Yes, Nixon was still the spirit of television. Mass communication was still his disease—he thought he could use it to communicate with masses.
—NORMAN MAILER, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, 1968
1968 WAS AN AMERICAN election year, and election years in America tend to display a peculiar kind of frontier campaigning so brash that the other democracies study the spectacle with bemused fascination. But beyond the power plays, the unbridled ambition, and the unconscionably phony posturing are voters who are allowed to hope once every four years. In 1968 hope ended in the late spring on a kitchen floor in California. After the killing of Robert Kennedy, novelist John Updike said that God may have withdrawn His blessing for America.
The world had watched Bobby growing a little every day in 1968—the muttering family runt who became a little more clear-spoken, a little more inspired, with every interview, each appearance, campaigning with an energy and determination rare even in American politics, through crowds with signs that said “Kiss Me Bobby” and who ripped off his shoes and clothing as though he were a rock star. He became so good at television that Abbie Hoffman enviously called him “Hollywood Bobby.” Hoffman said with frustration, “Gene wasn’t much. One could secretly cheer for him the way you cheer for the Mets. It’s easy knowing he can never win. But Bobby . . . Every night we would turn on the TV set and there was the young knight with long hair, holding out his hand. . . . When young longhairs told you how they heard that Bobby turned on, you knew Yippie! was really in trouble.” Tom Hayden, not given to admiring candidates from the political establishment, wrote, “And yet, in that year of turmoil, I found that the only intriguing politician in America was the younger brother of John F. Kennedy.”
Yevtushenko had described Kennedy’s eyes as “two blue clots of will and anxiety.” When Kennedy met the Russian poet, Yevtushenko proposed a toast and wanted to smash the glasses. Kennedy, being not at all Russian, wanted to substitute some cheaper glasses. But cheap glasses are thick, and those, slammed to the floor, did not break, which the Russian poet took as a frightening bad omen.
Everyone could see the doom that Lowell wrote was “woven in” his nerves. So could he. When he learned of his brother’s assassination, he said that he had expected it to be himself. His brother’s widow, Jackie, had feared that he would be next and told historian Arthur Schlesinger at a dinner party, “Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby? The same thing that happened to Jack.” Only two weeks before he was shot, he had a conversation with French writer Romain Gary in which, according to Gary, Kennedy said, “I know that there will be an attempt on my life sooner or later. Not so much for political reasons, but through contagion, through emulation.”
First was the political question, could he win? It was often said that he would be shot if it looked as if he would win. On June 4 he won the California primary, defeating McCarthy 45 to 42 percent, with Humphrey drawing only 12 percent of the vote. At that moment he had finally overcome McCarthy’s considerable lead. He had only to outmaneuver Hubert Humphrey at the Chicago convention. “And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there,” he said. Minutes later he was shot in the head, strangely while taking an unplanned shortcut through the kitchen because admirers had blocked the planned exit path. And there in the kitchen, on the unplanned route, was a man waiting with a handgun.
He had been shot by someone named Sirhan Sirhan, an odd appellation that made no sense to American ears. Who was Sirhan Sirhan? Unsatisfactory answers started coming. A Jordanian, an Arab from occupied Jordan, a Palestinian, but not in the old sense of a militant. Not an Arab with an agenda—no agenda. A displaced person who seemed mentally unstable. We learned who killed him, but we have never found out why.
Now that Kennedy was gone, who would be the next front-runner, and would he too be killed? “There is no God but death,” Ferlinghetti wrote in a poem to Kennedy that he read the day he was buried. All the candidates, Democrats and Republicans, none so much as McCarthy, who seemed to have withdrawn from the race, knew that they could be next. Norman Mailer, who covered both party conventions, observed that all of the candidates had become uneasy-looking when in crowds. The most likely victim already dead, the federal government decided it had to do more to protect the other seven. Robert Kennedy’s assassination would have failed if the Secret Service had been guarding him, because they would have cleared the kitchen before he entered. One hundred and fifty Secret Service agents were attached to the remaining candidates, which had little impact on Hubert Humphrey or George Wallace because they were already heavily guarded. But it was a huge change for Eugene McCarthy, who had never even had a bodyguard.
