In 1968, world turned up­side down

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - David Shrib­man Colum­nist

Of all the sig­nif­i­cant events that oc­curred in the land­mark year of tu­mult and dis­rup­tion of 1968 — when the Tet Of­fen­sive al­tered the dynamic of the war in Viet­nam, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were as­sas­si­nated, when Amer­i­can cities burst into flames, when vi­o­lence marred the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion — there were only three up­lift­ing mo­ments. One was the mid­sum­mer mas­tery of pitch­ers Denny McLain and Bob Gib­son, two men whose teams were des­tined to meet in an un­for­get­table World Se­ries. One was the year-end Christ­mas­time won­der of as­tro­nauts cir­cling the moon, ren­der­ing the open­ing verses of Gen­e­sis into an Amer­i­can an­them of hope.

And the third — the least-re­mem­bered event of a much-re­mem­bered year — was the mo­bi­liza­tion of young peo­ple in New Hamp­shire who sub­sti­tuted their anger for ac­tivism and their im­pa­tience for in­spi­ra­tion. A half-cen­tury ago Mon­day, their de­ter­mi­na­tion to change the tra­jec­tory of Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in Viet­nam also changed the course of pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics.

“It was a hugely im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one there our age,” said Ali­son Teal, who be­gan the year work­ing to de­liver the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion to Gov. Ge­orge Rom­ney of Michi­gan, only to join the McCarthy forces in late Fe­bru­ary. “We saw it as the be­gin­ning of some­thing pow­er­ful.”

All year long, there will be 50-year com­mem­o­ra­tions of the global up­heavals that made 1968 the most re­bel­lious year since 1917, per­haps since 1848. The world will mark the an­niver­saries of protests and strikes in France, the demon­stra­tions against the Soviet in­va­sion of Cze­choslo­vakia, the mass protests in Ger­many and Brazil, and the be­gin­ning of ter­ror­ism in North­ern Ire­land.

But nowhere has any­one paused to re­call what hap­pened here on March 12, 1968 — when Lyn­don John­son won the New Hamp­shire pri­mary but lost the will to run for re-elec­tion; when Eu­gene McCarthy star­tled the po­lit­i­cal world with a strong sec­ond and emerged as a se­ri­ous sym­bol of the anti-war move­ment, even as his prospects for win­ning the nom­i­na­tion faded; and when Kennedy be­gan to as­sem­ble a na­tional cam­paign that would give life to lib­eral hopes but end his own life.

The youth­ful pro­test­ers who set all this in mo­tion hit the streets of Manch­ester, Keene and Clare­mont in a far dif­fer­ent way than their col­leagues would do in Paris, Bonn, Prague and Chicago. Their street work would be a door-to-door mo­bi­liza­tion for McCarthy, a re­luc­tant war­rior but per­haps the most ar­dent anti-war fig­ure in es­tab­lish­ment pol­i­tics.

The re­sult was stun­ning. “For many of us this was a turn­ing point,” said Robert H. Ross, a Dart­mouth stu­dent who be­came a United Church of Christ minister. “I’m star­tled now by how op­ti­mistic we were. We thought we were on the thresh­old of a ‘change-the-world’ move­ment for a cul­tural shift, a greater social jus­tice and world peace.”

“This was ba­si­cally a youth up­ris­ing in New Hamp­shire,” said Richard Ol­son, a re­tired United Auto Work­ers pub­li­ca­tions ed­i­tor who as a youth was a Repub­li­can and who as a Dart­mouth stu­dent drifted into the rad­i­cal Stu­dents for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety (SDS). “It was the re­sult of a lot of strug­gle about how to do some­thing about the war that was more than protest­ing the war.”

Richard Parker, a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine who now is a lec­turer in pub­lic pol­icy at Har­vard’s Kennedy School of Govern­ment, said that some of the vot­ers he met on the streets of Hanover and West Le­banon thought the McCarthy he was sup­port­ing was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can who lent his name to the anti-com­mu­nist witch hunts of the 1950s.

“Sud­denly, all that had been taught the bright young stu­dents of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, chil­dren trained on com­put­ers and method­ol­ogy, had leaped from class­room to re­al­ity. They knew what they were do­ing. They were skilled. They were or­ga­nized . ... And they were happy.”

Happy — and on the verge of life­long com­mit­ments to po­lit­i­cal change.

One of them was Robert B. Re­ich, the la­bor sec­re­tary in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion who said the McCarthy cam­paign “marked the mo­ment that an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of col­lege stu­dents — my gen­er­a­tion — sud­denly be­came se­ri­ous about elec­toral pol­i­tics.”

He was not alone.

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