Early 1966

>> Thursday, January 13, 2011

There's been something I've been meaning to ask my parents, and I'll throw it open here to anybody who was a teenager or adult in the 1960s. In a way it's kind of a hypothetical question, if you want to call it a question, and in a way it isn't.

Let me paint a picture, if you will. It's from a few years before I was born, so my information is secondhand and maybe it could stand to be corrected here and there; okay, so I was a history major in college and a big chunk of my focus was on the foreign policy of the era, but that was a long time ago: anyway, here we go--

Imagine it's early 1966, two years into Lyndon Johnson's first term as an elected President. He's had a good run so far: in 1964, he got Congress to pass the most important piece of liberal legislation since the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and set the ground for massive reforms of the economy and healthcare--Medicare/Medicaid, Head Start, and the opening salvos of what would become the Great Society and War On Poverty. The other big thing that happened in 1964 was the Presidential election, in which he slaughtered Barry Goldwater (Goldwater managed to carry six states, including his home state of Arizona), leaving the Republican Party effectively leaderless.

And someone comes up to you, in early 1966, and says: "In, oh, let's say the next eighteen months give-or-take, Johnson's credibility is going to be completely shot. The brush war in Vietnam is going to destroy his administration, and he's going to be such damaged goods politically and so devastated personally by it, he's not even going to run for office in 1968. And the Democrats are going to undergo a complete meltdown. There are going to be riots at the Democratic National Convention, protests in the streets, and just when it looks like the Democrats are going to finally pull it together behind a possible dream candidate, that guy is going to get murdered in a hotel kitchen, of all places, and the whole election will pretty much be in the tubes for the Democrats at that point, if it wasn't already, and the Republicans are going to take the White House.

And what I'm wondering (I guess this is the question, or part of it) is if you're going to say, early in 1966, "Okay, ha-ha, that's stupid, but I'll bite: who are the Republicans going to find, they have nobody, the only guy they could come up with two years ago was Goldwater and thanks to LBJ, everybody thinks he's a psycho. Who are the Republicans going to pull out of their asses in '68?"

And your interlocutor says, "Richard Nixon is going to be the next President of the United States."

And I guess this is the second part of the question: are you going to laugh your ass off? Are you going to say, "Nixon? 'You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore,' that guy? The 'Checkers speech' guy? What's he been doing lately, working for Pepsi or something, isn't it?"

And the person you're talking to says, "Pepsi is one of his firm's clients, yes, but he's also written a couple of books and some magazine articles and giving speeches."

And are you going to ask why Nixon, who has no credibility and is disliked and mistrusted by much of his own party, who can't seem to open his mouth without pissing people off, why is he going to come out of the hole he crawled into after embarrassing himself in the 1962 California governor's race when he's making all that money as a consultant, getting those book royalties, cashing in on his earlier time in the national spotlight? Nixon, why the hell would anybody vote for Richard Nixon? Are you going to point out that if he runs, he's going to take a pay cut just to have all this garbage from his past come up again, the charges of corruption and connections to McCarthyism, give up the money just so he can fend off attacks from within his own party before the Democrats even get to him?

And anyway, are you really going to believe that LBJ isn't going to run again and that LBJ isn't going to crush whomever the Republicans run--and there's no way it'll be Nixon? 1966, remember? There are hints of the credibility gap, for sure, but it isn't a chasm, not yet.

I guess I might have said "questions," not "question," but you get the idea, right?

And I guess maybe you can figure out why I keep thinking about this. There's a certain polarizing political figure on the right, and everybody keeps saying she won't run because she's so divisive in her party, and everybody keeps saying her political career is effectively over, and everybody keeps asking why she'd give up the money she's earning as a private citizen, and everybody keeps saying, anyway, if she did run, she'd be crushed in the general election.

So maybe you'll object that Sarah Palin is no Richard Nixon. Nixon had held national office, been a United States Representative and served in the Senate before becoming Vice-President under Eisenhower, and he'd seen a chunk of the Pacific beyond his own backyard during WWII as a Naval Lieutenant and he had a law degree from a fairly prestigious law school. The books and articles Nixon wrote during the years of exile before (and after) his presidency focused on policy issues and had a certain level of credibility and garnered some measure of respect, enough to be taken seriously even by Nixon's critics. But none of that's really the point.

The point is that look at some of the contingencies of those eighteen to twenty-four months between the beginning of 1966 to the election season of 1968. How many people thought the Johnson Administration would be torn apart by a faraway war in a tiny country, how many people would have guessed LBJ wouldn't even run for re-election? And it's too tragic to want to contemplate, but who would have expected the Democrats' last great hail Mary candidate to follow his older brother not as a President, but as a victim? There's tons of room to argue that Robert Kennedy's bid for the Presidency came too late to make a difference, that the Democrats were too fractured at that point to come together under anyone, and I'm not saying the election would have turned out differently if he'd lived: but we don't know those answers precisely because of an unpredictable act of violence committed by a lone wolf.

