Election of 2016: Worse than 1968? Worse than Watergate? Maybe.
Published in ChicagoNow, December 17, 2016
Like many of us who lived through the horrors of 1968, culminating in Richard Nixon’s presidency and Watergate, I ask myself if the election of 2016 feels even worse. My children are extremely upset, and I am not about to dismiss their anxiety the way my father did mine. On November 22, 1963, I was a freshman in college and away from home for the first time, when President Kennedy was assassinated. In those days, no one felt responsible for making students feel safe, so I ran back to my dorm crying hysterically. And I called home.
In Dad’s defense, he was never much of a feelings guy and likely upset himself. He tried to comfort me with a history lecture about how much worse it was when FDR died. But that’s not what I was looking for. I wanted someone with life experience to understand my fear and grief. I wanted my anxiety about what would happen next to be validated.
So, this post is for my grown children and grandchildren old enough to be frightened about the election of 2016. And maybe just a bit, it’s for the #hamiltonelectors. Yes, right now things are pretty bad. I am validating your anxiety.
Tet Offensive – Vietnam 1968
The last time I felt this upset and angry about politics was in 1968. That was the year the war in Vietnam raged on and I chanted with others, “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?” I supported Gene McCarthy, and later Robert Kennedy, both running against Johnson for the Democratic Presidential nomination as anti-war candidates. I was hopeful for a bit, especially on March 31 when LBJ announced he would not seek re-election.
Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy
I was getting married that August 18, so I was also a bit distracted. But 1968 was a year that didn’t permit very much time for celebration. On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Riots broke out, cities burned, and I tried process that tremendous loss. Robert Kennedy’s words helped. He was in Indianapolis when he announced the assassination to a predominantly black audience, saying in part,
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black…
The vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land."
By June 5, Robert Kennedy was gone, felled by an assassin’s bullet. And in the midst of wedding planning and joy, I worried. The war in Vietnam raged on. August 8, Richard Nixon, a man I both feared and loathed, won the Republican nomination.
Still, life went on. Ten days later, I got married, went on a honeymoon, and returned to Chicago as the riots erupted during the Democratic convention. The “whole world was watching” in horror and disbelief as protestors were beaten by police and Hubert Humphrey, not Gene McCarthy, was nominated. By October 16, 1968, when two of our Olympic track stars were stripped of their medals for giving the black power salute during the playing of our national anthem, nothing surprised me.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting racial discrimination at the 1968 Olympic games
Yes, that was a pretty bad time. I fought with members my parents’ generation about the war, lived in fear of the draft, thought about moving to Canada, and never doubted that Nixon was a crook. Watergate just confirmed what I already believed about him.
As I approach my 49th wedding anniversary in 2017, I want to reach out to all of the younger folks who are so disillusioned by our recent election. This coming year is also likely to be a tough one for many of us. Ironically, the Watergate scandal began as a literal break in at the Democratic headquarters to steal secrets. The current Russian cyber-attack on the Democratic Party may be the 2016 equivalent. In both cases, the questions are the same: What did the Nixon/Trump know? When did he know it? And follow the money.
As Donald Trump hangs the letter of praise he received from Richard Nixon in the oval office, I want to share a reminder from 1968: The Whole World is Watching.