Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wisconsin: 1968-2008

{1} "I felt that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede. I was being forced over the edge by rioting blacks, demonstrating students, marching welfare mothers, squawking professors, and hysterical reporters. And then the final straw: The thing I feared from the first day of my Presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, were dancing in the streets."
--Lyndon B. Johnson to Doris Kearns Goodwin

Last night, after the news media was predicting that Senator Barack Obama had won the Wisconsin democratic primary, I posted a couple of questions on the political discussion forum "Democratic Underground." The first question was a request for other old-timers to contribute some of their memories from the 1968 Wisconsin primary, as it was an important event in the events of that year.

Within moments, one person first accused me of comparing apples and oranges, and shortly after said that I was looking for something "romantic" and a "myth in (my) mind" that is of no value. I actually think there are some important lessons from the Wisconsin primary, and I think the level of hostility in the two related responses was actually the proof in the pudding.

The value of the 1968 Wisconsin primary is the same if either Clinton or Obama are the democratic nominee. In fact, the lessons really have far less to do with the candidates, their top advisors, or the media. It has to do with the grass roots. And it is neither romantic nor a myth. Let’s take a look:

A brief history: there are four characters we will focus one – President Lyndon Johnson, VP Humphrey, Senator Eugene McCarthy, and Senator Robert Kennedy. In many ways, although the four had different backgrounds, they were all, by ’68, good solid liberals on domestic policy, with some serious differences on the foreign policy in Vietnam.

At the 1960 democratic convention, Hubert Humphrey had come to dislike the Kennedy brothers with a grudge he never let go of; McCarthy would nominate Adlai Stevenson, even though he wanted LBJ to be the party’s candidate, and expected to be his choice for VP; LBJ hoped for the nomination, but settled for the VP spot; and RFK was upset that his brother picked LBJ, and tried to talk Johnson out of accepting the spot.

At the 1964 democratic convention, the dynamics had changed. President Johnson had tried to get along with Robert after Dallas, but it was not to be. By the convention, he had let RFK know he was not in the running for VP. But LBJ worried the Kennedy family would attempt to force RFK onto the ticket. In the week before the convention, LBJ had narrowed down his choices; among them were Humphrey and McCarthy. Because of some personality traits, Johnson picked Humphrey.

In the years 1964-66, LBJ enjoyed a "working" congress, with circumstances that allowed him to pass significant legislation. After ’66, that window of opportunity had closed. More, LBJ was increasing the US commitment in Vietnam. The war drained the resources needed for Johnson’s domestic "Great Society" programs. This and a combination of other influences made for many of the protests that haunted Johnson’s dreams.

In 1967, some members of the Senate began to question if LBJ should be challenged in the 1968 election by a member of his own party. In March, Senator McCarthy told James Wechsler that he would support Robert Kennedy if he entered the democratic primaries. Months later, when Nicholas Katzenbach informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the concept of a US President needing the Congress to declare war was "outmoded," Senator Eugene McCarthy stood up and walked out. He told reporters that, "There is only one thing to do – take it to the country."

By the fall of ’67, a growing and diverse group of democrats and progressives were pressuring RFK to enter the primaries, in opposition to the President. The group including members of the John F. Kennedy "Irish Mafia"; journalist friends; and members of the "New Left." Among them was Allard Lowenstein, who was known as a student of Eleanor Roosevelt.

When RFK was reluctant to run, Lowenstein and others looked for other candidates. On October 17, 1967, George McGovern (who had been asked), told Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that Eugene McCarthy was going to challenge Johnson. He would enter four primaries: New Hampshire, Wisconsin, California, and Massachusetts.

In January, 1968, the national polls showed Johnson leading McCarthy by 71 to 18%. The same polls showed LBJ over RFK, 52 to 40%. But then came the Tet Offensive.

In February, McCarthy made a bold move: instead of trying to campaign in four states, he invested almost all of his resources in New Hampshire. Young volunteers were convinced to participate in "Clean Gene" neighborhood-based campaigning.