And Nixon? Nixon may have been more qualified in his pinkie finger than Sarah Palin for any job in government (and I am not a Nixon fan; it pains me to laud him even by comparison), but in 1966 he was a fucking joke, was he not? A walking punchline for practically everybody beyond a small, diehard corps of Republicans keeping the candles lit for him. At his last major public appearance, he actually, really said the words, "That's your right. But as I leave you I want you to know — just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference," which is about as whiny a political suicide note as anyone has ever delivered in the history of politics: I am taking my ball and going home, because I am tired of everyone being so mean to me.

And then he came back.

This is why my teeth ache whenever people write articles with headlines like, "OK, so it's not going to be Sarah Palin in '12..." or write Palin off for 2012; sure, in a rational and well-ordered universe, Sarah Palin has somewhere around a zero percent chance of being elected President in 2012. And in a rational, well-ordered universe, the progressive successor to Franklin Roosevelt doesn't impale himself on a stupid little war that destroys his legacy. And in a rational universe, schizophrenic gunmen don't walk up to politicians and shoot them at close range.

But in our universe?

Sometimes, in our universe, things get just a little fucked.

Sweet dreams.


Janiece Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 4:44:00 PM EST  

I certainly was not an adult in the '60's, but I will point out that the power vacuum that allowed Nixon to fill the voice is certainly not in place right now.

I can think of several qualified candidates on the right - Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, as well as a stable of candidates who, while they don't make my blood run cold the way Palin does, certainly make my hair stand on end (Gingrich, Jindal, et al).

Please note I would never vote for any of those people, but they've got it all over Ms. McQuitypants.

Eric Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 5:22:00 PM EST  

That's absolutely true, Janiece, and it's a very good point.

What I'm most concerned with, though, is that a lot of pundits and plain folks seem, to me, to dismiss Palin too quickly or to even relish the thought of her being a candidate in 2012. Their reasons for dismissing her are legitimate: she alienates people, she's a lightweight, etc., etc. The problem I have with that is that history isn't always reasonable or logical. Nixon wasn't a lightweight, but unless I'm much mistaken, he was a joke in '66; conversely, LBJ was in a very strong position at the beginning of '66, though he'd be on the ropes by the end of the year, largely thanks to Vietnam.

I guess part of what I'm trying to say in all of this is something that used to be recognized much more forthrightly in the Middle Ages than now: that at the end of the day we're all Fortune's bitches, and we ought to take that into account when we make our assumptions about the future.

Janiece Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 5:47:00 PM EST  

True enough. I guess I'm still enough of a dreamer that I believe Republicans would rather have an actual, you know, competent, than Sarah Palin.

Hope springs eternal.

Perhaps I should register as a Republican...

Seth Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 6:45:00 PM EST  

Man... trying to think of how bad Afghanistan/things in general would have to get before Obama would decide not to run again.

If things get that bad, I wonder if Palin would be our biggest problem.

Steve Kornacki at Salon has been making a pretty compelling historical case that the relevant model for Obama is Reagan -- a vibrant speaker, personally popular, whose job approval dipped with the economy before bouncing back, also with the economy. The only question is whether employment will bounce back before the election.

Nathan Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 7:04:00 PM EST  

Ultimately, what you're saying is that an awful lot of unpredictable stuff can happen in two years...and you're absolutely right. But you should remember that it can happen in ways you're not thinking of either.

Palin seems determined to implode and to alienate all but a small cadre of lunatics. Maybe she'll succeed. The candidates that Janiece mentions are all real possibilities, but as often as not, some relatively unknown person shows up and takes all the marbles.

And when you consider Obama's future, bear in mind that many of the things you see as great achievements for LBJ caused a sizable part of the country to despise him. Take Vietnam out of the equation and, regardless of his popularity, there would have been a vicious campaign to unseat him.

Eric Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 7:20:00 PM EST  

Also good points, Seth and Nathan.

I don't think either of the wars we're in are likely to lead to Obama choosing not to run, especially as one of them is hypothetically winding down. Could another unexpected event lead to the President deciding not to run? Maybe--let's hope not. I think the President is together enough and a good enough guy that there's not going to be an ethics scandal that forces his resignation. Another possibility I don't want to even contemplate would be the President being unable to run, something so devastating I don't even want to list scenarios.

And Nathan, that is a very good point: even taking Vietnam out of the picture, LBJ was possibly a one-term President for his social agenda. Vietnam looms large, obviously, because it's the issue that crucified him. Although as I think through that (and I sort of hate to point this out), I have to wonder if civil rights legislation was as personally divisive as the draft was: one suspects, regrettably, that it was self-preservation as much as anything that politicized a segment of the population that otherwise would have been totally down with the Democratic agenda.

Interesting thoughts, y'all. Keep 'em comin' if it strikes you!

Leanright,  Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 8:05:00 PM EST  

I for one, on the conservative side of the debate have NO interest in a President Palin in 2012. I'm a Romney supporter, and I would love to see a Romney/Pawlenty ticket in 2012.

