Hubert H. Humphrey
Republican candidate Richard Nixon, the former vice president who had been defeated by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential contest, ran a cooler, more tightly-controlled campaign. Nixon limited his public appearances and restricted press access to better control his image and message. And the Nixon campaign made heavy use of television advertising.
Humphrey's ad makers tried a variety of ways to attack Nixon on TV. One showed a man trying - without success - to think of what Nixon had ever done for him. Another targeted Nixon's political links to southern segregationist Strom Thurmond, a Republican U.S. senator. One ad simply showed the name "Agnew" (Nixon's running mate) with the sound of a man laughing.
On the stump, Humphrey tried to score points by describing Nixon as a candidate who was carefully packaged, a "perfumed and deodorized" product of a Madison Avenue advertising campaign. "I think it's time to strip off the wrapper and see what's underneath," Humphrey told a crowd in Nashville, TN.
Humphrey also had to fight the inroads that third-party candidate George Wallace was making with blue-collar Democrats. Wallace was a former Democratic Alabama governor. He became famous in 1963 for defying federal court orders to desegregate the University of Alabama. Wallace siphoned off Humphrey votes by talking in coded terms about race. Wallace's rhetoric on law and order, public schools and property rights played to "backlash" Democrats. Humphrey denounced Wallace as "an apostle of hate and racism."
Still, Humphrey's most difficult opponent remained the president he served. Humphrey needed to make a clear break from Johnson on Vietnam without provoking the president to retaliate. Finally, on September 30, Humphrey made a speech on television promising to halt the bombing of North Vietnam as a vital step towards peace. Johnson was unhappy but did not attack Humphrey for making the speech.
Almost immediately, anti-war hecklers stopped interrupting Humphrey events. His campaign got a boost in momentum and fundraising. Meanwhile, Wallace stumbled when he selected retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay, a staunch cold warrior who suggested bombing North Vietnam "back to the stone age" and said he didn't fear the use of nuclear weapons.
Humphrey's fortunes improved even more when President Johnson, on October 31, announced a complete halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. In a national TV address, Johnson also offered to negotiate for peace directly with the North Vietnamese. The presidential race had tightened remarkably in recent days. A breakthrough on Vietnam might put Humphrey over the top.
Behind the scenes, Nixon was working through Chinese intermediaries to stall the peace process. Intelligence intercepts tipped off the White House to Nixon's ploy and Humphrey found out. The election was just days away. Going public with the news could blow Nixon out of the water. But Humphrey would also be open to charges of playing an 11th hour trick. Humphrey decided to keep quiet.
November 5 finally came. It had been a long, grueling political year. Election day itself was a photo-finish marathon. Ballots got counted well into the next morning. Richard Nixon won 43.4 percent of the vote to Hubert Humphrey's 42.7 percent. Wallace won 13.5 percent, carrying five southern states. Support from what Democrats had long called their "Solid South" was hammered to pieces by Wallace. Republicans picked up those pieces after 1968.
After leaving the vice presidency, Hubert Humphrey returned to the U.S. Senate in 1970. He won the seat of fellow Minnesotan, Eugene McCarthy, who had retired. Humphrey then ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 but was beaten by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. Humphrey was reelected to the Senate in 1976 and died of cancer in 1978.
The tumultuous 1968 campaign prompted Democrats to overhaul their process for selecting a presidential candidate, to make it more transparent and accessible. Party bosses got replaced by interest groups. In the years since, both party conventions have become less consequential. The big Democratic and Republican get-togethers every four years seem like infomercials for the presidential tickets that have already been decided in the primaries.
For the nominees, that may be just as well. The last thing they want is the kind of ruckus Hubert Humphrey endured in 1968.
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