The Lingering Myths of 1968

REVIEW: ‘The Year that Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968’ by Luke Nichter

Richard Nixon at a campaign rally in 1968 (Oliver F. Atkins/Wikimedia Commons)
November 19, 2023

Just in case you were thinking of giving it a try, be warned: Nobody will be able to write a competent history of 20th-century American politics without absorbing the themes and revelations in the new book by Luke Nichter, The Year that Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968. A history professor at Chapman University and the biographer of Henry Cabot Lodge, among others, Nichter is widely understood and rightly admired as a tireless researcher—though "tireless" doesn’t quite cover it: In his quest to transcribe most of the hopelessly garbled and obscure audio tapes left behind by Richard Nixon after his presidency, Nichter eventually lost most of his hearing in one ear. It’s not often that we history buffs get our own martyr.

And now Nichter rewinds, so to speak, to the year that gave us the Nixon presidency. For those generations unlucky enough to succeed the baby boomers, the year 1968 must already linger as a grating cliché. Yes, the pop music was often sublime, and many of the movies were fresh and ingenious, and even American TV showed signs of crawling out from its mewling infancy into something less embarrassing. The cataclysms of 1968—assassinations, campus riots, inner cities in flames—are so familiar they don’t need to be rehearsed.

Nichter directs our attention elsewhere. His argument is that the year’s most enduring significance lies in the presidential election, as the moment when the culture wars emerged in the contours they maintain to this day, gripping us all in a kind of stranglehold.

The cast of characters, major and minor, is stellar. The Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was Lyndon Johnson’s vice president and the party establishment’s choice to succeed Johnson after the president announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Richard Nixon, the failed 1960 Republican nominee, overcame his loser image by tiptoeing a centrist path between his party’s conservative and liberal wings. (Yes, my children! Liberal Republicans once roamed the earth, before dying horribly of exposure.) The election’s black swan was former Alabama governor George Wallace, who had risen to fame as a segregationist and briefly left the Democratic Party in 1968 to form a national party of his own, complete with a platform and an eccentric running mate.

By trade and by temperament, Nichter is a myth-buster—a revisionist’s revisionist. Academic revisionists of the last several generations have pushed the telling of American history to the left, cutting traditional heroes down to size and trapping every trend and event within the categories of race’n’gender. Nichter, in this book and others, is trying to nudge the story back to the center, away from ideological ax grinding and toward, um, evidence. He dismantles misapprehensions and fabrications both large and small.

One minor myth—a particular annoyance of mine, as it happens—might be called the RFK Inevitability. Robert F. Kennedy (now remembered as the father of the guy who mysteriously got Cheryl Hines to marry him) entered the Democratic presidential primaries a couple weeks before the incumbent Johnson dropped out. Ever since, starry-eyed Democrats have insisted that he would have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 if only his assassin Sirhan Sirhan hadn’t intervened two months before the convention.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Unfortunately, there’s math.

"Of the 1,312 delegates needed for nomination, [Humphrey, as Johnson’s heir] had an estimated 1,200 without lifting a finger," Nichter tells us. "A poll of Democratic county chairmen … showed that 70 percent preferred Humphrey, with Kennedy at 16 percent. … By the last week of May, [Humphrey] had virtually clinched the nomination with primary wins in Missouri, Maryland, New Jersey, and Alaska without appearing on any of those states’ ballots." Even had he lived, Kennedy didn’t have a chance.

The Kennedy Inevitability is an example of wishful thinking disguised as history. Just as often, earlier revisionists have used history to disguise or justify their political malice. The 1968 presidential election, we have been relentlessly taught, turned decisively on questions of race. Nixon and Wallace are the ready villains. Yet Nixon had always been a racial liberal—as vice president in 1957, when he counted Martin Luther King Jr. as a close political ally, he had been instrumental in passing the first serious civil rights law of the modern era. As a presidential candidate, he explicitly forbade his campaign from racial appeals. Wallace too refrained from race-baiting. Even he knew that by 1968 such demagoguery would only hurt a candidate who aspired to a national rather than a merely regional following.

Nichter’s rounded portrait of Wallace—a repellent opportunist whose towering significance in American politics is underappreciated—is one of the book’s signal corrections. An earlier lunge for the presidential nomination in 1964, in which he won large numbers of Democratic primary votes outside the South, had shown Wallace the way to a national populism that transcended race. "With his vigilante, anti-elite, anti-Establishment ethos," Nichter writes, "he was the incarnation of the ‘folks’ he wooed. He singlehandedly brought their views into the mainstream."

Both Nixon and Wallace had an instinctive (that is to say, personal) understanding of the anti-elitist resentments that roiled large sections of the electorate after nearly a decade of Democratic rule. The resentments were often entangled with race, as in the issue of mandated busing of children to desegregate schools. But the insistence that racism was the essential or sufficient cause of those issues’ power is based on presumption rather than hard evidence. Resistance to federal coercion, to bureaucratic overreach, and to a high-handed judiciary entered into it too.

Even the issue of crime—the premier domestic issue of the campaign—has been taken by liberals as a thinly veiled appeal to white voters’ racism. (For some reason, when liberal partisans hear the word "crime," they automatically think of racial minorities.) Yet a far more economical and plausible explanation for crime’s salience in the campaign was … crime. Throughout the 1960s, crime by nearly every measure was climbing to levels unseen in the lifetime of most voters. Nixon himself, on the rare occasions when he mentioned race in connection with crime, simply pointed out that blacks themselves were disproportionately its victims.

Unencumbered with Wallace’s racist past, only Nixon could take full advantage of 1968’s "issue set" and ride it to the White House. For the "pointy-headed intellectuals"—the inspired and highly useful description comes from Wallace—this made it imperative that Nixon’s broad-based victory (while narrowly winning the popular vote, he won 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191) be seen as morally tainted, a trick of antidemocratic manipulation. They were eager to discredit Nixon’s presidency before he had a chance to do it himself (it took him nearly six years), and racism was the cudgel closest to hand.

More recently, the mythmakers—NPR podcasters, PBS documentarians, popular biographers—have promoted a new explanation for Nixon’s nefarious victory. Conventional wisdom now has it that Nixon was guilty of treason, undermining the Paris Peace Talks between North Vietnam and the United States and scuttling the possibility of peace to ensure his election. The accusation, like so many of the myths we’ve come to live with, is pure presumption, lacking evidence. Nixon must have done it, goes the reasoning, because it’s the kind of thing Nixon would do. Nichter’s demolition of this canard fills a chapter and an appendix. It’s worth the price of the book all by itself.

Understand: Nichter doesn’t idealize his story or the character of the men (they were all men in 1968) who make it go. Was Nixon cunning, dissembling, often insincere, manipulative, resentful, a master of misdirection? Yes. So, in his own style, was Humphrey. So, God knows, was Johnson. So was Wallace, so was Kennedy! So were they all—all the men who shaped the politics of 1968 and fill these pages: Averell Harriman, Dwight Eisenhower, Clark Clifford, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, Dean Rusk, even Wallace’s running mate, Gen. Curtis LeMay, a hero of World War II who scoffed at the public’s "phobia" about using nuclear weapons—an opinion that earned him the nickname "Bombs Away" LeMay.

Still, they were serious men, doing what they knew to be serious things in a dangerous and complicated world. I’m not the only reader who will see them as an implicit rebuke to the political clown show Americans suffer through each day—and who will welcome Luke Nichter’s vivid, indispensable book as we would a week’s retreat to the spa.

The Year that Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968
by Luke A. Nichter
Yale University Press, 396 pp., $37.50

Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.