I don't share your vitriol for Ms. Palin, but I think it would be best that she be relegated to cable news, for, say, 20 years or so. Run for Senate, and perhaps she'll have grown up enough by then. I know we're supposed to be believing that her little poster with crosshairs, etc..is the reason for the Gifford shooting, and Rush Limbaugh and conservative pundits played a role, but that shit won't fly for logical people (after all, Lincoln, JFK, RFK, MLK were all assasinated, and Reagan and Ford were both shot LONG before conservative talk radio or Ms. Palin came along; sometimes crazy people just do crazy things). Yes Eric, I know you are NOT one of those who ran with that belief, but I digress.

Anyway, yes, I think she'll run, because her ego is getting QUITE huge, which is the same reason Mr. Obama will run again. Narcissism runs deep in politicians. I for one just hope that NEITHER of them occupy the White House on January 20th, 2013.

Nixon was an entirely different time, but strange shit happens.
*note: As a "Young Republican back in college, I had the honor of working at Mr. Nixon's funeral in Yorba Linda, CA in 1994. Conservative or Liberal, that was an honor. I've been honored in my life to do this, and to have met Gerald Ford in 1976, and George W. Bush just last month.

Megan Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 8:15:00 PM EST  

I dunno. My dad just piped up in my comments box defending her video.

That's MY DAD. Sigh.

Nathan Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 9:12:00 PM EST  

But presumably your dad isn't registered to vote in the U.S.?

P.S. Please videotape dinner at your next big family gathering. That sounds like fun!

Megan Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 10:04:00 PM EST  

Yep, he votes. My family's American. I moved to Canada when I was ten.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, January 14, 2011 at 1:02:00 AM EST  

Two years out from a presidential election, no one knows anything. Think about 1968. Bobby Kennedy was going to be president. Humphrey had no chance against him, so wasn't going to get the Dem nom. And those thoughts were in 1968 itself! 1966? Pfft! Know nothing two years out.

Dr. Phil

David Friday, January 14, 2011 at 9:59:00 AM EST  

I think the parallels you bring up are interesting but there are a couple of differences that I hope will prevent history from repeating itself in quite this awful way.

For one thing, I don’t see the Democrats splintering the way they did in 1968. The demographics are all wrong. There is no angry cohort of Baby Boomers ready to split the Democratic Party into its New Deal economic half and its liberal social half. And the war is wrong. Vietnam escalated between 1966 and 1968, much to the dismay of said angry cohort, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have stalemated and we are told are winding down. Would that they do. Further, there is no draft to stir that pot, nor is there any real internecine struggle within the party like you had then. The political draft class of 2012 is awfully thin – the Democrats basically have Obama and, well, who?

For another thing, I think the differences you point out between Palin and Nixon are just the tip of that iceberg.

I don’t think Nixon was as much of a joke as you say in 1966 - he spent much of the mid60s shoring up his support among the party faithful and bigshots. Nixon was perhaps the canniest politician in 20th-century American history, with two decades of national exposure, a mountain of verifiable expertise under his belt and solid links to the prosperous and relatively quiet 1950s, which probably sounded good to a lot of voters in 1968. His more sinister side didn’t come out until later.

Palin has proven to have a tin ear for anyone beyond her rabid base, is the former half-term governor of one of the least populated and most remote states in the Union, and has no links to anything “better” than the era we’re in now. Her sinister side is on display for all to see right now.

I could be wrong, I suppose – nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, though a great many have been elected that way – but I’m hoping not.

timb111 Friday, January 14, 2011 at 10:52:00 AM EST  

As I recall, looking at it from the frozen tundra, the Democrat's support shattered while the Republican's motivated the grass-roots. It looks to me like the same process is underway today. Fortune doesn't have much to do with it (except perhaps to us Canadians who have to live with whatever youse guys choose).

A bigger question is: Democrat or Republican in the White House; Does it make a difference?

Janiece Friday, January 14, 2011 at 11:19:00 AM EST  

Megan, I'll tell you a secret, if it will make you feel better - there are members of my extended family who don't "believe" in evolution.

We don't discuss it.

wearri = the way I feel when I try to discuss science with creationists.

Warner (aka ntsc) Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 5:00:00 PM EST  

I had an uncle named Nixon, no relation, who predicted at either Xmas 65 or Xmas 66 (I didn't see him again until 73) that Nixon would run in 68.

Nixon was out doing all of the political work, and both parties at that time were still pretty much machines, primaries were really just getting started, especially in the Republicans. Yes you had to do well in them, but they didn't control the conventions, making them meaningless yet.

Until the spring offensive of 68, most in the US thought we were winning easily and it would soon be over, I did. The Tet Offensive changed that.

For the record I was in Army Basic at the time of Tet, they told us very little about it. On the other hand we had very little time to be told.

I did not vote in that election, as the only way to register would have involved going AWOL, which was not worth it, but my recollection is I didn't want to vote for Humphry, and Nixon wasn't seen as malevolent just Nixon.

In my opinion, if Nixon had not done Watergate, he would be remembered as one of the greater Presidents, but of course he was Nixon.

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