’Brien, our National Chairman.

    (Applause),

    To Senator Mondale and Senator Harris, who are my co-chairmen.

    (Applanse)

    To Terry Sanford of North Carolina and others with the Citizens Committee, and to the thousands and thousands of others all across this country, in all walks of life. And may I give a special thanks tonight to the wonderful work of the young people that have really rallied around us.

    (Applause}.

    I owe a special debt of gratitude to my family. All of them have worked ceaselessly. In fact, Mrs. Humphrey asked me whether or not — “Daddy, do you want me to get up and come on down with you?”

    And I said,
    “Let’s wait, Dear, until we can announce a victory statement completely.

    (Applause}

    But we have had a wonderful and rich experience together as a family.

    Then there are a number of people here tonight from the entertainment world, from the world of the stage, and of the screen, of the field of entertainment that have worked with us across this country like precinct workers and I owe them a very special debt of gratitude. I take this opportunity to thank them.

    (Applause}

    And I want to also thank my friends in the labor movement that have been a bulwark of strength to me, the regular Democratic organization, the (?) here in the State.

    We have two illustrious Minnesotans who serve on the National Committee, Bob Short, Joseph (?), all of whom have worked so hard. And two others that have no particular official title, Mr. Andreas and Mr. Gates, both of whom have just done work beyond the call of duty.

    Now, I know me and you know that I am generally a rather optimistic man, and tonight I feel that way. I feel this election has been not only been me. I feel that by the time that you and I are awake, we are going to be a lot happier and much more cheerful.

    (Applause}

    Thank you.

    Now, go and get some sleep.

  2. I’m a little older than Chuck Fager and Joe Klein, and I voted, without enthusiasm, for Humphrey in 1968, but I lived (and live) in Tennessee, where our Friend Nixon carried the state, Wallace my county of Hamilton, and Humphrey my city of Chattanooga. So I didn’t have to learn the lessons Fager and Klein endured.

    For what it’s worth, I voted for Sanders on Tuesday, but I don’t think he can defeat the Democratic establishment this year, so I have no problem reconciling myself to casting a ballot for Joe Biden in November, with the clear knowledge that he’s not named Donald John Trump. As populistic thrice Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan once put it, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”

  3. I too didn’t vote in 1968, but for a different reason. I had moved from Massachusetts to Tennessee, grad school, and knowing that Humphrey would carry the state I didn’t bother to get an absentee ballot.

    Instead, I volunteered to be a Dem. poll watcher, and was assigned to a “transitional” (poor, mostly white) precinct in Nashville. What I saw there was a new-to-me phenomenon, one that presaged what our country has gone through in the intervening 52 tears,

    Voter after inebriated voter, poor, white, and from their appearance “living rough”, walked in holding a small slip of paper. On it were 2 names: “Gore” and below it “Nixon”.

    Gore referred to the progressive (for the South) Democratic Senator (father of the one we know better these days). The Dem party was sending in voters who, in the old days (and probably in that day) received a “bonus” for voting as the party wanted.

    I still remember the body reaction (horror, OMG, there’s a divide here that is probably endemic in the South, this is a total unknown to me sociologically, culturally, how?). I spent the rest of the day knowing that Nixon would almost certainly win, and pondering where we go from here/there. The question of going from here was left unanswered: totally stumped.

    Over the years living in the South I made it a point to make sure I didn’t just socialize within my clan. I have benefitted personally from that life choice. I’m made friends “of a different kind” whose hearts are open, whose lust for life (and lust in general <s>), has a liveliness missing in the middle-class in general, and the intellectual middle-class in particular. I have felt their frustrations, their resolve, connected with their challenges where even entertaining possibilities has become impossibly difficult in the context of their immutable place in society. Their hearts are open: they are the first to ask if they can help with tasks requiring manual labor. Actually, they are the only friends I have who ask if they can help with manual labor. The middle class way to to ask for help, it appears. That’s not how I grew up, in a neighborhood with no college graduates, all working class. “Oh, I heard you needed a plumber” said the neighbor as he showed up with his tools. Sidewalks were mysteriously cleared. That’s how I grew up.

    So, the 1968 election was an indelible inflection point in my life. Yes, I was Clean for Gene, I was there at a packed, sitting on the stairs, Fenway when Gene spoke, and Phil Ochs made an unannounced appearance (I had a hunch he would, as I knew he had gigs in Boston at that time). I saw Bobby Kennedy shot on live TV, and cried. All the time remembering that night in November of 1963 when my two roommates and I gathered in our room and the historian among us said “the only ones left are the losers,” meaning that all the politicians left had already been rejected for the presidency by the voters, in one way or the other.

    “There are no failures in life, only experiments from which we learn to do better.” The election of 1968 has shaped my life.

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