In keeping with our presidential visits to Rochester series (BELOW), on October 17th, 1968, former vice president Richard Nixon — soon to be president — spoke at a campaign rally before 12,000 at the War Memorial. A month earlier, on September 17th, Nixon’s Democratic opponent Vice President Hubert Humphrey met supporters at an airport reception. The election was the second one in American history in which a sitting vice president faced a former vice president. In 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson defeated former vice president John Adams.
The 1968 campaign was dominated by war and race. In 1964 and 1965, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act were passed and the country was reacting to their implications, seemingly ushering in a more integrated society. As the campaign reached its crescendo, the Vietnam War took center stage — the war and its travails that had prompted President Lyndon Johnson not to run for reelection.
Ultimately, both Nixon and Humphrey took equivocal stances on the war, fearful of alienating either side on the divisive issue that split America. As seen in the headline from Nixon’s visit — I’ll Not Jerk That Rug From Under LBJ — Nixon was hesitant to overly criticize Jonson’s war policies. At the same time, knowing that Vietnam had become a quagmire, in August Nixon promised “to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” For much of the campaign, Humphrey also supported LBJ’s policies. However, at the tail end, Humphrey declared that if president he would halt the bombing of North Vietnam — a pronouncement that helped soothe his anti-war critics.
Of the two, Nixon had an easier route to nomination. After having lost the presidential race in 1960 to John Kennedy and the 1962 California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown, 1968 marked Nixon’s return to the national stage. In 1964, Nixon shrewdly did not pursue a presidential bid, rightfully expecting Barry Goldwater to be defeated. In 1968, Nixon fairly handily turned back challenges from Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan.
After LBJ chose not to run for a second term, Humphrey became Johnson’s heir apparent. However, Humphrey first faced a strong test from Minnesota’s Senator Eugene McCarthy who entered the primaries as a staunch critic of the war.
Then, New York Senator Bobby Kennedy entered the race. RFK’s assassination in June forever leaves the question whether he could have won unanswered.
Nixon won Monroe County 48.27% – 47.66 with 3.66 for Wallace.
In 1968, the Democrat and Chronicle leaned Republican and endorsed Nixon on the same day he spoke at the War Memorial. Citing a “strong conservative tide running in America today,” the editorial claimed Nixon could best unite the nation’s majority in the face of minority dissent. For the editors, a vote for Humphrey would be useless and a vote for Wallace wasted.
The D & C was critical of the third party American Independent candidacy of former Alabama Governor George Wallace and his running mate General Curtis Lemay who advocated using nuclear weapons in Vietnam (who appears as a caricature in the editorial.) Wallace primarily ran as a populist pro-segregationist, while also promising to authoritatively crack down on dissent.
The D & C editorial went as far as to compare Wallace with Hitler:
The editorial added: “Facism couldn’t happen in America? The next time you hear Wallace and Lemay, listen carefully.” In the criticisms of Wallace’s campaign, it is not hard to hear resonances of 2016.
In 1968, the Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew also campaigned in Rochester.
Two D & C editorials were relatively charitable to Agnew who became known for indelicate if not bigoted comments. As seen in the D & C headline, in Rochester Agnew said he was wrong for blurting out that Humphrey was “soft on Communism.” The D & C was right when commenting that, “It’s a rare politician, and a rare individual for that matter, who confesses to a mistake. But the D & C was silent on Agnew’s references to Polish-Americans as “Polacks,” a Japanese correspondent as “the fat Jap” and when he said “if you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.”
Both Nixon and Humphrey previously visited Rochester. During his campaign against JFK, on October 31st, 1960 Vice President Nixon spoke at a large rally at the War Memorial. On June 3rd, 1966, Nixon delivered a Commencement Address at the University of Rochester. Nixon’s 1966 was not without controversy; some students and faculty objected to the university’s offer of an honorary doctorate. In 1971, President Nixon visited Rochester and Pittsford.
SEE Nixon at the War Memorial one week before he lost a razor thin election to JFK and Memories of presidential visits on Election Day in Brighton and 45 years ago when President Nixon visited Rochester. And 3 days later when East High School erupted in racial violence
In 1964, then Senator Humphrey and vice presidential candidate campaigned in Rochester. In 1967, Vice President Humphrey spoke at a forum on urban renewal in which he claimed Rochester could be a model city. A few weeks after the 1968 election, Humphrey went hunting with his supporter, real estate developer James P. Wilmot, and also addressed the Kodak Park Management Club.
Of the countless studies of the election of 1968, 50 years later Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1968 (1969), along with a video narrated by White (both available at the Rochester Public Library), remains the iconic account of the tumultuous campaign.
Mixing the styles of the narrative historian and a journalist eye for detail, Making takes us through the riveting events still embedded in American collective memory: the Tet Offensive, McCarthy’s triumph in New Hampshire, LBJ’s decision not to seek a second term, MLK’s assassination, RFK’s assassination, and the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (See below in the text on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park).
Sometimes called a liberal centrist, White wraps his often ambivalent personal opinions in prose both disarming and ambiguous, a relief from heavy handed accounts of the campaign like Lawrence O’Donnell’s PLAYING WITH FIRE
The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (2017).
On one topic, White did not mince his words: the segregationist campaign of George Wallace. At some points, White is sympathetic to the white working class whose support of Wallace stemmed from a sense of alienation from the liberal establishment, but on Wallace’s racism, he is clear:
The one fact dominated all — George Wallace was an unabashed racist . . . In a period when the term “racist” is so carefully flicked about, the word must be used precisely. And, in all precision, George Wallace was and is a racist . . . George Wallace believed, and believes now, that black people are biologically and genetically an inferior species of the human species. (402)
Ultimately, White argues that while Vietnam generated the greatest passion during the campaign, from a historical/electoral perspective 1968 will be remembered for a political sea change when southern (and northern) Democrats fled towards the Republicans and, in 1968, towards Wallace. White writes:
Here White’s rhetoric is at his most pointed. The South will vote for anyone — “simian, unwashed or demagogic” — who opposes the integration envisioned in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. To know White is to know the pain he feels when he calls Wallace “the morbid phenomenon” and names the South a racist bloc.
To highlight his line of argument, White includes four maps from the 1952, 1960, 1964 and 1968 elections.
In 1952 we still see the South as a Democratic stronghold as the Civil Rights Movement is only beginning. In 1960, the Democrat Kennedy also holds the South. In 1964 — with the Civil Rights Act passed — the Republican Goldwater wins 5 states in the Old Confederacy. In 1968, the whole South except Texas go to Wallace or Nixon.
In 1972, Wallace ran again in the Democratic primary, but was shot in an assassination attempt on May 15th, 1972, forcing him from the race. In The Making of the President 1972 (1973), White says Wallace’s shooting ensured that Nixon would sweep the South. And he did.
All plaques from the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park.