The New Hampshire primary rocked the Johnson administration. On March 12, LBJ won 49% of the democratic vote, to 42.2% for McCarthy. Today, people sometimes say that these numbers show that it is a "myth" that McCarthy won New Hampshire. Actually, it is not a myth.

Of the democrats voting, LBJ got 27,243 to McCarthy’s 23,380. However, when the write-in votes or republicans and independents were totaled, LBJ had an additional 1778 to McCarthy’s 5511. Thus, the election totals were within 1%. But more important was the way the delegates went: because of the system in place in 1968, Eugene McCarthy won 20 of the 24 delegates available.

Shortly before the New Hampshire vote, Abigail McCarthy had told Kenny O’Donnell that, "if Bobby’s only run, we’d get out tomorrow morning." But after the surprisingly good showing, the McCarthy campaign resented it when Robert Kennedy began to talk about entering the race. It wasn’t just the candidate and his family, or even their top-tier campaign staff, which had divided loyalty. But most of all, it was the grass roots volunteers who had made the New Hampshire primary a success who were offended.

McCarthy and Kennedy were not close, but had discussed the possibilities of challenging Johnson in late 1967. McCarthy did not ask for any advice, and made it clear he was not planning to serve as a "stalking horse." But he understood why RFK was entering the race after New Hampshire.

On March 14, RFK and Ted Sorenson met with Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford. They said that if LBJ would admit that his policy in Vietnam was failing, and would appoint a commission to come up with solutions, RFK would not enter the race. LBJ rejected the offer.

On March 15, the Kennedy people met with the McCarthys. They proposed having McCarthy run in some primaries, and RFK in others. Senator McCarthy and Abigail rejected this proposition.

On March 16, as he prepared to announce his candidacy, RFK told friends, "Let’s put something in about healing the wounds of the country by splitting the Democratic party into three pieces."

A Gallup poll the following week showed RFK over LBJ by 47 to 41%, while LBJ was ahead of McCarthy 59 to 29%. President Johnson had assumed that his Wisconsin campaign was strong, until he was told it was poorly organized and out of money. He sent Lawrence O’Brien, JFK’s 1960 campaign manager, to Wisconsin for two days; he reported back that Johnson would lose the Wisconsin primary.

On March 31, LBJ surprised the nation by announcing he would not run for re-election. That night, after watching the speech, Richard Nixon had his son-in-law call his grandfather Dwight Eisenhower, to ask him to endorse Nixon. Ike refused to.

On Tuesday, April 2, McCarthy won the Wisconsin primary. The following day, President Johnson met with Kennedy, then McCarthy, them VP Humphrey. He told each of the three that he "wasn’t a king-maker," and would not endorse anyone in the primary. He told Humphrey that he would, however, give him high marks as vice president.

When Humphrey told Johnson about his detailed campaign plans, LBJ felt betrayed. He also told aides that RFK was a "grand-standing little runt." After he retired, of course, he would tell Doris Kearns Goodwin about RFK haunting his dreams.

Most of the top aides of the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns were on good terms. Most had, at some time or another, worked with those in the other camp. Many would work together again in the future.

Politics is that way. It’s interesting to note that at the Wisconsin primary, Ronald Reagan was trying to indirectly promote himself as an unannounced candidate. His people had made a film ("Ronald Reagan: Citizen Governor") which was shown to build support for the Gipper. Some of the top guns in the Reagan camp were democrats. People in politics look for the job that pays best.

It was the democrats at the grass roots level that had a sense of loyalty to their individual candidate, who had difficulty transferring that support to other candidates. Of course, there were tragic events in the spring of 1968 that disrupted the course of events that seemed possible after Wisconsin. But there were hurt feelings and hard feelings that kept people from recognizing that they had more in common than not.

In the 2008 primary, there have been a number of highly qualified candidates looking for the democratic nomination. This year, the dynamics surrounding the Wisconsin primary are different in many ways. What is similar is that we will soon be faced with an opportunity to come together to support one candidate, or we can be divided, and allow a republican to be elected.


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