A Review of “American Maelstrom” by Michael Cohen

American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of DivisionAmerican Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

American Maelstrom

Every four years we hear that the upcoming Presidential election is the most important in history, and there is no question that each one carries special ramifications for the country. As we gaze back we can identify, with the benefit of some hindsight, key “pivot points” in history. The Presidential election of 1968 most certainly falls into that category. Michael A. Cohen has written a book that takes us back through the tumultuous political year of 1968 that did so much to change the country, bringing us political divisions that have broadened and hardened. It started in 1968.

The election of 1968 brought us some of the biggest political personalities in American history, people that impacted American politics for years to come. On the Republican side you had George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, with the Democrats featuring LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy, with a little peek at George McGovern. And of course you had one of the greatest demagogues in American political history, George Wallace, running as an independent.

The story starts with the smashing LBJ victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and how the Johnson Great Society, civil rights programs, and conduct of the Vietnam War started the great political backlash that brought us to 1968. LBJ recognized that he would be spending down political capital after 1964 but he simply could not reconcile his Vietnam policies with a changing political landscape in the country. He did not spend down political capital as much as he burned it thoroughly. The Democrats lost 47 seats in the U.S. House in 1966, although maintaining control, as well as 3 seats in the U.S. Senate, as well as a loss of 7 governorships. (Ronald Reagan defeated Pat Brown in California in 1966.)

Johnson’s attempt to thread the political needle between newly empowered Democratic constituencies, on the rise after 1964, and the traditional power base of the Party, faltered, despite his very formidable political skills. LBJ speechwriter Horace Busby presciently said 

“America’s real majority is suffering a minority complex of neglect. They have become the real foes of Negro rights, foreign aid, etc., because as much as anything, they feel forgotten, at the second table behind the tightly organized, smaller groups at either end of the U.S. spectrum.”
Cohen highlights the backlash, in large part a racial one, by observing “These strains contributed to an emerging political movement of white anger and frustration, which after Watts threatened not only Johnson’s presidency but the very aspirations of American liberalism.”

Cohen, Michael A. “American Maelstrom” Page 21

The backlash was on. Cohen brings forward the candidates in 1968, one by one, with a really first rate look at their candidacies, positions, and how they fit into the larger set of changes occurring in the country. Cohen’s quick analysis of the LBJ political failure on Vietnam, and how that failure not only forced him from the race, but created the protest candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, and then the entry into the race of Bobby Kennedy, in my opinion hits the mark exactly.

“When finally forced to change course in March 1968, his dreams of a Great Society lay in tatters, his hopes for a second term had been dashed, and his party was mired in open revolt. In hindsight, the two moments were inextricably linked. Had Johnson shifted course in the fall of 1967, he almost certainly would not have been forced from the presidential race. A decision to de-escalate would have meant that Senator Eugene McCarthy-whose rationale for running was Johnson’s refusal to change his policy in Vietnam-would likely not have challenged the president for the Democratic nomination. No McCarthy would have also meant no Robert Kennedy candidacy. Instead, if he’d chosen to run, Johnson would have been the Democratic nominee for president in 1968, if as much by default than by universal acclaim.”

Cohen, Michael A. “American Maelstrom” Pages49-50

Cohen has some observations on the Democratic side that bring into focus the relative strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Eugene McCarthy, whose challenge to LBJ brought out the political weakness of a sitting President, is the first, and maybe the best example of this in the book. Cohen clearly is respectful of the McCarthy role in 1968, but does not hesitate to show us his very great weaknesses as a candidate. The “Clean for Gene” movement of young people to the McCarthy candidacy truly did create a huge change in the Democratic Party. But McCarthy, as Cohen points out, was just not really interested in the job of being President. He most certainly eschewed, despite the protest nature of his candidacy, harsh or demagogic rhetoric on the campaign. His was a candidacy reflective of the man: reasoned, intellectual, and non-emotional.

Cohen manages to deconstruct much of the legacy of RFK’s candidacy in 1968. He is certainly a little less respectful of RFK than he was of McCarthy , and some of the shine of the RFK 1968 campaign is tarnished in the book. We get some terrific campaign narrative dealing with the McCarthy-Kennedy fight after Bobby got into the race, with some surprisingly bitter exchanges between the men and their campaigns. RFK’s refusal to get into the race against President Johnson until McCarthy had stepped forward was a constant sore spot with many. The charge of opportunism was never far behind RFK as far as the McCarthy people were concerned.

“Allard Lowenstein spoke even more glowingly of McCarthy. ‘We all had our heroes,’ said Lowenstein years later.’Jack Kennedy, Mrs. Roosevelt, but…none of them had ever been so heroic or had so many people owing him so much as Gene McCarthy. ‘ Lowenstein said it was something that Kennedy and his people could never fully appreciate. ‘They never understood the depth of feeling on the issues, and therefore, the depth of gratitude to McCarthy that he made the fight when Kennedy wouldn’t.’”

Cohen, Michael A. “American Maelstrom” Page 133

One of the most important figures that Cohen looks at, in my opinion, is George Wallace. The sections of this book dealing with Wallace, and his appeal outside of the South, are so very important. Wallace represented a racist populism that was always considered to be “conservative” but in reality was much more than that.

“In an interview with U.S. News and World Report in June 1968, Wallace nonetheless argued, ‘We are still against the philosophy of big government controlling every phase and aspect of our lives.’ In reality, Wallace wanted to redirect the flow from the government’s spigot rather than turn it off altogether. Indeed, conservatives regularly attacked Wallace for his “collectivist” views. James Ashbrook, the head of the American Conservative Union, blasted his candidacy as ‘repugnant to ideals of American conservatism.’ In fact, the overlap between Wallace and Goldwater voters was far less extensive than generally assumed. Only half of those who would vote for the Alabama governor in 1968 had voted for Goldwater four years earlier. Goldwater’s strongest backing came from those who considered themselves economically secure, while Wallace did best among the working class. Even given the reactionary nature of Wallace’s politics, his supporters were more likely to call themselves “liberals” than Nixon voters. Wallace voters had little apparent interest in the right’s ideological dogmatism. For them politics had become a zero sum game of resource allocation and government attention. More money and public programs for blacks meant less for them-and they wanted to protect what they had.” 

Cohen, Michael A. “American Maelstrom” Page 234-235
Wallace had created “Reagan Democrats” before Reagan, and his appeal to the white working class portended a larger realignment that would come to full fruition many years later. His rejection of “conservative” orthodoxy in favor of populist appeal looks very familiar today.

Nixon’s rise from the ashes of 1960, and 1962, is a story that has been covered extensively. We see a political master beginning to exploit newer methods of campaigning, and managing to at once say nothing specific but at the same time appeal to the public desire for some return to “normalcy.” The outlines of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the huge realignment that followed that success flowed from his winning campaign in 1968. Nixon was a far more subtle candidate than Wallace, but he managed to appeal, in his way, too much of the constituency in the South that abandoned the Democratic Party over civil rights. Nixon, in my view, was and is, the architect of the modern Republican Party.

Cohen, through this book, gives us a great look at the monumental political year of 1968. It is not simply a retelling of the narrative, but allows us to transcend the candidates, and look at the ideas and strategies those candidates deployed that impact us to this very day. Get this book. You will both enjoy it, and learn from it.

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