Thanks for holding on with me this long! When I get finished we’ll have a lovely story about what happened in the Watergate hotel and why it mattered.

Really. We’ll get there.

So, we’ve seen the background, and the candidates, and who they were. Now it’s time to talk about the 1968 presidential election, with the Democrats split by a third party candidate and the whole world in disarray.

Let’s all time travel to November 5, 1968. We’ve all got bouffant hair and short skirts and girdles; men wear skinny ties and dress shirts and most people still wear hats when they go out of the house. Also, we’re seeing pantsuits for women and the occasional dashiki on men. Smoking was way more prevalent than now; about 80% of men and 40% of women described themselves as either current or former smokers.

Most of us would have voted. Voter turnout that year was 60.9%, though it’s held steady around 52% ever since.

Watergate has had a permanent chilling affect on democracy. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Republican candidate Richard Nixon, already known as “Tricky Dick,” ran on a platform of law and order. He chose Spiro T. Agnew, the ultra-conservative governor of Maryland, as his running mate. He didn’t use this term until the next year but he ran as the champion of the so-called “silent majority,” Americans who rejected the cultural liberalism of the time. He promised a return to the stability of the Eisenhower presidency.

There’s a whole post, maybe even a doctoral dissertation, on what the 1950s were really like. Candidates are always appealing to the idea of an idyllic, more innocent, golden past. Well: the fifties weren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I’m not sure how a country that had used nuclear weapons could be considered innocent. And even then, “Leave it to Beaver” was not a documentary. But instead of another background post, here are some hard numbers about life in the 1950s.

  • In 1960, one in three children lived in poverty.
  • 60% of those over 65 had annual income below $1,000
  • Half of African American families lived below the poverty line
  • In the decade 1950-1959, there were more than a quarter million cases of polio, and about 12,000 deaths from it
  • Less than half of students who entered high school finished it
  • Unmarried men and women were often paid less by employers because they were perceived as needing less
  • Domestic violence was not considered a crime; the people of the day believed the victim was “asking for it”
  • Gay people were encouraged to get married to an opposite-gender partner to “cure” their sexual preference
  • The unmarried teen pregnancy rate was higher than it was in the 1980s

That’s the past that Nixon was harking back to. But people thought of it–and still do–as this golden age of everyone fitting in. As opposed to what it really was: a nation of people pretending to fit in and being terrified of being found out.

Nixon’s campaign centered around the idea that the country and American culture had been much better in the 1950s.

Nixon’s running mate: Spiro T. Agnew, Governor of Maryland. His father had been a Greek immigrant. While he was governor, he signed Maryland’s first legislation forbidding racial discrimination in housing and he was tough on pollution. (I know, he sounds like a Democrat. But he was really a Republican.)

Meanwhile, the Democrats had Hubert Humphrey, nominated during the convention in Chicago which featured riots and federal troops being called into the city to pacify the large numbers of protestors who descended on the convention. Humphrey supported President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam, which made him kind of unpopular. He lagged in the polls until Johnson suspended air attacks over North Vietnam just before the election. Humphrey himself had at one time been considered a “wide-eyed liberal” but positioned himself as a conservative Democrat, hoping to appeal to white southern voters. He had surged to the forefront after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, but was now disliked as an establishment candidate by progressives. In late June, Humphrey was booed at a Civil Rights march in Washington. He had always been a well-known supporter of civil rights; in 1948, he was booed at the Democratic national convention for introducing a civil rights plank for the party’s platform.

Humphrey also had a meeting with 23 college students, unaware that there were reporters in the room. Among other remarks not intended for the public, he said that he thought young activists were too focused on foreign policy and not focused enough on domestic programs and problems.

Humphrey’s running mate: Edmund Muskie. I’ve written about him before; his 1972 campaign was hobbled by “dirty tricks” from the Nixon campaign. In 1968, he was known as an environmentalist and advocate for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

And, the third party candidate: George Wallace, and his running mate, Curtis LeMay. I’ve written about Wallace before, but to refresh your memory, he ran as an independent on a segregationist platform. LeMay was a well-known military figure. He had designed the massive bombing of Japanese cities during World War II, organized the Berlin airlift and had been in charge of the Strategic Air Command. He’s also the guy who wrote, “[The North Vietnamese have] got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” In later speeches he didn’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

So, the stage is set. The players are on it. This is a conflict with roots going back to the Great Depression.

It was during this campaign that the famous “southern strategy” was deployed for the first time. Many white southerners were outraged by the civil rights movement; this was one of the reasons Wallace ran as an independent. Nixon’s campaign decided to try to capture the white southern conservative vote for their party. He did this by opposing busing to integrate schools; running on a “law and order” platform which was thinly disguised racism. He also supported grants and loans to minority-owned businesses, as long as those business would be in their existing neighborhoods. Nixon also promised to end the military draft and to do away with so-called “activist” judges who were ruling on civil rights and the separation of church and state.

Humphrey trailed Nixon by double digits in August 1968, after the convention. Many people were unhappy with the mainstream Democratic candidate; those who planned to sit out the election included disillusioned peace voters, civil rights supporters, and those who defected to the Wallace campaign. Humphrey faced an uphill battle. His fight included distancing himself from the Johnson administration as well as talking about the “politics of joy.” In October, his poll numbers began drawing even with Nixon’s as a result of the collapse of the Johnson campaign (see the part about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Nobody thought this was a good idea).

Next time (hopefully coming up in a few days): who won? And what was the impact on America? And why do fewer people vote now?



Further reading and references:

Really excellent book by Stephanie Koontz, “The Way We Never Were”

Richard Nixon: A Life in Full by Conrad Black