Echoes From Forty Eight Years Ago

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If older Americans are uneasy about the man who will occupy of the White House, it may be because the recent election has parallels to the dark aftermath of The Battle of Chicago.

Just a few days ago President Obama closed out his eight years with a heartfelt appeal to preserve our freedoms.  It was delivered to Chicagoans just a few blocks south of Grant Park, marking yet another quadrennial transfer of power.  As it was in 1960s, so it is now: the transition has left millions of Americans with a sense of unease about what comes next.

Though it can be risky to look for historical parallels, the coming transition offers the same stark questions of character that surfaced after The Battle of Chicago in Grant Park: a national trauma that contributed to the election of Richard Nixon.

That nadir was the summer in the election year of 1968. Americans were shaken by the impression that the superstructure of our nation-state was beginning to fall away. The stains of the assassination of President Kennedy five years earlier were still sealed into the fabric of the culture and only a preamble for what followed.  Martin Luther King was gunned down in April while organizing a poor people’s campaign in Memphis. Two months later Robert Kennedy was fatally wounded while campaigning in Los Angeles. By August, and against an enveloping sense of doom, there was at least the modest hope of some sort of political redemption as Democrats gathered in the Windy City to stage-manage a presidential nomination. It was supposed to be a celebration of the orderly transfer of national leadership that would finally acknowledge increasing public opposition against the Vietnam War. The conflict had already taken almost 17,000 lives. The nation was not only at war with the North Vietnamese, it was increasingly apparent that it was at war with itself, especially younger Americans who could be conscripted into what many saw as a meaningless conflict. Inside the International Amphitheater near the stockyards the party trudged toward the nomination of Hubert Humphrey. He was to replace a mortally wounded Lyndon Johnson who had dithered his administration into a freefall trying to find an exit from its war policy. Johnson’s attempts at leadership had divided the Democratic Party so badly that it was in the process of incinerating itself.

That would become all too clear on the night of August 28, when hundreds of anti-war activists and many young Democrats were on hand to inadvertently seal the fate of the party. Their goal was to march in front of the Hilton and Blackstone hotels across the street from Grant Park and within earshot of the convention delegates. But they would witness the fury of what an official commission later described as a “police riot.” Some of the activists were troublemakers. Most simply wanted to register their frustration with the inertia that had overtaken the nation.

The city and the nation had seen police violence many times before. But this bloody battle in the park and surrounding streets settled into the national consciousness as a symptom of a deep and unbridgeable political rupture. It virtually guaranteed that the government would be handed over to the G.O.P. candidate, the  secretive and suspicious Richard Nixon. Nixon was a living paradox who could barely conceal his instincts to vilify his supposed opponents–Jews and the press in particular–and ignore the formal limits of presidential power.

Both Nixon and Trump struggled to overcome the common impression that they were not only tortured personalities, but placeholders for someone better.

Fast forward to today and the epilogue for another chaotic election. President Obama’s farewell address in the same city brings us full circle. As steady and centered leader prepared to depart, an untested victor with another long enemies list and a Nixonian yearning for legitimacy prepared to take over.

Even in 1968 we knew that Nixon’s demons included an ongoing resentment toward the Kennedys, first because of his loss to JFK in 1960, and more generally because the Bostonians were effortlessly likeable. Trump labors under a  more complex but similar burden of insecurity, on display in his nonstop insistence on his greatness, but also heightened by our awareness of the natural grace of his predecessor.

And so the victor feeds our collective discomfort. Even with the formal powers granted by the office, both Nixon and Trump struggled to overcome the common impression that they were not only tortured personalities, but placeholders for someone better.