1968: A Personal Memoir–Part I

Several commentators have remarked recently about perceived similarities between this year, 2008, and the year 1968. Well, indeed, both were leap years. Both presidential election years in which sitting presidents (both Texans) were not running for reelection while unpopular wars raged abroad. The presidential campaigns in both years featured young, charismatic candidates challenging the political establishment to “change” in various degrees, as well as Establishment candidates who also promised “change” of a sort. One of the presidential candidates would be a senator from New York whose close family member had been the President. If elected, history would record the first Presidential duo of such a pair. An atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed in an economy ailing from government deficit spending, much of which went to pay for war. In both years, we were warned that if we did not win in the foreign theater, we’d be fighting “them” on our own shores, sooner rather than later.

1968 was the year of the most “change” in my life and maybe that of America in the twentieth century. We were both adolescents, America and myself; we would learn a lot in 1968. We had experienced “The Summer of Love” in 1967. A summer like that we would never see again. The winter that began as 1967 faded was ominous. In February, 1968, the war hit its nadir as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces inflicted a shocking toll of death and destruction in what became known as the Tet Offensive. A casualty of that campaign was the aspiration of Lyndon Johnson to win a elected second term as President of the United States. On March 31, 1968, in a speech to the nation, Johnson announced, that despite having won the New Hampshire primary over peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy, “I will not seek another term as your President.”

And if we thought we could breathe freely once the Southeast Asian battles seemed to abate temporarily, we were wrong. 1968 was about to spin out of control.

On April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. His legacy of non-violence was marred by rioting that broke out in a number of American cities.

Two months later, on June 5, 1968, presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy was fatally wounded in Los Angeles. Millions of people lined railroad tracks across the country as a black-draped train carrying his body traveled slowly back to Washington, D.C.

In May, 1968, thousands of people had converged on Washington, D.C., to carry on King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” for economic justice. Led by the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, some rode mule trains from the South. In Washington, they established what they called “Resurrection City,” a camp to highlight the plight of the poor.

And then came the political party conventions. At the Democrats’ conclave in Chicago, anti-establishment groups came in legions to protest. A pig was nominated for President. Police under the command of Mayor Richard J. Daley, a Democrat, viciously beat protesters and journalists and bystanders alike. Daley was unrepentant.

A group called the “Yippies” (for Youth International Party) was blamed for some of the violence. Several of them went on trial as the Chicago Seven (originally “eight”–Black Panther Bobby Seale’s case was severed from the others). The trial was one of most farcical proceedings in the history of America’s federal courts, with the defendants openly mocking the judge by wearing judicial robes in court; the judge handing down draconian sentences for contempt; and a pantheon of celebrities like Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Mailer, and Timothy Leary being called to testify.

1968 was the year that Gladys Knight and the Pips “heard it through the grapevine;” Otis Redding was sittin’ on the dock of the bay, while Dionne Warwicke was saying a little prayer.

Richard Nixon appeared on “Laugh-In.” That’s roughly the equivalent of Barack Obama being on “Def Comedy Jam.”

LL Cool J, Vanilla Ice, Lisa Marie Presley, Barry Sanders and Mike Piazza were all born in 1968.

The term “Silent Majority” was coined.

The first Greek–American, Spiro Agnew, Governor of Maryland–was elected Vice-President of the United States.

Yes, a lot happened, a lot changed in 1968, as has and no doubt will yet happen in 2008. 1968 set in motion powerful influences that resonate in our nation and culture today.

But here’s my take on the 1968/2008 temporal doppelganger theory: I knew 1968. 1968 was a friend of mine. And you, 2008, are no 1968!

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Craig


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