An apocryphal Chinese curse is said to translate into "may you live in interesting times" and 1968 was truly an interesting time. Lyndon Johnson was just completing the presidential term that he had earned following his 1964 landslide victory over the arch-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. Johnson had quarterbacked many significant domestic legislative accomplishments in the field of civil rights as well as in medicare and medicaid and in other aspects of his "Great Society". But he was now struggling with the Vietnam War, a war that was not going as predicted by his military advisors. The war was now losing public support, causing Johnson's personal popularity to plummet. As Johnson realized that he could not win re-election in 1968, the political landscape changed remarkably, as politicians from all parties and ideologies struggled not only with how to confront the many problems facing the nation, but also with the riddle of how best to reach the enigmatic electorate.
Cohen first describes the race for the Democratic Party's nomination, profiling the main candidates. I especially appreciated his portrayal of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, the first man to challenge Johnson, a man who was a walking mass of political and personal contradictions. The author also describes Robert F. Kennedy and his campaign, as well as Vice-President Humphrey, detailing the gross handicap that Humphrey faced by his inability to break with his President on the issue of Vietnam. Cohen provides a clear accounting of what happened on the road to the Democratic nomination, culminating in the deplorably violent Chicago convention.
He provides an equally fascinating account of the road to the Republican nomination, describing how Richard Nixon rose from the political graveyard to resurrect himself as the candidate that nobody loved, but everyone could live with. He also describes how and why moderate candidates like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney failed to gain traction and how Ronald Reagan failed to take advantage of the conservative mood of his party and of the electorate. Cohen also describes the third-party candidacy of George Wallace; how and why it gained strength despite its obvious racist themes, and later why it faltered.
Cohen's account of the general election campaign is equally fascinating, as he describes how Hubert Humphrey stumbled out of the gate before recovering following a politically life-saving moment in Salt Lake City, nearly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, much like Harry Truman did twenty years earlier. But the icing on the cake is Cohen's post-mortem analysis of how the campaign of 1968 transformed both parties and how it influenced how subsequent campaigns were conducted. He details the lessons learned (and not learned in some cases) by the two major parties about how to best appeal to voters on core issues such as crime and personal security, how to make subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racist appeals, and how to appeal to or frighten the public on the subject of social engineering. In reading this chapter, one can hear echoes of the 1968 campaign throughout all subsequent presidential elections and indeed in much of the rhetoric in this year's election campaign.
Though I don't necessarily agree with all of the conclusions that Cohen reaches, his ability to clearly explain what happened in the 1968 election campaign, what the psychological effect of the campaigns' messages on voters were, and how those campaign strategies influenced all subsequent presidential elections all make this an excellent book. Cohen has a wonderful talent in making the reader think about the significance of the 1968 election at a much deeper level than a simple what and when account might otherwise provide.
I highly recommend this book for political junkies of all stripes and interest levels, as well for all history geeks, whether the field of history that grabs you most is politics, government or social thought.