Wednesday, May 16, 2018
This is proving to be a chaotic and tumultuous year. We're not yet to the half-way mark of 2018, but each day brings compounding of the confounding.
It has even drawn comparison to 1968 -- 50 years ago. That extraordinary year has been called "the year that rocked the world." It was undoubtedly a transformative year, one that many of us who lived through it will never forget, particularly the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It was a year of tragedy, upheaval, rioting, divisive conflicts and political surprises.
Early in 1968 we saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a devastating psychological defeat for the United States at a time of a widening credibility gap between official pronouncements and independent accounts of on-the-ground realities. Expectations were raised that the war was about to be won. Yet, a Viet Cong assault team got inside the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon before being repelled. Television coverage received widespread attention. The growing significance of TV was also evident when on Feb. 27, 1968, after a visit to Vietnam, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, in an editorial commentary said there was no room for optimism and that we were mired in a stalemate that called for a negotiated settlement. President Johnson reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
Sen. Eugene McCarthy had already launched an anti-war campaign for the Democratic nomination. By mid-March, Sen. Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy. The anti-war movement was growing and demonstrations were becoming a regular occurrence.
Soon came the stunning announcement by President Johnson, a landslide winner in 1964, that he would not seek re-election. It threw the political scene into disarray. The cascade of dramatic events was gaining momentum. Only a few days later, King, in Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike, was fatally shot. That set off massive and destructive demonstrations across the country.
Except for a brief trip back to Washington soon after the King assassination, with major rioting and burning occurring there, I spent much of the early part of 1968 traveling internationally and saw increasing unrest and discontent.
I found myself in France in early May 1968 and witnessed mass protests and nationwide strikes. Sections of Paris I knew from my student days were barricaded and the scene of violent clashes. It was a revolutionary time and it seemed for a moment that a real revolution might be occurring.
The Paris 1968 revolt was part of an international tide of protest. Music, cinema, graphic arts and "underground" newspapers were all elements of this uprising. The Vietnam war provided the impetus for much of the protest, especially in this country, where the civil rights movement was also driving activism.
Ferment was also in evidence on U.S. campuses. Shortly before the Paris events, students at Columbia in New York occupied university buildings, including the president's office. Meanwhile, Kennedy's vigorous campaigning was generating growing support. One morning in early June 1968 in Washington, a Capitol policeman told me that as a member of J. William Fulbright's Senate staff, my newly assigned parking spot on the Northeast Drive formerly belonged to Kennedy, when he served as chief counsel to Arkansas Sen. John McClellan, chairing the Senate Rackets Committee. That night, RFK was shot and killed in Los Angeles. The next day Sen. Fulbright asked me to help prepare a statement eulogizing Kennedy. A few days later, along with thousands of others, Fulbright's staff stood in that same area for hours, awaiting the funeral train and cortege to bring him to the Capitol.
LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, eventually emerged as the Democratic nominee to oppose Republican Richard Nixon, staging a political comeback. A third candidate was Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace.
At the Democratic Convention in Chicago, street demonstrations turned into confrontations with an aggressive police force and overshadowed Humphrey's nomination. Late in the campaign, Humphrey put some distance between himself and LBJ on Vietnam. He had trailed far behind Nixon, who said he had a "secret plan" to end the war. Still, Nixon won with 43.4 percent of the sharply divided national vote, with Humphrey getting 42.7 percent and Wallace 13.5.
In what could be called a schizophrenic election, Arkansas was cited as the foremost example. Wallace won the state's electoral votes with 38.7 percent to Nixon's 31 and Humphrey's 30.3. At the same time, the state re-elected liberal Republican governor Winthrop Rockefeller and Sen. Fulbright, leader of congressional opposition to the Vietnam war.
Unquestionably, 1968 was one of our most dramatic and traumatic years. It was called a year of a national nervous breakdown. Fortunately, we haven't had political assassinations such as those in 1968, but we have experienced a series of mass shootings at schools and public gatherings.
This isn't a presidential election year, but political battles are red hot with constant campaigning. And we have the added dimension of social media and tweets. Attention has focused on "fake media" and a series of controversial officials and nominees, D,C. de-swampification, congressional deadlocks, special counsels, investigations of Russia's role, presidential lawyers and porn queens, burgeoning trade wars, sanctions, Jerusalem and the Trump doctrine, Syria, plus major international developments, including withdrawal from the Iran deal, the upcoming Singapore summit with North Korea, and much more.
It seems certain to rank as one of our most memorable years.
Hoyt Purvis is an emeritus professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com.
Commentary on 05/16/2018
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