Hubert Humphrey’s lessons from the 1968 DNC

by Admin
Hubert Humphrey's lessons from the 1968 DNC

Anti-war protesters decry a president who is running for reelection: Are we talking Joe Biden in 2024 or Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968?  After all, just as demonstrators this spring at campuses across the country demanded that Biden call for a cease-fire in Gaza and cessation of American military support for the offensive there, so in the spring of 1968, demonstrators on campuses across the country called for LBJ to de-escalate the war in Vietnam.

No wonder the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Chicago this summer, evokes recollections of the DNC of 1968. And what images of contention they are: inside the hall, angry heckling of speakers, and outside on the streets, violence (with most of the public blaming the demonstrators, whereas a subsequent government report characterized the altercations as police rioting).

Of course, history doesn’t repeat itself. Unlike the situation in 1968, with 500,000 combat troops on the ground in Vietnam, the United States is not conducting the war in Gaza. This may be one reason that today’s protests are smaller than those in 1968, and why Biden, unlike LBJ, has not felt the necessity of withdrawing from the presidential contest. But history does rhyme. Like Johnson, the current president faces anti-war demonstrations virtually everywhere he goes, and Biden is headed to a Chicago DNC that inevitably will conjure the ghosts of Chicago ’68. 

Most of the participants in that historic time have passed from the scene. As it happens, however, one salient witness recently marked his 90th birthday: Bill Moyers. In 1968, Moyers was publisher of the Long Island, New York, newspaper Newsday, having resigned the previous year as the Johnson administration’s White House press secretary, disillusioned by the war, among other things.

In June 1968, prior to the Chicago convention in August, Moyers was asked about the presidential contest in a television interview and intimated that the putative Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, would soon begin to distance himself from the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policy. That turned out to be wishful thinking on Moyers’ part. We now know of Humphrey’s long-standing skepticism about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, but he raised these questions only inside the White House privately, and despite Johnson’s unpopularity, Humphrey felt constrained from breaking with an administration in which he was still serving as the vice president. This constraint would contribute significantly to his narrow defeat to Richard Nixon. 

Moyers, for his part, would go on to a broadcast journalism career at CBS and, especially, at PBS, garnering more than 30 Emmys, along with the News and Documentary Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award. His landmark interviews ranged from conversations with presidents (of both parties) and other policymakers to poets and novelists to the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders to activists, grassroots organizers and ordinary Americans from many walks of life.  

In an interview with Moyers in 1976, Humphrey looked back on the 1968 convention. “I was heartbroken. It was the moment in my life … and all at once it was in total disarray,” he recalled. “At least I was able to speak to the convention. That to me was a great testament: to be able to put that convention back together. And I used the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.” Indeed, in his acceptance speech, in offering “words which I think may help heal the wounds, ease the pain and lift our hearts,” he quoted the following from that prayer: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light.” The candidate then added, “I accept your nomination in this spirit.”

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