Tag Archives: campaigns

Echoes From Forty Eight Years Ago

                        Photo Montage: Salon.com

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.

Our Iconoclastic Moment?


When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems? 

In the best of times persuading someone to do or believe something is difficult.  And these are definitely not the best of times.  One could be forgiven for assuming that self-destruction is not in our nature: that it doesn’t need to be proved or argued.  But watch enough Youtube videos of people engaging in behaviors that can only end badly, or Britons willingly separating their nation from its European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into a political movement, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems?

A common theme on this site is that we are distracted and over-committed.  It’s harder to be thoughtful when time and fatigue overtake solid values like risk avoidance and forbearance.  The exasperation we all feel at times when incrementalism and caution seem too tepid sets us up to accept non-incremental change, even if adopting it means trashing rational impulses like fact-finding and circumspection.  Both are tools for informed change that can seem too slow to deal with the wounds of class, ethnic resentments, or the sloppy machinery of self-government.  They are easily vanquished  by the incendiary language of a demagogue.

If we are lucky, this phase of seeking big change with little understanding is only one moment in a political cycle that will change. That’s the conventional wisdom.  But a better case can be made that we are steadily moving toward a new kind of American politics where many in Congress and those seeking the presidency are motivated more by expressive opportunities than the actual work of governance. In the parlance of older members of the Senate, these folks are “show horses” rather than “work horses.”  Even shutting down the government–a draconian step taken by Ted Cruz in 2013 to deny a vote for the Affordable Care Act–was done with more defiance than shame. Governing through compromise and cooperation seems to not be in their nature, leading to outcomes where the spotlight on the successful conciliators would have to be shared. By contrast, demagogues inclined to use bumper-sticker solutions that resonate with an angry electorate may know that their methods are at odds with the deliberative nature of their work, but they also know that throwing rhetorical grenades will mean that they can have the spotlight to themselves.

This is a pattern that great writers on American democracy like Walter Lippmann worried about. The public, he noted, can be dangerously out of step with national needs, converting trumped up fantasies into the urge to push for too much too soon, or too little too late. Such it was with the Communist witch-hunts of the 30s and 40s, or the current fashion for deprecating diplomacy in favor of the raw application of military power.

The questions that are white-hot right now are part of the same maelstrom:  Should we block entry to the U.S. based on a visitor’s religious beliefs?  Will it help us in the long-run to strong-arm China, which owns so much of American debt? Should we deport the mostly hard-working undocumented families woven into the American fabric? These are blunt proposals, better written into the third acts of revenge films than ginned up to be the policy positions of a great nation.

There’s a Tom Cheney cartoon in the New Yorker of a frustrated office worker standing over his computer with his desk chair in his raised arms.  He’s ready to bring it crashing down on the non-functioning device, with its innocent screen command to “Strike any key to continue.”  We know the feeling, and there are times when we would give anything for the shortcut a grand unilateral gesture. But the current preference for trashing caution will fill us with regrets later.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu