I turned 21 in 1968, the first year I had the chance to vote. With an anti-Roosevelt Republican father and a liberal leaning Democratic mother, I tread a torturous political path. And 1968 was a year when caution was thrown to the wind, early and often. No one imagined the year would turn out to be a most tumultuous political experience.
It began with the Tet offensive at the end of January, 1968, a Viet Cong onslaught on American troops. People in the United States had been led to believe we were on the verge of victory, so the enemy uprising was amazing.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy confronted President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination in the New Hampshire primary on March 12. His success against the sitting president spurred New York Sen. Robert Kennedy to enter the race, riding on Mr. McCarthy’s antiwar coattails.
By the end of March, Mr. Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. The nation was stunned. The Viet Nam war had brought him down. Four days later, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated and the country struggled with tragedy.
The Massachusetts primary was held on April 30. Rockefeller topped Nixon. (It would be of interest to know how the Vineyard voted in that primary.)
On the Republican side, Michigan Gov. George Romney returned from a tour of Viet Nam, reported he was “brainwashed” by the generals, and his campaign sputtered to the sidelines. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was unable to snare the headlines with his eastern establishment program. California Gov. Ronald Reagan was not yet ready for the national stage. And so the Republican nomination fell into the lap of Richard Nixon, whose southern strategy, bolstered by the silent majority, proved formidable.
George Wallace launched a powerful third party spoiler campaign that garnered 13 per cent of the popular vote.
As spring segued into summer Mr. Kennedy edged out a hard fought victory over Mr. McCarthy in California, but Mr. Kennedy’s assassination plunged the party into chaos. Antiwar voters could not regroup behind Mr. McCarthy and the Democratic convention in Chicago supported the candidacy of Mr. Johnson’s vice-president, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, while a police riot against protesters outside the convention garnered worldwide attention.
So there I was on election day, faced with a choice of the lesser of two evils: Republican Richard Nixon, with a plan to end the war, or Democrat Hubert Humphrey who belatedly came out against Viet Nam.
Fast forward 40 years. Republicans are slugging it out in cross-country primaries. Sen. John McCain, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Gov. Mitt Romney appear in a three-way race for the nomination. It mirrors the triumvirate of Republican front-runners of 1968, each with a wing of the party. Will another outsider creep in and gain the nomination?
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama exudes a fresh and hopeful attitude as he contests Hillary Clinton, a prominent female candidate. She totes the baggage of a former president and a potential dynasty in her wake, while he stands as the first prominent African American with a chance at the nomination. As the primary season edges forward, the Democrats offer an intriguing liberal parallel to Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Kennedy who pursued the same antiwar voters four decades ago.
Republicans struggle to put forth a cohesive candidate to replace President Bush, who, like Lyndon Johnson, is not up for reelection. Like Mr. Johnson, President Bush leaves the country saddled with an untenable situation in an unwinnable war.
Then there’s a real possibility that a third party candidate, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, could toss his hat in the ring.
Who knows what will happen? The Massachusetts primary is on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when 21 states hold primaries. It should narrow the field. It’s anyone’s guess who will win. Like 1968, this is a very fluid electoral season.
Whether this is your first presidential primary election or your tenth, the opportunity to vote should not be forsaken. It’s integral to our democratic system that citizens participate in the electoral process.
And if you plan to be out of town on election day, visit your town clerk and vote early, via absentee ballot.
This year, I’m 61 and again I see this as a critical election. Forty years ago, the election was decided by less than one per cent of the popular vote. Who knows what this year will bring?
Tom Dresser lives in Oak Bluffs and is a regular contributor to the Gazette.