This coming week the country will vote in mid-term elections. Control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, as are many state governorships and top positions such as attorneys general. It is being billed as one of the most important, yet polarized, elections in decades as it may determine the path elected officials will follow for years to come.
Important elections are not new to boomers. There were several vital election cycles that boomers bore witness to, not the least of which happened fifty years ago, on November 5, 1968. Unlike this year’s mid-terms, that was a Presidential election year. The battle for the nation’s top spot was fraught with divisiveness. Four separate factions were mounting their attacks on the Establishment. The Democrats were in disarray due to the advancement of the Vietnam War by then Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. He was being attacked from all sides, Liberal and Conservative, one side for escalating the fighting, the other for not committing to a much bigger engagement. Consequently, he chose not to run for re-election in March of 1968 (see: Boomers Watched LBJ’s TV Speech).
The race was on for the Democrats to find their nominee. Senator Eugene McCarthy, running as a Peace Movement candidate, won six primaries while Senator Robert Kennedy, also advocating an end to Vietnam engagement, had won four. He had just won the California primary in June of 1968 when he was assassinated. This set the stage for one for the most contentious national conventions in history (see: Boomers Witnessed The 1968 Democratic Convention). Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson’s Vice President, was seen as “Johnson’s man” and was therefore opposed by the Peace Movement faction of the party. Nonetheless, without running in a single primary, Humphrey had quietly secured support and ultimately became the Democratic nominee. He chose Senator Edmund Muskie (ME) to be his Vice President.
In addition to Vietnam, Civil Rights played a key role in the election. Many African Americans, impatient with what they perceived as the slow enforcement and implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965, formed the Black Power Movement. The election was held just one month after John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists during their medal ceremony during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City to salute Black Power, in order to draw international attention to the plight of African-Americans in the country. As a result of the movement, comedian and activist Dick Gregory mounted a write-in campaign under the Freedom and Peace Party ticket.
Meanwhile, longtime segregationists in the South were joining forces to combat President Johnson, who was a champion of Civil Rights, as well as the continuing unrest in the country. George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama who famously blocked the door to a school to stop black students from entering in 1963, ran for President in the newly-formed American Independent Party. Wallace’s message was designed to be a battering ram on the status quo, as he attacked “pointy-head intellectuals” at his rallies and derided war and Civil Rights protesters as “anarchists” with his call for “law and order.” Many people at the time saw the phrase as meant to further intimidate Black Americans. A month before the election, Wallace chose retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay to be his running mate.
The Republican Party, in contrast, calmly went about nominating former Vice President Richard Nixon at their summer convention. He was seen as a moderate who favored an “honorable” end to the war, though he also ran on a law and order platform. Nixon chose Spiro Agnew as his choice for Vice President, despite the fact that Agnew was a relative political newcomer, having only served one year as Governor of the state of Maryland.
When the dust cleared, 60 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballot in the 1968 election. Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President of the United States. Six years later he became the first President to resign his office. He did so to avoid impeachment and removal from office for his part in the Watergate cover-up during his re-election campaign of 1972. Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned the year before Nixon amid charges of conspiracy, extortion, and bribery connected to his time as Governor. In a deal that involved his resignation, Agnew pleaded no contest to the charges and was not given jail time, but fined $10,000 for tax evasion. Congressman Gerald Ford (MI) became the next Vice President.
Mister Boomer was in high school at the time, and therefore too young to vote. The election of 1968 did awaken his political interest and was the first that he followed. This was due in no small part to the fact that he would be registering for the Draft a few short months later. It had become a bone of contention for 18 year old boomers that they could be drafted and forced to fight in Vietnam, but the voting age was 21. In the song, Eve of Destruction, Barry McGuire sang in 1965: You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’. The plea of boomers for voting representation prompted the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which set the U.S. voting age at 18. After state ratification, President Nixon officially signed it into law in 1971. Mister Boomer, and all boomers his age and older, were then able to vote in the next Presidential Election of 1972.
Boomers have seen elections come and go, but the 1968 election, affected by the civil, political and social actions of post-war men and women and baby boomers, will always be remembered as a turning point in the nation’s history.