Monday, 6 June 2016


It's the California primary! The Democratic party's nominee for President seems all but decided, with the votes of party insiders making the crucial difference. The insurgent faction of the party is being told to stand-down, to allow a candidate they see as part of the very problems they are protesting get down to battling a Republican candidate seen by many as a figure of revulsion. Yet the insurgents battle on, hoping that a big win in California might open up the party's convention, and their candidate might win were it contested. Ah, you think, Bernie Sanders' position is hopeless and he ought to quit before Tuesday's vote? But it's not Bernie Sanders I'm talking about, it's Bobby Kennedy. And today, of course, is the anniversary of his assassination in Los Angeles.

The analogy is not perfect, because it was not only Kennedy competing against the party's anointed candidate, he was competing also against fellow insurgent Senator Gene McCarthy. In those days primaries were few in number and not crucially important; even in some states that held them, the primary vote did not even bind the convention delegates who were chosen in the traditional manner, by each state's party 'machine'. Party delegates got to travel to the convention, carry signs, wear red and white and blue clothing, sing and cheer, and do what they were told by their state party chairmen. It was democracy in action.
Hillary Clinton, the party's presumptive choice now, is a good match for Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, the eventual Democratic candidate, while Richard Nixon was many things, but not many of them resembled the snake-oil hucksterism of Donald Trump. And it's highly unlikely that the eventual choice of a Democratic candidate this year will involve assassination or riot.

The 1968 Presidential race, like everything else in America then, was chaotic. Protests against the Vietnam war were reaching massive scale; the black inner cities were erupting in a series of riots, and the progress of de-segregation in the South, despite President Lyndon B. Johnson's steering the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress, was desperately slow. American politics itself was in a period of profound change, which Johnson recognised as he signed the Voting Rights Act into law: 'there goes the South.' he said. The Democratic Party had been maintained by an uneasy alliance of big city Northern machines and labor unions with so-called Dixiecrats, Southern segregationists whose states had, for a century, continued to fight the Civil War and ignored the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Johnson's landslide win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 had been based on his continuation of the legacy of John Kennedy, and the portrayal of Goldwater as a right-wing fanatic whose finger was not to be trusted on the nuclear button. The famous TV ad of the little girl picking flowers before a nuclear explosion ran only once, and didn't mention Goldwater by name, but it didn't have to. But Johnson's refusal to 'lose' the war in Vietnam saw him escalate the conflict and the American presence in it. In February 1968, Johnson watched TV news anchor Walter Cronkite report on Vietnam, highly critical of our involvement. 'If I've lost Cronkite I've lost Middle America,' Johnson told his aides. On March 12, in the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy's army of college students and anti-war activists emerged with 42 per cent of the vote. Johnson 'won' the state with 49 per cent, but the McCarthy faction had also lured 20 of the 24 delegates available. For a sitting President, this was a disaster.

Sensing LBJ's vulnerability, four days later Bobby Kennedy entered the race. Many McCarthy supporters never forgave RFK his opportunism; they pointed to Kennedy's similar behaviour in appropriating a Senate seat in New York, when everyone knew the Kennedys came from Massachusetts. Years later, Hilary Clinton faced similar accusations when she traded in her Chicago Cubs baseball cap for a New York Yankees one while winning a Senate seat in her newly-adopted state.

On 31 March in a speech suspending American bombing in Vietnam, LBJ shocked the country by announcing 'I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party to run for President.' I was in my last year of high school; just turned 17. I leaped from my seat in excitement: it was as if we had driven Johnson from office.

Vice President Hubert H Humphrey now became the presumptive nominee, with the backing of party bosses. Known as 'the Happy Warrior,' Humphrey, a textbook 'liberal' and party loyalist, was trapped in his support of the Vietnam war. He did not contest any primaries: in some states 'favourite son' candidates stood on behalf of delegations controlled by the party machines. And the battle between the insurgents became fierce. Kennedy's civil rights record helped him with minority voters, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April; he had the charisma and the Kennedy name to give black voters hope. Plus McCarthy was no tireless Bernie Sanders; lacking the drive to take his campaign on the road, his appeal was more to reason. Even so, going into the California vote McCarthy had won four primaries (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon) while Kennedy had taken two (Indiana and Nebraska), though McCarthy would take New Jersey and Kennedy South Dakota on the same day as California. Only in Oregon, Indiana and Nebraska had the two gone head to head.

