My favorite book of 2011 was a re-reading of “The Making of the President 1968” by Theodore H. White. If you love politics, and are revving up for the 2012 spectacle, get your trembling hands on this classic.
White wrote a series of books on presidential campaigns, but 1968 was his apex, since it was such a wild and crazy year. White not only loved the political game and was a clear writer, but had access to all the key players, to include an interview with LBJ four days before the president announced he would not seek re-election. (LBJ spent a great deal of time complaining about the Kennedy tax cuts that had put him in a fiscal bind.)
In 1968 America had 208 million people, the economy was booming, the Beatles released the White Album, the Vietnam war was in full swing, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. America’s cities, and campuses, were on fire with protests. The Secret Service all but blocked the non-candidate LBJ from attending the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which turned into a violent affair anyway.
1968 was also the last time a major politic party nominated a presidential candidate who had not entered a party primary (Hubert Humphrey). And it was the year the Democratic Party morphed from a hodge-podge collection of interest groups and regional power centers into the highly ideological movement we know today, with academia and the student movement emerging as its new center of gravity.
The Republican campaign was all about the Three Rs — Reagan, Romney and Rockefeller — and Nixon. But in fact the only candidate who ran seriously was Nixon, who systematically reshaped the GOP in his moderate-conservative image in the wake of the 1964 Goldwater debacle. George Romney, the father of the likely 2012 GOP nominee, was a successful Governor of Michigan, but never really made the effort to understand national and international issues, and flamed out before the 1968 primary season even began. Governor Rockefeller was too beat up from the 1964 nomination fight, and Governor Reagan too tied down with problems in California, to put together serious campaigns.
Richard Nixon’s magic in 1968 was to appeal to the American people’s longing for some peace and quiet in the midst of the social and political upheavals of the mid-1960s. Mitt Romney may ride a similar wave to the White House in 2012 as the voters appear worn out from two radical and irresponsible presidents in a row.
Nonetheless, Barack Obama’s political situation is not nearly as grim as LBJ’s. Obama has a 47% job approval rating, while LBJ was hanging on in the low 40s at this point in the election cycle. And Obama has a loyal political and ideological base, and a well-organized and funded campaign apparatus. LBJ’s base was in open, violent revolt, and the president had done little to prepare for a tough re-election fight.
White’s potboiler opens with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the defining event of the 1968 cycle. Tet took place in January, reminding us we have a long way to go before November 2012. I for one am hanging on tight to my Barcalounger as we get underway, and only wish Teddy White was still around to chronicle it.
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