From 1968 to 2020, one watershed season to another

It was November 5, 1968. A group of us had gathered at the apartment of my friends George and Deanna Kaufman in Lincoln, Nebraska to watch as the election results trickled in.

Most were staffers on the Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper at the University of Nebraska. I was the anti-war editor that fall, visible enough that the Omaha World-Herald had done a profile that was anything but sympathetic. Tritt was the managing editor, writer Mick Lowe our star columnist, George and Deanna writers and reporters, my brilliant roommate Larry Grossman a regular contributor. There were others there, probably campus radicals. Memory isn’t always complete. 

We still possessed some hope. Perhaps all the polls were wrong. Maybe Hubert H. Humphrey, the Happy Warrior, would pull it out. Perhaps he could defeat Richard M. Nixon after all.

The irony was that we had spent much of the year fighting against Humphrey. From the beginning of the year, we had sided first with Eugene McCarthy against President Lyndon B. Johnson – then after LBJ’s shocking decision not to run again, we backed McCarthy against Humphrey.

When Bobby Kennedy entered the race, I shifted my support to Kennedy. That led to a bruising office battle with my friend Cheryl Tritt. We stood toe-to-toe in the offices of the Daily Nebraskan, shouting at each other, because she was for Gene McCarthy. We were on the same side in the larger scheme of things, but I had a deep attachment to the Kennedys and I thought Bobby had a better chance to win.

When Kennedy came to Lincoln, I took part in a round table session with him and perhaps a half-dozen other reporters. He was charming, articulate, but possessed of a weight and sadness from the tragedy he had endured.

I assume I wrote the story for someone, but I have no recollection. Six weeks later, I was back in my hometown of Scottsbluff, working construction and waiting for the newspaper strike in Detroit to end so that I could begin my internship at the Free Press, which had won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Detroit riots the previous year.

I was getting ready for work at dawn one morning when I heard the news from California: Bobby Kennedy had been shot in a Los Angeles hotel by a man named Sirhan Sirhan. I went to work laying asphalt and thinking that RFK couldn’t possibly die, because his brother had been killed and they had assassinated Martin Luther King only two months before.

Kennedy died anyway. That same week, I got a call from the Free Press. The Detroit papers were still on strike so I had been assigned to another Knight paper, the Akron Beacon-Journal, along with Cheryl Tritt. Mercifully, we had made up after the fight over Kennedy and McCarthy, because I picked Cheryl up in Kimball and we drove to Akron.

It was 1968, so Akron had a riot. I had just crawled into bed at 3 a.m. when I was called out again to help cover it. Then there was a riot in Cleveland, 30 miles away.

It was 1968, and that was what it was like. Vietnam exploded with the Tet Offensive at the beginning of the year, King was shot, Prague had its spring, Paris saw a rolling revolution, there were street battles in the U.S. over the Vietnam War.    

Even from the perspective of 2020, 1968 was a shattering year. For many of us, the worst came with the Democratic Convention in Chicago, when Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police simply rioted, clubbing everyone in sight while that blowhard Norman Mailer hid on one of the upper floors of the Hilton Hotel, convincing himself that he was so famous that his appearance where people were being clubbed on the street would simply fan the flames – when the truth was that he was simply a coward.  

The sight of police clubbing demonstrators on television was more than I could bear. When an editor on the copy desk at the Free Press began cheering on the police, I went after him. Hard. I was in such a rage that it took four or five people to pull us apart, but it’s as well they did. I was a 6-foot-5, 21-year-old student athlete at the time, and he was a paunchy, chain-smoking 50-year-old in a sedentary job. It would not have been pretty and my journalism career might have ended then and there.

By November, we were exhausted. Some of us had been in the fight for years, some only a few months, but we were all worn out and dispirited. We had watched the police riots in Chicago, we had seen our heroes murdered, we had seen our efforts to stop the war blunted at every turn. 

There was no weeping in Lincoln as it became clear that Nixon would win, thus setting the stage for the Vietnam War to go on for years. There was simply a sense of utter defeat. We were numb. The sense of triumph when LBJ stepped down in April was long gone, now replaced by a president-elect who would be incalculably worse in every way – and by Spiro Agnew, the eventually disgraced vice president who would be an early, corrupt prototype for Donald Trump.

Within 18 months after the 1968 election, George and Deanna Kaufman, Mick Lowe and I would be in Canada. My wonderful friend Larry Grossman would be in the State Department, which seemed relatively safe – but the State Department sent him to Vietnam, where he was in a helicopter that was shot down, and he was exposed to the Agent Orange that eventually took his life.

The sense of defeat we felt on that chilly November evening in Lincoln, Nebraska 52 years ago has never quite left me. We could not stop the Vietnam War. We could not stop the war in Iraq. We could not stop George W. Bush. We could not prevent conservatives for blocking almost every initiative Barack Obama made, simply because they could.

Above all, we could not stop Trump. Election night 2016 was the worst nightmare. Worse than 1968, or 1972, 1980, 1984, 2000, or 2004. Looking back, it seems like an unbroken string of defeats, but Trump was the worst. Even Dubya was at least a somewhat competent politician, not an unhinged flim-flam man, and Nixon could point to significant foreign policy successes, especially in China. Trump has had no triumphs, no shining moments, nothing to mark his presidency except late-night Twitter rants sowing more divisiveness in a divided country.

The night Trump was elected in 2016, I lay awake all night in utter despair. My thoughts were not with the defeated generation of 1968 but with my sons, the youngest of whom was only 11 years old. We desperately needed to come to grips with climate change, the overriding issue of our time. I knew that Trump’s policies would be retrograde at best, foolish and destructive at worst, and that my sons would reap the whirlwind of Trump’s foolishness years or decades into the future.

Now, after four years of foolish and destructive behaviour on the part of the president and his enablers, it appears that the catastrophe might be nearing an end. But even if he does lose, Trump can still wreak havoc in the months that remain before Joe Biden is inaugurated (yet another flaw in a system that is full of such weaknesses.)

My friends from the battles of 1968, those who are still living, have scattered to the four winds. We’re all watching this with varying degrees of horror, skepticism and déja vu. To have observed it  from the first Kennedy assassination in 1963 to the events of this week is to be marked forever by the sense that our apparently bottomless idealism is always being overwhelming by hatred, money and ignorance.

Nevertheless, we fight on. We pass the torch to new generations, and we never quite give up hope.

Peace, brothers and sisters. 
TWITTER: @jacktodd46