OPINION: Looking back at 1968

OPINION: Looking back at 1968

Why am I thinking so much about 1968 lately? I’d like to blame CNN, because they did a four-part TV “event” about “the year that changed America,” but more likely it’s just old age.

Anyway, 50 years ago this summer I was 19 and working on a well-thought-out plan to cast my fate to the wind. First I drifted here, then I drifted there — collecting former addresses, you might say, one of which was 237 Thompson St. in New York City, where I could stick my head out the window and look up Fifth Avenue through the Washington Square Arch. Another was 622 East 11th St., in the East Village, where I paid the super (street name: “Eskimo”) $44 a month for a sixth-floor walkup — you’d pay close to $3,000 to live in that building today — around the corner from where a spice heiress named Linda Fitzpatrick and some guy (street name: “Groovy”) had been murdered in an LSD-laced, front-page crime. 

(A year later I’d be in Berkeley, California, at what is still my all-time-fave former address: 1908 Haste St. I rented a porch there, and I had a very small, brown, Bakelite radio on which I’d listen to “Unshackled” late at night — “stirring accounts of hopeless lives and life-changing hope,” tales of redemption accompanied by soap opera-style organ music and broadcast all over the world, since 1950, by Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission. It’s still on the air today.

It was from 1908 Haste that I strolled up to Shattuck Avenue and watched the first moon landing, in living black & white, through the plate-glass window of a shop.)

Where was I? Oh, the summer of 1968. Already the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre had extinguished any flicker of light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam. Already the Kerner Commission had delivered a dire prognosis for race relations in this country. Already there had been antiwar protests and civil-rights demonstrations all over the nation. Already Robert Kennedy had challenged a sitting president of his own party and that president, Lyndon Johnson, had, in effect, abdicated. Already in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy had been assassinated and Richard Nixon was coasting toward the Republican presidential nomination.

Now it was midsummer and time to go to Chicago to denounce Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s heir apparent, at the Democratic National Convention. I had a ride with somebody I’d met at the Eugene McCarthy campaign office in West Hartford who had an Austin-Healey, and we were ready to roll. But then I sprained my ankle and had to miss the whole thing.

Anyway, one big difference between 1968 and 2018 is that, back then, we had a president who was leading us into disaster because he was so haunted by his own personal demons and so hamstrung by his own limitations that he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — face facts, couldn’t — or wouldn’t — look reality in the face and change course.

However, back then there were big-time politicians from the president’s own party — senators, even — who were willing to stand up to him, to call him out, even to run against him or his chosen successor, consequences be damned.

Alas, those days are gone.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.