November 10, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The tumultuous presidential election of 1968

John F. FinkLately, I’ve been writing about some of the things that happened in the tumultuous 1960s. Last week, I wrote about the Berrigan brothers and their actions against the Vietnam War. That war was unpopular, to say the least. Our country’s continued bombing of North Vietnam ultimately led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968.

Catholic politicians were in the forefront of those opposed to the war. At first, anti-war Democrats tried to get the popular Robert J. Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, to run against Johnson for the Democratic nomination. When he declined to do so, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota jumped into the race to oppose Johnson, a sitting president of his own party, in the primaries. McCarthy ran on an anti-war platform.

When McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, to Johnson’s 49 percent, Kennedy changed his mind and entered the race. Johnson saw the handwriting on the wall, so to speak, so on March 31 he gave a speech on TV during which he declared that he would not seek or accept re-election.

That pitted the two Catholic politicians against one another. Naturally, McCarthy resented the fact that Kennedy entered the race only after McCarthy demonstrated that Johnson was vulnerable. Kennedy, though, was more popular, and he won the important primary in California.

On the night he won the election in California, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian.

Meanwhile, after Johnson withdrew from the race, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered. His strategy for winning the nomination was to avoid the primaries and win the votes of delegates to the Democratic convention from non-primary states. He had Johnson’s support and that of the traditional power blocs of the party. The delegates had to choose between Humphrey and McCarthy, although George McGovern had also entered the race.

The convention was held in Chicago on Aug. 26-29. It was a year that had seen not only Kennedy’s assassination, but also that of Martin Luther King Jr. There had been race riots in more than 100 cities throughout the country. The convention was expected to be contentious, to say the least. It was.

Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, another Catholic, had the Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard ready for the large number of demonstrators that converged on Chicago. The disturbances outside the International Amphitheatre were well publicized by the TV cameras, and some of the violence spilled over into the hall. The police even roughed up a few journalists trying to cover the riots, including CBS correspondent Dan Rather, all caught on camera.

On the stage, Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff used his nominating speech for McGovern to criticize Mayor Daley and the Chicago police. He and Daley got into a shouting match after Ribicoff criticized the “Gestapo tactics” of the police.

The Democrats nominated Humphrey as their candidate. Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated Richard M. Nixon and the American Independent Party nominated Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Nixon won the election with 301 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey and 46 for Wallace. †

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