It’s 1968. President Johnson has taken America through a third revolution, establishing the law’s commitment to full Civil Rights for all Americans and a new set of social programs, especially Medicare, that will see poverty whittled down to new lows.
For reasons that have never been fully explained, Johnson stays committed to a war in Vietnam which even he, in private conversations, doubts can be won and knows that most Americans don’t want their sons to die there.
While no one doubts his ability to get elected to another term as President (he served only 14 months of JFK’s first term), Johnson pulls out of the Presidential race in 1968, leaving the field wide open. Johnson is backing his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, but Robert Kennedy, entering the race late, seems to have the momentum.
Then, in June, RFK is assassinated after winning the California primary.
The Republican Party is no less fractured. The front runner, George Romney (father of Mitt), stumbles at the gate when he claims that he was ‘brainwashed’ into believing that the War in Vietnam was being won. Nelson Rockefeller becomes the standard bearer for the Party’s middle-left wing, but he never really gets traction. Instead, an older and seemingly wiser Richard Nixon emerges as the favorite.
The two party conventions that summer will mirror the fissures in American society that are growing ever deeper and unbridgeable. Just as today, civil political conversation seems impossible. Those who were ‘for’ the War would not speak to those who were against it and those who sided with the numerous oddly named groups of young people (e.g. Yippies) who were ‘turning on and tuning out’ had no common ground with mainstream America.
Norman Mailer was one of America’s most prominent writers. His books were best sellers and his essays set the tone for discussions about what was happening in America mid-20the Century. 1968 was to be a banner year for Mailer, winning both a Pulitzer and National Book Award for his Armies of the Night, a strange mixture of reporting and inner soul searching about the October 1967 March on Washington to protest the War.
Mailer was going to both political conventions in 1968. First the Republicans in Miami, then the Democrats in Chicago played host to America since back then the three major networks (there were no others) presented gavel to gavel coverage. And there was no shortage of fireworks on the nation’s TV sets as running commentary was provided by William Buckley and Gore Vidal (they hated each other).
Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago puts you right on the scene:
[The] Grand Old Party with a philosophy rather than a program, had chosen what must certainly be the materialistic capital of the world for their convention. Las Vegas might offer competition, but Las Vegas was materialism in the service of electricity—fortunes could be lost in the spark of the dice. Miami was materialism baking in the sun, then stepping back to air-conditioned caverns where ice could nestle in the fur. It was the first of a hundred curiosities—that in a year when the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon, visions of future Vietnams in our own cities upon us, the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness,hygiene, and balanced budget, should have set itself down on a sultan’s strip.
And later in the summer, Mailer arrives in Chicago:
Chicago is the great American city. New York is one of the capitals of the world and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic, San Francisco is a lady, Boston has become Urban Renewal, Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis, and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French Quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town, Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle, St. Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.
If you want to know how we got here in 2018 with an orange-haired semi-literate, woman-grabbing, tax-evading rich baby Huey as President, you could find worse places to start than the summer of 1968. That is the beginning of the sad story of America’s decline into la-la land, a place where truth and science and morality are as absent as a vegetarian at a Trump $100,000 a plate fundraiser.
50 years ago this weekend was the beginning of the end of the American domination of world affairs. Take a look at how it all began - and along the way, enjoy some incredible writing.