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Jay P. DolanNovember 03, 2016
American Maelstromby Michael A. Cohen

Oxford University Press. 448p $29.95

On Jan. 20, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office as president of the United States. On that Inauguration Day he was at the pinnacle of his career. The previous fall he had crushed Barry Goldwater in the presidential election by winning more votes than any president in the nation’s history. As he put it, “For the first time in all my life, I truly felt loved by the American people.” Three years later his popularity had declined so dramatically that, according to Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, “Lyndon Johnson could not be elected dogcatcher in Missouri today.”

What did Johnson in was the Vietnam War. His stubborn support for the war in spite of overwhelming evidence that victory was impossible had fueled the antiwar movement. Protests against the war became so widespread that on March 31 Johnson appeared on television and shocked the nation by announcing that he would not run for re-election in November.

American Maelstrom examines the 1968 election by focusing on the personalities who sought the nation’s highest office. The author, Michael A. Cohen, also argues persuasively that this election ushered in the politics of division that has shaped American culture for the past 40 years and more.

In 1968 nine men sought the nation’s highest office. Four were Democrats: the incumbent Johnson, who did not last very long; Eugene McCarthy; Robert Kennedy; and Hubert Humphrey. The Republican party candidates were Richard Nixon, George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. Joining them was George Wallace of the American Independent Party.

Cohen’s discussion of how each of these personalities pursued the presidency is the most engaging part of the book. He brings each of them to life in a very readable and lively manner. In doing so he provides the reader an opportunity to relive the events of 1968, a year that changed the course of American history.

The drama of 1968 began in November 1967, when Eugene McCarthy announced that he would run for president. In doing so he gave a prominent voice to those who opposed the Vietnam War. It was a courageous decision, and, as Cohen writes, “his decision...with no real hope of victory, ended up being the most transformative event of the 1968 election.”

It was not until the middle of March 1968 that Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination. He had been reluctant to enter the race for the Democratic nomination, but the Tet Offensive in January changed his mind. Striking at will across South Vietnam, the Viet Cong insurgency had convinced Kennedy that for the United States “a military victory is not in sight and probably will never come.” For him the time had come to act. But within a few short months an assassin's bullet struck down the reluctant warrior.

As vice president, Hubert Humphrey was saddled with the pro-war policy of President Johnson. Because he was so closely identified with Johnson, he refused to distance himself from the president’s stance on Vietnam until it was too late. As Cohen put it, “failing to stand up to Johnson on Vietnam would turn out to be Humphrey’s greatest mistake.”

Richard Nixon led the Republican candidates for president. Losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election and then suffering another loss in California’s governor election in 1962 appeared to mark the end of his political career. But a new Nixon emerged from the debacle of defeat. He “exhibited a self-discipline, energy, and single-minded devotion to winning the presidency” that would eventually propel him to the White House.

George Romney had a successful career as the three-time governor of Michigan. A “charismatic moderate,” he seemed like the perfect presidential candidate for the Republican Party. But according to Cohen, he lacked “the ruthlessness to be a serious candidate for higher office.” Moreover, he was politically too moderate for a political party that was steadily moving to the right. His campaign lasted only 100 days.

Another moderate candidate was Nelson Rockefeller, the successful governor of New York. He campaigned tirelessly, spending much of his own money to gain delegates. But the country’s rightward political turn was against him, and he was powerless to change it. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, also entered the race for president. His “antigovernment, conservative populism” appealed to large numbers of Republicans, but his time had not yet arrived. Nixon had a stranglehold over the nomination and would ultimately prevail.

The wild card in the election was another governor, George Wallace of Alabama. He ran on the American Independent ticket and did surprisingly well for a third-party candidate. The candidate of law and order, he based his campaign on the racial issue. He sought to sow discord and fear among his listeners—fear of busing, fear of crime and fear of violence. Cohen describes him as a “political demagogue,” a throwback to the days of Joseph R. McCarthy.

The Republican convention was over before it began. The names of Rockefeller and Reagan were put in nomination, but Nixon swept to victory convincingly. In his acceptance speech he sought to give hope to “the millions of Americans who felt the country slipping away from underneath their feet.” He wanted to restore the American dream by making America great again. As president, Nixon would never be able to realize that dream.

Cohen’s treatment of the Democratic convention in Chicago is one of the most vivid and memorable sections of the book. Inside the convention hall the old, Cold-War guard of the party were facing off against the antiwar activists for control of the proceedings. In Grant Park in downtown Chicago large numbers of antiwar activists were demonstrating. By early evening on Wednesday, Aug. 28, the rhetoric increasingly escalated, and the Chicago police, encouraged by Mayor Richard J. Daley, began to attack the crowds. In what has been described as a police riot, police clubbed anyone they could get their hands on, innocent bystanders as well as screaming protesters. Inside the convention hall, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, set to nominate George McGovern, departed from his speech and decried the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” Mayor Daley’s Irish temper got the better of him and he screamed a vulgar, anti-Semitic diatribe at Ribicoff.

All of this, the rioting and Daley’s rants, was broadcast live on television as the nation watched in horror. The presidential historian, Teddy White, wrote in his notebook on that night “the Democrats are finished.” Finished they were. Hubert Humphrey, who gained the nomination in Chicago, went on to wage a strong campaign, but the outcome had already been determined on the streets of Chicago. Despite Humphrey’s valiant efforts, Nixon won the election.

Cohen concludes the book with a persuasive argument that “the ideological shift toward antigovernment and anti-elite populism” that emerged “in 1968 maintained its stranglehold over the country’s politics” into the 21st century. As one pundit put it, “It’s never stopped being 1968.”

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