But California on 5 June was the big prize and when the vote was counted Kennedy won with 46%, to McCarthy's 42. Despite having taken far fewer popular votes around the country, he now led McCarthy in committed delegates (393-258) though Humphrey and his surrogates still had a comfortable lead. Then in the early hours of 6 June, after a victory speech and a cry of 'on to Illinois' Kennedy was shot dead at the Ambassador hotel.

McCarthy would win Illinois, but the Democrats were now split into four pieces, and the insurgents' delegates won in primaries would never have been enough to out-vote Humphrey's, even had they been united. Perhaps Kennedy, riding a wave of primary support, might have convinced the convention that he had a better chance of defeating Nixon. But by the time the convention opened in Chicago on 26 August, Kennedy's support was split, only some of it sticking after Senator George McGovern picked up his standard. The Dixiecrats, who could back LBJ but were more suspicious of HHH, were facing challenges on the floor to their own delegations, many of which were still segregated. Meanwhile, outside the convention, the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Mobilization Against The War were organising a festival which soon turned into a riot, triggered when Chicago police beat a man who'd lowered the American flag in Grant Park.

The ensuing scenes of violence shocked America, as Chicago police seemed to run amok, even assaulting press on the convention floor. When Abraham Ribicoff, Senator from my state, Connecticut, rose to nominate McGovern, he said that with a man like him as president 'we wouldn't need Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago'. The television cameras caught Chicago mayor Richard Daley, hand cupped like a megaphone around his mouth, shouting at Ribicoff, and lip readers claimed he yelled 'sit down you Jew bastard'. In the end, Humphrey won the nomination by a wide margin, and went on to lose the election to Nixon, by a narrow margin in the popular vote but a wide one in the electoral college. This was thanks to Alabama governor George Wallace, running as an Independent, winning five states in the South away from Humphrey. Nixon's 'southern strategy' had been born, and soon the so-called 'solid south' would switch from being solidly Democrat to solidly Republican. Humphrey's only chance would have been a success in the Paris peace talks being held with the Vietnamese. But in what became known as the first 'October surprise,' Nixon's team, with help from Henry Kissinger, sabotaged the negotiations, promising the South Vietnamese they would get a better deal once Nixon was President. The Vietnamese were surprised when it turned out they were lying.

I still recall some former McCarthy supporters refusing to support Humphrey, arguing a Nixon win would bring the country to its senses. Instead, four years later, McGovern won the nomination as a result of a more democratic primary-driven process which he had been chosen by the party to develop. Even so, despite the deepening of the Vietnam quagmire, and the Watergate burglary, Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide even bigger than Johnson's over Goldwater just 8 years earlier. The country had turned full circle, but many would say the worst was yet to come.

Almost 50 years later, the process has been democratized even further, to the point where independent voters who don't identify as Democrats have a say in the choice of candidate. This may be unfair to the party faithful, or it may be a better gauge of how a candidate will fare in November with the independent voters who decide national elections. This is why the party bosses still hold the so-called 'super delegates' in the hole, to ensure an insurgent like a McGovern, whom they believe will lose, or worse, believe might win without their support, cannot get the nomination. The system, deeply entrenched, is designed to work, and after California Hillary Clinton seems likely to be declared the nominee. A Sanders shock in California, however, might persuade some super-delegates to question Hillary's electability, and consider whether the Democratic convention should actually be an open affair.

There has not been a seriously contested party convention since the Republicans in 1976, when Ronald Reagan narrowly lost a challenge to incumbent (but unelected) President Gerald Ford. Ford would go on to lose the election to Jimmy Carter, but much as I searched for parallels between them and Clinton/Sanders, I defy anyone else to find them either.

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