Archive for Wednesday, March 5, 2008

68 voters fueled political sea change

March 5, 2008


— For many of them it was the time of their lives. It certainly was the cause of their lives. It may still be the center of their lives. And though it happened 40 years ago this month, it remains one of the pivot points of our politics.

There have been monumental political contests before and since, but it is possible that no single presidential primary has ever had the passion, the impact and the historical significance of what 55,000 voters and several hundred volunteers did in the New Hampshire primary of 1968.

It represented a rebellion of a party against its sitting president. It brought a generation of Americans into the political process from the streets and the protest barricades. It introduced new tactics into American politics. It forced a chief executive out of office and invited a Kennedy into the presidential race. It also provided one of the trickiest questions in American history, one almost always answered incorrectly.

Q: Who won the New Hampshire primary that pushed Lyndon Johnson out of the 1968 presidential campaign?

A: Lyndon Johnson

President Johnson actually prevailed, attracting 27,520 votes, while Richard Nixon swept to victory in the Republican primary, held that same day. But the surprise - the word "shock" is not too extreme a description for the way the political earth moved that wintry night - was that Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, a virtual unknown even to his most fervent supporters only a month earlier, won 23,269 votes.

Timing important

By now, you are wondering why a columnist would be talking about the 40th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary when the most recent New Hampshire primary is two months in the past. That's another way our politics have changed: The front-loading of the presidential selection process has made for a deranged political calendar. But in 1968, the voting began in March, and the timing was important.

The Tet Offensive, itself one of the pivot points of 1968, began at the end of January. All February, Viet Cong forces flooded into South Vietnam, targeting towns big and small, particularly provincial capitals.

Tet and the gathering American frustration with the war, the mounting worry about inflation and the growing impatience with President Johnson combined to create a political insurgency unlike any the nation had seen before or since, including the one being ridden this year by Sen. Barack Obama. At the center of it, at least in the press's telling and certainly in the popular memory, were students and other young people who transformed McCarthy's seemingly hopeless campaign into a cause for hope.

"I was galvanized into political action by that New Hampshire primary," says Robert B. Reich, who helped bring an army of Dartmouth students into the campaign and who later served as Bill Clinton's labor secretary. Ben Stavis, a top campaign volunteer, an emeritus Temple University political scientist and the author of a memoir of the McCarthy campaign, wrote that the young activists swiftly acquired a pride of ownership: "I began to understand that the McCarthy campaign was not the property of Sen. McCarthy or the people of New Hampshire. If I was willing to stand in the cold, freezing wind ... it was my campaign. The campaign was no more than the people who worked in it."

Political beginnings

The people who worked in it included Harold Ickes, who has been a top Democratic operative for decades and now is working for Hillary Rodham Clinton; Tony Podesta, later a leading Democratic campaign strategist; John Shattuck, now the head of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum; Curtis B. Gans, now regarded as the leading student of the American electorate; and a rotating group of students from New Haven known in the campaign simply as the Yalies of the Week.

"What was wonderful about it was how many young people flooded in and helped, and how they were willing to 'come clean for Gene' by cutting their hair and beards, dressing neatly and, if they didn't do that, stuffing envelopes in the basement and doing telephone canvassing," says Mr. Gans, now the director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

They did it by making the old techniques of American politics new again. The McCarthy campaign delivered six different mailings to every registered Democrat or independent in New Hampshire. It canvassed each home twice. It distributed coffee and literature in shopping plazas and at town dumps. It mounted a massive get-out-the-vote drive and provided transportation for McCarthy supporters who couldn't otherwise get to the polls.

"What is happening," wrote Mary McGrory, The Washington Star columnist, "is that violet-eyed damsels from Smith are pinning McCarthy buttons on tattooed mill workers, and Ph.D.s from Cornell, shaven and shorn for world peace, are deferentially bowing to middle-aged Manchester housewives and importuning them to consider a change of commander in chief." The campaign changed the students, but it changed the electorate as well.

A winning loss

When McCarthy entered a hotel ballroom the night of March 12, 1968, after winning 42 percent of the vote and all of the headlines, he acknowledged what had happened in tiny New Hampshire. "People have remarked that this campaign has brought young people back into the system," he said. "But it's the other way around. The young people have brought the country back into the system."

Pick up an old copy of Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1968" and look at the index, and you'll see the following citation: "New Hampshire primary election; McCarthy victory in, 88-90."

It's an error, but an understandable one. Mr. McCarthy lost the primary but won his point, and much more.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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