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OPINION: Memories of '68 reverberate 50 years on

February 2nd 2:31 pm | MICHAEL CAREY Print this article   Email this article  

In the Jan. 8 New Yorker, Louis Menand reflects on the 1968 presidential election in his piece "Been There." The '68 election still casts a long shadow.

Here are some of memories of '68 and the election from a man who was 23 years old at the time.

Vietnam was on the front page and on the evening news every day. You could not tune it out. Most male 23-year-olds, if they were not in the service or married with a child, could feel the heat of the draft. If you did not cooperate with the Selective Service System, Selective Service sent the FBI after you to force your cooperation. This is not a legend: An Ithaca College classmate of mine was tracked down to San Francisco. Uncle Sam sent him to the Marines — and Vietnam.

Menand notes that the war was not going well. "In the past three years, the United States had dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped by all the belligerents combined in the Second World War." By '68, 20,000 Americans had died fighting in a tiny country almost unknown in the United States 10 years earlier.

These facts were hard to face then and remain hard to face today.

I lived in Boston, my destination a few months after obtaining a degree in history. Along the Charles River, hostility to President Lyndon Johnson was palpable. College radio broadcasters read the war news with scorn and delivered Johnson's name with contempt. I worked in a bookstore on Boylston Street near Copley Square. The store, new, clean, modern, played soothing classical music to invite shoppers to linger. Then the news would come on in bitter contrast to Bach and Beethoven. The announcers could get away with surly editorializing about LBJ because neither their bosses nor listeners objected.

Sen. Gene McCarthy's second-place showing in the March New Hampshire presidential primary with 42 percent of the Democratic vote was a cause for celebration among those I knew. I made my first campaign contribution — five bucks — to McCarthy. Then on March 31, President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

I saw his televised speech in the apartment of a complete stranger who lived in my building. He invited me to his place after I asked him if I could watch it with him. I had no TV set. I have watched Johnson's speech again since then. It has an air of unreality now — the black and white video, the slow pace, the poor depth of field that makes the scene seem flat, the fact that the announcement no longer is news.

I did not celebrate as many anti-war people did. I felt sorry for LBJ although I was glad to see him go. I had voted for LBJ in 1964, proudly. My Fairbanks friends and I loved Johnson, father of the Great Society, champion of civil rights legislation, slayer of right-winger Barry Goldwater. The war, from my perspective, was some kind of stubborn mistake Johnson made or a sellout to the Pentagon. I had heard a former CIA agent say the war was unwinnable. I also heard my dad, Fabian, a construction worker and trapper, say the same thing. If a former CIA agent and a construction worker could recognize the futility of the conflict, why couldn't Johnson? We now know he did but refused to be the first American president to lose a war.

A friend of mine, who covered his car with "All The Way With LBJ" bumper stickers during the '64 election and drove the country spreading the Democratic gospel, had become convinced there was only one way to end the Vietnam War: He and I would break into the White House and smoke marijuana with the commander in chief. As Press Secretary Bill Moyers stared on, the leader of the free world, joint in hand, would look pensively out the Oval Office window as he told us "You boys are on to something." Then he would pick up the telephone and tell Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to pass the word through the American command. "It's over. Pack up and head home."

Not long after Johnson's speech, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I know exactly where I was when the news broke. In the bookstore, where the radio now carried agonized reports from Memphis about the killing and warnings from local Boston officials about potential violence. I remember sirens, a telephone call from a company official telling me to lock up and go home, and the guy in the suit who came into the store and told me "I am glad that that —— is dead." You know the word he used.

In response, I called him the nastiest insult I could think of, which provoked him to heave me into a bookcase packed with mystery stories. The bookcase collapsed, leaving me sprawled under the works of Donald Westlake, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie.

I walked home across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. There were no other pedestrians. Sirens continued to fill the air, police cars whizzed by. Fire engines too.

In June, I was in Fairbanks listening to the results of the California Democratic primary with my dad on his car radio. He had just come home and was getting out of the car; I was greeting him. Robert Kennedy had just been declared the victor. And then he was shot and killed. It was a bright, warm evening in the Golden Heart City. We went numb and didn't speak.

The presidential campaign soon resumed, Democrat Hubert Humphrey versus Republican Richard Nixon. When my Dad saw either of them (or LBJ) on television he would explode into a loud, fortunately brief, fit of rage featuring the word "liar" surrounded by profanity. But only if my mother wasn't home.

In November, I cast the most difficult vote in my life - for Humphrey. As much as I wanted to Dump the Hump, HHH was better than Tricky Dick.

Nixon won the election by a small margin. American involvement in Vietnam continued. More Americans died in combat. Far more Vietnamese. Nixon's corruption forced him from office.

The country became further divided politically and culturally. Conservative pundits blamed sex, drugs, and rock and roll for young people who refused to conform to bourgeois norms. As if Grace Slick bellowing "Feed your head" to hippies crowding the smoky Fillmore Auditorium had created a national crisis.

Fabian told me, "Michael, it will be 25 years before we know what Vietnam did to this country." He was wrong. Fifty years after '68, we still don't know.

Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist. The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Alaska Media, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@reportalaska.com.

 


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