The year that changed America

Erstwhile broadcast journalist and writer Tom Brokaw is making the talk-show rounds promoting his new book, “Boom! Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today.”

In a recent appearance I heard Brokaw explain how 1968 changed America for the next four decades.

On 11 June 2007, I wrote a post about former President Bill Clinton’s observations on how that year changed American politics.

For its timliness, I repeat it here:


My current book on tape is Bill Clinton’s “My Life,” and I am so impressed with his writing style, as amiable and down-home funny as his political style.

Clinton has just described one of the most tumultuous summers in our history – 1968 – and the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The great dividers in the nation were racial conflict and Vietnam.

The Chicago violence unfolded while Clinton was on a trip to Shreveport, La., with his mother’s boyfriend. As he watched on TV Mayor Daley’s police force beating youthful protesters in Grant Park, Clinton says his Southern upbringing clashed with his progressive ideals. This young college kid, who would leave for Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in the fall, says he saw his beloved Democratic Party crumbling before his eyes.

Hubert Humphrey won the Party’s nomination over Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, choosing Senator Edmund Muskie as his running mate. Bobby Kennedy had been killed after winning the California primary, and Senator Edward Kennedy rejected the pleas of young idealists to seek the nomination. Alabama Governor George Wallace was set to wage a third-party campaign.

At the conclusion of Chapter 13, devoted to the politics of this explosive summer, Clinton writes:

“The feeding fanaticism of the left had not yet played itself out, but it had already released a radical reaction on the right – one that would prove more durable, more well-financed, more institutionalized, more resourceful, more addicted to power, and far more skilled at getting and keeping it.

“Much of my public life has been spent trying to bridge the social and psychological divide that had widened into a chasm in Chicago. I won a lot of elections, and I think I did a lot of good, but the more I tried to bring people together, the madder it made the fanatics on the right.

“Unlike the kids in Chicago, they didn’t want America to come back together. They had an enemy, and they meant to keep it.”

Later, in Chapter 14, Clinton describes 1968 as:

“… the year that broke open the nation and shattered the Democratic Party. The year that conservative populism replaced progressive populism as the dominant political force in our nation. The year that law and order and strength became the province of Republicans, and Democrats became associated with chaos, weakness and out-of-touch, self-indulgent elites. The year that lead to Nixon, then Reagan, then Gingrich, then George W. Bush. The middle-class backlash would shape and distort American politics for the rest of the century. The new conservatism would be shaken by Watergate, Its public support would be weakened as right-wing ideologues promoted economic inequality, environmental destruction and social divisions, but not destroyed.

“When threatened by its own excesses, the conservative movement would promise to be kinder and gentler or more compassionate, all the while ripping the hide off Democrats for alleged weakness of values, character and will.

“And, it would be enough to provoke the painfully predictable, almost Pavlovian reaction among enough white middle-class voters to carry the day.

“Of course, it was more complicated than that. Sometimes conservatives’ criticisms of the Democrats had validity, and there were always moderate Republicans and conservatives of good will who worked with Democrats to make some positive changes. Nevertheless, the deeply imbedded nightmares of 1968 formed the arena in which I and all other progressive politicians had to struggle over our entire careers.

“Regardless, those of us who believed that the good in the 1960s outweighed the bad would fight on, still fired by the heroes and dreams of our youth.”


Two geniuses – skilled at propaganda – became the architects of conservative populism: Lee Atwater and his protege Karl Rove. Atwater, who died from a brain tumor at the young age of 39, apologized and asked forgiveness for his deeds before death. Rove’s influence continues in Bush’s White House.

Update: Karl Rove is now writing a column for Newsweek, in which he continues to give the GOP pointers on how to win. So far, he hasn't apologized for anything.

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