AMERICAN MAELSTROM: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division

By Michael A. Cohen

Oxford University Press. 427 pp. $29.95

When the world starts feeling chaotic — and yes, the summer of 2016 is making a strong play for chaos — it’s tempting to look back for reference points and precursors, to some past time that can explain why things turned out this way, that maybe can give us someone to blame.

Michael A. Cohen’s “American Maelstrom” chronicles a bygone presidential election featuring a fear-mongering, race-baiting candidate stoking white resentment; a long-shot lefty whipping up collegiate frenzy with his anti-status-quo message; and an establishment front-runner who, recovering from a painful electoral defeat eight years earlier, was hoping to prove just likable enough to win. Voters cast their ballots against a backdrop of political assassinations, police brutality and a seemingly endless war, one that Americans did not want to lose but did not care to continue waging.

Cohen, a political columnist for the Boston Globe, does not draw direct parallels between particular candidates in 1968 and today; no, that would be too easy. The true link is not the politicians, he contends, but the politics. The presidential campaign would fracture the nation’s post-World War II “liberal consensus” — the understanding among Republican and Democratic elites that the federal government should provide economic opportunity and security at home and remain vigilant against communism abroad. In its place, he argues, appeared the polarization now so pervasive in our politics, as “the ideologically committed wings of each side began to more forcibly assert themselves.”

The result was not just a Nixon presidency that would end in disgrace, it was “four decades of division, incoherence, and parochialism in American politics.”

Cohen tells this unhappy story through the strategies and fortunes of the men contending for the presidency: former vice president Richard Nixon, Gov. Ronald Reagan, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Gov. George Romney on the Republican side; Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Robert Kennedy, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and (at times) President Lyndon Johnson for the Democrats; and former Alabama governor George Wallace, the Democrat-turned-independent who was “so willing to tap into the dark pools of popular alienation.”

The book proceeds methodically, devoting separate chapters to the individual candidates’ campaigns before delving into the national party conventions, the election itself and its long-term aftermath. The result is a fast-paced and engaging account, almost too much so; whenever you want to dig deeper into any one story, you’re already moving on.

For instance, Cohen’s debunking of the mystique surrounding Kennedy’s run and how far he might have gone — there is “a wide gulf between the imagined Kennedy campaign and the one actually waged,” he writes — is tantalizing, particularly his argument that RFK’s ability to unite white working-class concerns with those of Latinos and African Americans was vastly overrated. More on that would have been great, if only because of Kennedy’s enduring presence in the ’68 lore. Ditto for Johnson’s private deliberations over reentering the presidential race, even after declaring with such finality that he was out. Still, kudos to Cohen for not getting lost in a Politico Playbook-style retelling of campaign minutiae — though “American Maelstrom” offers lots of that, too.

The broader political transformation Cohen describes happens in a pincer move: From the left, Democrats shattered the notion that the United States should devote blood and treasure to the anti-communist cause. McCarthy, though ambivalent about the presidency, “offered his candidacy as a political outlet for Americans sick of the war and dismayed with Johnson’s leadership,” Cohen explains. McCarthy’s decision to represent the antiwar movement, while lacking a realistic hope of victory, “ended up being the most transformative event of the 1968 election,” nudging Johnson out of the race and drawing Kennedy in. The senator from Minnesota didn’t just oppose the war; he “openly questioned the notion of American virtue in global affairs.”

Humphrey, long trapped in his subservient role as LBJ’s veep — “I’ve eaten so much of Johnson’s s— in this job that I’ve grown to like the taste of it,” he once confessed — finally unshackled himself with a major Vietnam speech just weeks before the election. Calling for a halt to the bombing of the North, Humphrey signaled that the antiwar movement, not the hawks, now called the shots in the party. In Cohen’s telling, this shift led to decades of Democratic insecurity on national security, producing embarrassing moments (think Michael Dukakis in the tank) and improbable ones (decorated Navy veteran John Kerry seeing his record of service turned against him).

From the right, the Republican Party upended the other half of the liberal consensus — the expectation that the federal government should buttress the population’s economic fate. Instead, the GOP cast itself as the defender of “traditional values,” while “playing on growing white resentment and anxiety over social disorder and racial integration.” Nixon did his part by stressing law and order, while Reagan, though displaying a “meager knowledge” of public policy, proved to be “conservatism’s best communicator” in 1968, Cohen writes, building support “around the growing sense that lenient judges, liberal social engineers, and leftist protesters were dragging America down.”

The implicit racial bias in Reagan’s message was nothing next to Wallace, who became a regional hero in 1963 with his “stand at the schoolhouse door,” seeking to block integration at the University of Alabama. As he expanded his anti-civil-rights message into a populist indictment of federal activism, Wallace became a national political force. “By painting a picture of an overzealous federal government that put the needs of blacks ahead of those of ‘hard-working Americans,’ Wallace was taking a wrecking ball to the liberal consensus,” Cohen writes. No candidate had a lesser chance of winning, the author explains, yet “no politician did more to change the narrative and language of American politics.”

Reagan’s attacks on “welfare queens,” George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad in 1988 — these are heirs to the Wallace legacy. Nixon was hardly above coded racial appeals (his aide Kevin Phillips would popularize the term “Southern strategy”), but Wallace’s presence in the race made Nixon a “more palatable” option for the electorate.

The lasting impact of 1968 is more about politics than governance, Cohen writes. For decades, conservatives were able to contain the welfare state, not slash it. As president, Nixon expanded regulation — creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — while Reagan failed to eliminate major federal programs. Later, George H.W. Bush raised taxes, and his son expanded Medicare. “The 1968 election,” Cohen concludes, “by confirming and endorsing the ideological conservatism and operational liberalism of the American voter, fed the country’s political incoherence — hatred of ‘big government’ in the abstract and a fervent embrace of its specific elements.”

There are countless books declaring that one particular year — or one month, or even one week — changed everything. They’re usually a stretch, but they’re fun thought experiments, a chance to spitball on the contingencies of history. “American Maelstrom” offers a better case than most, plus it provides the irresistible opportunity to cast today’s candidates in 1968’s drama. Cohen’s descriptions of Wallace, for instance, fit key elements of Donald Trump’s campaign — the working-class anger, racial appeals and comfort with confrontation (when violence erupted at a campaign event, Wallace issued a Trumpesque response: “Well, you came for trouble and you got it”). Journalists marveled at the “special hold” Wallace maintained over the “less educated” and “less affluent,” Cohen writes.

The Jeb Bush campaign evokes those of Romney and Rockefeller in ’68 — moderate, policy-oriented, out of step with the base. Bernie Sanders is McCarthy, ideologically pure, inspiring youthful fervor but struggling to connect with black voters. (“Go look at my record,” McCarthy would tell black audiences. “Record, hell!” an activist yelled back. “Tell us what you feel.”) Hillary Clinton is Nixon, the experienced establishment pick, reviled by some and tolerated by most, a candidate “whose most marketable political attribute was being better than the alternative.”

In 1968, the Democrats seemed in disarray. Their convention in Chicago, where the dysfunction in the hall was surpassed only by the violence in the street, “offered the best possible rationale to vote for Republicans in November,” Cohen writes. “How could Democrats ask the American people to entrust them with the responsibility of running the country for four more years when they couldn’t even run a national convention?” (GOP, take heed. And good luck in Cleveland.)

Finally, the American people are reprising their 1968 role, too. By Labor Day, Cohen recalls, “most Americans wanted it to all just be over. . . . Approximately half told pollsters they’d rather have someone else to vote for.”

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