2016: Reprise of 1968?

Photo: Kheel Center, via Flickr: Louis Stulberg looks on as Hubert H. Humphrey gives a speech during his 1968 presidential campaign.

“He’s in a coma. The bullet is in his head. They don’t think he’s going to come out of it,” the neighbor told my mother, who was taking me somewhere (pre-K?). Because I was so young at the time, I didn’t know what they were talking about. Only later on I realized they were talking about Bobby Kennedy, who had been shot hours earlier by Sirhan Sirhan after winning the California Democratic Primary.

It happened on June 5, 1968, two months after a white supremacist cut down civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the latter stood on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Those assassinations were the defining events of a cataclysmic year, one of the bloodiest and most turbulent in recent history.

Growing up in the 1970s and early ’80s, I was always grateful that I was too young to fully understand the goings-on of 1968. Now, with 2016 shaping up to be almost as messy, hopefully minus the assassinations of public figures — though we’ve suffered the shocking deaths of David Bowie, of cancer, in January, and Prince, of an overdose, in April — I fear we’re living through an updated version of 1968.

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We don’t have the Vietnam War to protest, but we do have the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Whether its young, psychotic loners mowing down innocents or racist, rogue cops with hair-trigger tempers murdering unarmed African-American males for nonexistent offenses, this year has been especially aberrant. It doesn’t help that we have a Republican-run Congress that cares more about being paid off by the NRA and special interest groups rather than protecting their constituents.

Then, of course, there’s politics. In 1968, after President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election (given his failure to end the ever-escalating war in Southeast Asia), the stage was set for the brother of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the former US Attorney General, to enter the Democratic race, blow his rivals out of the water, and, like his brother eight years earlier, defeat Richard Nixon in the presidential election.

RFK’s murder in the kitchen of LA’s Ambassador Hotel changed all that. Instead, Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, a stolid establishment figure from Minnesota, won the nomination inside the Democratic convention in Chicago. Outside the convention, meanwhile, Stormtrooper-like police clashed with antiwar protesters, triggering mass rioting and an unprecedented level of violence and bloodshed that was all caught by the TV cameras.

Several months later, the party of the martyred Kennedy brothers and of Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar champion and Bernie Sanders of his day who inspired multitudes of young people to follow him as he tried and failed to get onto the 1968 ticket, was crushed by Nixon.

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We don’t have Vietnam, but we do have this.

This year, there’s no ostensible Nixon or RFK equivalent. There are no obvious political saviors. There is only a major political party whose presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is a modern-day P.T. Barnum, a blustering demagogue who presents no credentials for the job other than a checkered career in real estate and reality TV. Appealing to the lowest common denominator, he offers no strategic solutions, no well-thought-out policies, but a scary, incendiary form of bigoted rhetoric best suited for Nazi Germany or a KKK rally.

As the Democratic National Convention moves into its second day in Philadelphia, I hope that Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, will project a strong, unified, mentally sane front to counter the lunacy and incoherence of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week. Unfortunately, thanks to a WikiLeaks dump of thousands of emails that prove Sanders’ allegation that the DNC was biased against him during the primaries, controversy is now abounding in the City of Brotherly Love. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down to stanch some of the bleeding in the polls as Clinton’s numbers drop and Trump’s numbers surge.

Will any of this be enough to impede the Trump juggernaut and to induce the “Bernie or Bust” intransigents to join the Clinton fold? Who knows? One thing is sure: We don’t need another 1968. Or worse, 1933.