With politics dead and seven candidates still alive, the political conventions were empty, like a sporting event in which the star athlete had been scratched from the competition. Republicans and Democrats are different, and so the Republican convention was controlled emptiness, whereas the Democratic one was empty chaos.
National political conventions were invented for political bosses from around the country to meet and pick their candidate for president. The first president to be nominated by a convention had been Andrew Jackson in his second term. Originally, candidates were chosen by a few top party cronies in private. Not only did this seem undemocratic, but as the country got larger it became unwieldy, because all American political parties have always been a confederation of local bosses—state bosses, city bosses, people like Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. As the country got bigger, the parties had more bosses.
The conventions were always bad theater, full of grandiose and foolish stunts. In 1948, the first year they were televised, they became bad television. That was the year the Democrats unleashed a flock of recalcitrant pigeons who attempted to perch everywhere, including on chairman Sam Rayburn’s head while he was trying to call the meeting back to order with a gavel. He swatted it away, but the persistent bird landed in front of him on the podium. In front of a platoon of photographers with flashbulbs and television cameras, he grabbed the bird and flung it out of the way.
In 1952 the summer event became air-conditioned, which eliminated wilted suits and hand-flapping fans and made it look less backroom. Air-conditioning also opened up new venues. There could have been no August convention in Miami before air-conditioning. In 1960 John Kennedy made conventions more interesting by inventing the tactic of monitoring every delegation and courting every delegate. He spent four years on them before the convention met and then placed spies in each delegation to detect shifts so that prevaricating delegates could be massaged. Barry Goldwater adopted the same technique in 1964, and it became the way conventions were worked, adding a note of intrigue. 1968 would be the end of the drama, the year the parties learned that if it was going to be on television, the bosses had to work out the nomination in advance and then choreograph it for the cameras like the Miss America pageant or the Oscars—no more stubborn pigeons or any other surprises.
But in 1968 the future of the party was actually decided in front of live television over the course of a week. It was the biggest story in television—bigger than wars, famine, or invasions. Most of the network organization moved to the convention city, and the network stars were made there. Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite had all secured their starring roles anchoring convention coverage. When CBS pulled Daniel Schorr off the Chicago convention to cover the Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia, he complained that he was being pulled from the big story.
Up until 1968, the differences between Republicans and Democrats were more a matter of style than ideology. The Democrats had carried out the Vietnam War, yet the most prominent antiwar candidates were Democrats. The Republicans had their own antiwar candidates, such as New York senator Jacob Javits, who kicked off his 1968 campaign for a third term by calling for an end to the war, and New York City mayor John Lindsay, a long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination who was also vociferously antiwar.
The most popular Republican candidate was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was not exactly antiwar—he had supported the war “to protect the rights of self-determination” of the people of South Vietnam. But in 1968 he changed his tone, calling the war effort a “commitment looking for a justification,” and called for a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops. He was a social liberal with notable support among black voters. As governor, he had been pushing the New York State Legislature to legalize abortion. The eighty-five-year-old state law allowed abortion only to save the mother’s life. He called for the Republican Party to become “the voice of the poor and oppressed.” He even paid homage to Eugene McCarthy for bringing youth into politics and promised to lower the voting age to eighteen.
He was a candidate of tremendous appeal—much liked by the press, a brilliant television performer with an almost believable common touch with his gravelly-voiced “Hi ya,” despite the fact that he was obviously “rich as Rockefeller.” In August he went to the Republican convention with polls showing him as a favorite who could comfortably beat Hubert Humphrey or Eugene McCarthy, whereas the same polls showed that his rival, Richard Nixon, could beat neither. Rockefeller was well liked even by Democrats, and his only problem with Republicans was the extreme Right, which was bitter in the belief that in 1964 he had failed to help their martyred conservative, Barry Goldwater.
