Presidential election 1968: The greatest political show on earth

Politics 1968: The big show

The bands were tuning up, the barkers were practicing their spiels, the five — count-’em — five Republican elephants were lumbering into the big tent. One was showboating for the gallery, one had to be prodded to perform at all, another had his trunk in his mouth, the baby pachyderm was bringing up the rear, and the scarred old lead elephant was counting the house.

In his winter-quarters in Texas, Barnum Bird was rehearsing his own three-ring Democratic spectacular: juggling guns and butter, practicing his gravity-defying budget-balancing act, flexing his muscles to take on all comers in his strongman routine.

It was Presidential 1968 — and the greatest political show on earth was getting underway.

Not since Harry Truman battled Torn Dewey, Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond in 1948 had the Presidential aspirants inspired such scant allegiance from the mass of the electorate. As the architect of one of the least popular wars in US history, Lyndon Johnson faced the year as one of the least popular incumbents in memory.

The highlights on the Presidential circus program — the opening primary in New Hampshire, the hoopla of the nominations, the drama of election night — were familiar enough. But this time, the atmosphere of the extravaganza was strikingly different. Indeed, so jaded was the audience and so tarnished most of the performers, that it sometimes seemed no one could steal the show before the carnival closed on Nov. 5.

Democratic insurgent Eugene McCarthy’s donnish challenge bemused even some of his dovish admirers. Dixiecrat George Wallace’s backlashy third-party crusade seemed more black-humor caricature than campaign. And the Republicans — although the tide seemed to be on their side — were hardly better off.

GOP front-runner Richard Nixon left pros and rank-and-filers uninspired even as he piled up convention-delegate commitments. The moderate flag was being carried by Michigan’s relentlessly earnest George Romney — so clumsily that most of the pols were writing him off even before he could set stumping foot in New Hampshire next week. If Romney shoeleather magic fails to cast its spell this time, the pressure will be strong on the governor to bow out in favor of Nelson Rockefeller.

THE BASHFUL HOOFER

As Romney’s fortunes have faded, Rocky has made no move to take com- mand of the moderate forces — nor is he likely to. Instead, he has been trying to ensure that the 1968 GOP platform reflects the moderates’ philosophy and has been keeping himself busy running New York state. But even during his strictly local forays, the Presidential question keeps popping up.

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At a “town meeting” in Syracuse not long ago, the Rock found himself backed into a corner by two young medical students. “With the way things are in this country, can you really afford not to run?” pressed one.

Rockefeller’s gaze softened and he replied gently: “As you may have noticed, I ran twice and my party didn’t want me.”

The other student interrupted plaintively: “The party’s changed! People have changed!”

“Maybe they have,” Rocky replied in a very soft voice, looking away, “maybe they have.”

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To a certain extent, the student was right. The virulent right-wing hostility to Rockefeller of a few years ago has so submerged that many hard-core conservatives now say they could support him against LBJ. Yet, any overt move by Rocky to capture the nomination would he probably bring much of the hatred bubbling back to the surface.

Rockefeller is acutely aware of this possibility — and he if will face a particularly agonizing decision if Romney loses disastrously in New Hampshire; for by law, Rocky must decide whether to take his name out of the May 28 Oregon primary before the second Nixon-Romney face-off is staged in Wisconsin on April 2.

If Romney is eliminated by Wisconsin, it will be too late for the New York governor to enter Oregon — and probably too late to mount an effective pre-convention campaign to head off Nixon.

Still, Rockefeller’s key supporters now feel he really has no choice but to lie low throughout the primary season — and hope that his underground strength around the country will last until a deadlock develops in Miami Beach.

THE ETERNAL SHOWMAN

Rocky is not, however, the only under- ground candidate. Supporters of ex-actor Ronald Reagan are noisily trying to ignite boomlets in his behalf from New Hampshire to the mountain states. Reagan, indeed, stands as more of a threat to front-runner Dick Nixon than either Romney or Rockefeller.

A substantial Reagan vote in Oregon, for example, could well jeopardize Nixon’s Presidential hopes. And many of those who have tentatively signed on with Nixon would delightedly defect to a Reagan bandwagon should it gain enough momentum.

