[To say that the 2020 presidential election will be a pivotal one in American history is to significantly under-state the case. But while in some clear ways this moment feels singular, this is of course far from our only such crucial election. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of others, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results.]
On a strikingly singular and influential choice, and why it’s far from the whole story.
I’ll admit that I haven’t gone back to every presidential election in order to confirm this hypothesis, but I’m pretty sure that only one incumbent president has ever decided, mid-campaign, to stop running for re-election. And it’s important to note just how mid-campaign, indeed just how late in the campaign, that decision was: it was April of 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to withdraw from the race and cede the Democratic nomination over to another candidate (still to be determined at that time, of course). As that hyperlinked article traces at length, he had his reasons (mostly tied to the ongoing and increasingly catastrophic Vietnam War, on the success of which he had staked his presidency and against which the anti-war Democratic candidate George McGovern had been campaigning for some time) and communicated them quite clearly. But none of that meant that the decision was any less stunning, nor that it didn’t hugely shake up the campaign’s remaining seven months—and, given just how significant that election year was, the entirety of American politics.
So it would be easy to boil that 1968 election down to that striking moment and its effects—easy but entirely inaccurate, I’d say. Indeed, I would go further and say that that moment was only the second most stunning and influential in that election season, because almost exactly two months later, on the night of June 5th, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles by a militant terrorist named Sirhan Sirhan. Just a few hours before his murder Kennedy had won the California Democratic Primary, making him the front-runner in the campaign to replace Johnson as the nominee; he was also an inspiring figure who seemed poised to unite more conservative Johnsonian Democrats and more radical McGovernite ones, and in so doing offer not just the party but the whole country a possible path forward from one of our most divided and challenging periods. The tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination thus goes far beyond any one campaign or election, of course—but it nonetheless yet again, and even more potently, reshaped that election just months before the conventions, leaving Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the only nationally viable candidate (he and Kennedy had been neck-and-neck for delegates) and the eventual Democratic nominee.
But at the same time, even in a presidential election year, the presidential election is only one of the nation’s stories, and quite frequently (as this year has amply demonstrated) not the most significant story at that. So while Robert Kennedy’s assassination might have been the campaign’s most striking moment, I would have to argue that the year’s single most meaningful event was another, even more tragic murder: the April 4th Memphis shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. by the white supremacist domestic terrorist James Earl Ray. I’ve long argued that we place too much emphasis on presidents in our histories and collective memories; even the most influential presidents (and that list would certainly include both Johnson and the 1968 victor Richard Nixon, along with, y’know, that dude who by the time this post airs will either be a lame duck or continuing his effort to destroy the American Experiment) are hardly ever the most significant figures or actors in their historical moments. In both his inspiring life and his tragic death, and by every other measure I could imagine, King was a more defining American than either of those presidents, or any other political figure associated with the 1968 campaign. To tell the story of that campaign, that election, or any other aspect of America in 1968 without foregrounding King would be to miss the point quite seriously.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other pivotal elections you’d highlight?