But he did have a problem. Nominees were picked at conventions by delegates, and most of the delegates were lined up for Richard Nixon, whom it seemed nobody liked. Very few were there for “Rocky,” whom it seemed everyone liked. How had this happened?
Some pivotal moments in history get forgotten. Sometimes they don’t look significant at the time. On March 22 Rockefeller had announced that he was not a candidate. The statement shocked and mystified the political world. Most concluded it was some kind of tactic. Perhaps he intended to prove his popularity with a landslide of write-in votes. A New York Times editorial openly asked him to reconsider, saying, “The Rockefeller refusal to run means the nomination of Richard M. Nixon by default.” The editorial also said, “His decision leaves moderate Republicans leaderless and impotent.” In the hindsight of history, both statements have been proven correct. Though it did turn out to be an ill-conceived strategy and Rockefeller did get back into the race—he had never really left it—the move left Nixon, far more popular in the Republican Party than in the nation, free to rack up an unbeatable lead in delegates. Rockefeller spent an unprecedented $10 million to get back in the race, but Mailer quipped that he would have done better to buy four hundred delegates at $25,000 each.
His mishandling of the 1968 campaign when he had everything in his favor meant the undoing of Rockefeller’s career, which in turn meant the orphaning of the liberal wing of the Republican Party. With the exception of one desperate hour when Rockefeller himself served as unelected president Gerald Ford’s vice president after Nixon resigned in disgrace, the Republican Party has never again turned to a politician from its moderate wing for president or vice president. 1968 was the year in which the Republican Party became a far more ideological party—a conservative party in which promising moderates have been marginalized.
The only other Republican candidate was Ronald Reagan, the new governor of California in his second year, who had distinguished himself for unleashing police brutality on the California State campuses and for cutting spending for education, heath, and other social programs. This had impressed any number of conservatives. But Reagan appeared so unelectable, was the butt of so many jokes, that he made Nixon, a favorite comic subject in his own right, look like a serious contender. At least Nixon seemed smart, even if his intelligence was used to seamlessly shift positions with dizzying frequency.
Later during his own presidency, Reagan’s apparent confusion was often blamed on his age. But even in 1968, only fifty-seven, Reagan often seemed lost. On May 21 he appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and was asked to explain how he differed from Barry Goldwater. “There are a lot of specific issues, I was trying to recall,” he said. “Frankly, my memory is failing me. Just a short time ago I found he had made a statement. I was asked it and I disagreed on that particular statement.” By June a petition drive to put a referendum on the state ballot about Reagan’s competence had five hundred thousand signatures. California polls showed only 30 percent of the population believing he was doing a “good job.” Comedians always loved to do Nixon jokes, but Reagan jokes were increasingly coming into their own. Comedian Dick Gregory, who was running for president on his own party ticket as a write-in candidate, said, “Reagan is nigger spelled backwards. Imagine, we got a backwards nigger running California.”
And there was Eisenhower, a ghost from the 1950s, who had consistently insisted that U.S. strategy in Vietnam was working and should be continued to protect the world from communist domination. Typical of Eisenhower’s fascinating contradictions, as president he had spoken grandly about the people’s demand for peace, but in the sixties, when they finally were demanding it, he accused the antiwar movement of “rebellion” and “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Like de Gaulle, he frequently referred to his World War II experiences. Yes, he admitted, we appeared to be losing in Vietnam, but he recalled reading the newspapers after the Battle of the Bulge and feeling the same way. After yet another heart attack he appeared on the front pages from his bed at Walter Reed Hospital in pajamas and a bathrobe that said on it “Feeling Great Again.” He warned of the communists, and, live from his bed, he was broadcasting to Miami to endorse his former vice president, Nixon. It was as though the 1950s would not go away. Ten hours later Eisenhower had a sixth heart attack, which he also survived.