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Unlike Rockefeller, Reagan is doing little to discourage his sympathizers. He has said he will do no primary campaigning, but he is letting his name stand on the Oregon ballot on the somewhat curious ground that he is, after all, a favorite-son candidate in California. And he has buffed his press conference disclaimers of interest in the Presidential nomination to a tantalizing sheen. “I’m not a candidate!” he insisted at his year-end Q and A session with Sacramento newsmen.

The evident support for him around the country? “It’s — it’s been gratifying,” gulped Reagan modestly. “Anyone would have to be gratified and honored by finding that there was any such group, and when you find them in a bunch in a sizable audience, and they indicate such a thing, yes, it is — makes you feel very good. But it hasn’t changed my mind any.”

What about Dick Nixon? Did he really have the convention sewed up?

“No,” mused Ronnie. “He’s certainly still the No. 1 candidate, apparently, in all the polls. I’ve no evidence that anyone has a grab on the convention. I still believe . . . that it’s going to be a wide-open convention.”

THE EAGER UNDERSTUDY

With fully sixteen GOP favorite sons (from Florida’s bumptious Gov. Claude Kirk to Hawaii’s Sen. Hiram Fong) threatening to tie up some 668 convention votes, the Republican extravaganza in Miami Beach may be wide-open, indeed. Only in such a situation, could the last of the five current leading contenders, Illinois’s Chuck Percy, have a shot at the top spot on the ticket.

Percy has made a good public impression in his freshman Senate year. He, too, has made the obligatory world tour. But he has neither the reputation nor the organization to win the big prize himself. His strategy: to play the part of, Illinois’s favorite son, curry second- and third-choice favor and wait for lightning to strike. More likely, Percy’s Middle Western middle-roadism will make him an attractive running mate for nearly any of the available GOP nominees.

But as every Presidential hopeful knows, the best laid plans of Presidents and pretenders can be upset a dozen times before the Democrats and the Republicans — and finally the American people make their choice. And this year, there is an added imponderable unmatched since Henry Wallace ‘s Progressives, and Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats fragmented the vote in 1948. The potential spoiler this time around is Alabama’s bantam George Corley Wallace — and neither party can be certain whose chances he will spoil more.

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OVER THE TOP

Wallace’s American Independent Party went over the top to qualify for the November ballot in California last week, and he is considering a number of spring primaries, in- eluding Indiana, (where he pulled 29.8 per cent of the vote four years ago). However well he does in the North, Wallace is all but certain to win much, if not all, of the Deep South. Democrats are comforting themselves with polls showing Wallace drawing most of his support from the Republican right — a pattern that could put LBJ over in California and elsewhere.

But Wallace himself is convinced that he will erode Democratic power in the white working-class wards of the industrial north. In fact, sometimes he entertains the fantasy that he might win it all. That is highly unlikely, but he could deprive both major parties of a majority in the electoral college — throwing the Presidential verdict into the House of Representatives for the first time since John Quincy Adams got the nod over Andrew Jackson 144 years ago.

Wallace’s contentious presence in the arena is a metaphor for Presidential 1968 — a spectacle opening on mingled notes of frustration, division, and emotional extreme. Hopefully, the political circus would have a therapeutic effect on the audience-dispelling the blues shadowing American life.

And the big show, after all, offered suspense. For, in the end, the election no one can win has to be won by someone — and the nation and its President will have to live with each other for four more years.

Politics 1968: “The big show”

Mid-January: Romney starts campaigning in New Hampshire
February: Nixon campaigning in New Hampshire
March 12: New Hampshire Primary
April 2: Wisconsin Primary – Nixon, Romney, McCarthy campaigning
April 30: Massachusetts primary – McCarthy & LBJ
May 7: Indiana Primary – Wallace campaigning
May 14: Nebraska Primary
May 28: Oregon Primary – Nixon, Romney, McCarthy campaigning – Reagan & LBJ also on ballot
May 28: Florida Primary – Claude Kirk favorite son
June 4: California Primary – Reagan favorite son, McCarthy campaigning for Democrats
June 11: Illinois Primary – Chuck Percy favorite son
August 5: GOP convention, Miami Beach
August 26: Democratic convention, Chicago
September 2: Labor Day – Campaign begins
November 5: Election day

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