Conventions chose candidates by a series of ballots—delegate counts, state by state. These ballots would go into the night, ignoring the broadcast needs of prime-time television, until a single candidate had an absolute majority of delegates. Usually the more ballots that took place, the more the front-runner’s support would erode. Rockefeller imagined the delegates turning to him after a few rounds. Reagan fantasized that Rockfeller and Nixon would be deadlocked ballot after ballot until the delegates finally turned to him as a way out. Lindsay, though no one believed it, harbored a similar fantasy about himself.
Nixon won on the first ballot.
The only drama was Nixon’s struggle with Nixon. His political career had been considered over in 1948, when he attacked former State Department official Alger Hiss. It was supposed to be over again in 1952, when he was caught in a fund-raising scandal. And in 1962, when he was defeated for governor of California only two years after losing the presidency to Kennedy, he gave his own farewell to politics. Now he was back. “The greatest comeback since Lazarus,” wrote James Reston in The New York Times.
Then something weird happened: Nixon, in his acceptance speech, started talking like Martin Luther King. Mailer was the first to notice it, but this was not just one of his famously eccentric imaginings. Nixon, who also adopted the SDS’s two-fingered peace salute, never put limits on what he could co-opt. Martin Luther King in the four months since his death had journeyed from rebel agitator to the heart of the American establishment. His organization was picketing outside the convention hall. Six miles away, Miami was having its first race riot. The governor of Florida was talking about responding with necessary force, and black men were being shot. Richard Nixon was delivering a speech.
“I see a day,” he repeated nine different times in the unmistakably familiar cadence of “I have a dream.” Then, further on in the speech, seemingly enraptured with his own or whomever’s rhetoric, he declared, “To the top of the mountain so that we may see the glory of a new day for America. . . .”
The Republican convention in Miami the second week of August 1968 was a bore that according to pollsters alienated youth, alienated blacks, and excited almost no one. Even the one possibility for drama—the complaints of black groups that black representation was unfairly excluded from the delegations of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee failed to produce drama because it was quickly glossed over. Norman Mailer wrote, “The complaints were unanimous that this was the dullest convention anyone could remember.” One television critic said the coverage was so long and dull that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” But the boredom helped the Republicans. It kept people from paying attention and consequently kept them from noticing the rioting in the street. A poll taken in segregated white Florida public schools in 1968 had found 59 percent of white students were either elated or indifferent to the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. While Nixon was being crowned in Miami Beach, Ralph Abernathy, head of the late Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was leading daily black demonstrations outside, and across the bay in the black ghetto called Liberty City, a violent confrontation erupted between police and blacks, with cars overturned and set on fire. National Guard troops were called in. While Nixon was selecting his running mate, three blacks were killed in the Liberty City riot.
There was only the question of vice president left, and logic seemed to dictate a liberal who could pick up the Rockefeller votes—either Rockefeller himself or New York City mayor John Lindsay, who was campaigning hard for the nomination, or Illinois senator Charles Percy. Rockefeller, who had declined to be Nixon’s running mate in 1960, seemed unlikely to accept now.
In the end Nixon surprised everyone—at last a surprise—and picked the governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew. He said he did this to unify the party, but the party could not conceal its unhappiness. The entire moderate half of the party had been ignored. The Republican Party had a ticket that would greatly appeal to white southerners who felt embattled by years of civil rights and to some northern reactionary “law and order” voters who had been angered by the rioting and disorder of the past two years, but to no one else. The Republicans were leaving most of the country to the Democrats. Alabama renegade Democrat George Wallace, an old-time segregationist running on his own ticket, could not only siphon off Democrats, he could also deny the Republicans enough votes to cost them southern states and their whole southern strategy. There was a move to try to force Nixon to pick someone else that was stopped only because Mayor Lindsay, the leading liberal candidate for the job, performed Nixon the service of seconding the Agnew nomination.
Nixon defensively said that Agnew was “one of the most underrated political men in America.” The following day, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, one of the most moderate black groups, denounced the ticket, which they termed “white backlash candidates.” Was that bad news for Nixon? Was that even news? Richard Nixon, with few people noticing, had reshaped the Republican Party.
Then on to Chicago—for a convention that would not be boring.