...One of the astonishing things about 1968 was how quickly each shocking, consciousness-altering event succeeded the last, leaving no time for people to reorient themselves. The mind-boggling occurrences seemed to come out of nowhere, like the Viet Cong who set off a depth charge beneath the Johnson presidency with the Tet offensive at the end of January.
When Walter Cronkite learned of the coordinated wave of attacks throughout South Vietnam by the Cong and North Vietnamese regulars he is reported to have said: “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war.”
The nation shuddered. The U.S. had never lost a war, but now men padding around in black pajamas and flip-flops fashioned from discarded tires gave every appearance of battling the mightiest military on earth to a stalemate.
The New Hampshire primary was March 12. Eugene McCarthy, a quiet, cerebral and sometimes flaky senator from Minnesota who was calling for a negotiated settlement of the war, electrified the country and exposed the president’s political vulnerability by finishing second with 42 percent of the vote.
Within days, Bobby Kennedy, who had only recently said he could see no circumstances in which he would challenge Johnson, was challenging him. McCarthy was furious. Johnson was traumatized.
By the end of the month, Johnson had abandoned the race.
Euphoria reigned — among young people, and those opposed to the war, and those who believed that ordinary people of good will could change the world. For many, it was the peak moment of the 1960s.
It lasted just four days.
On April 3, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. Violence erupted in dozens of cities, and especially in Washington, where a number of people were killed and the fires were the worst the city had experienced since the British took the torch to it in 1814.
John J. Lindsay of Newsweek magazine said that when Bobby Kennedy was told that King had died, he put his hands to his face and murmured: “Oh, God. When is this violence going to stop?”
Kennedy himself was murdered two months later. I remember people not knowing what to say. The madness had been unleashed, and there seemed no way to rein it in.
There was much more to come, more war, the orgy of police violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the razor-thin election of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew over Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie in November.
But an awful lot of people tuned out after Kennedy was killed. That seemed to be when, for so many, the hope finally died. The nation has never really recovered from the bullet that killed R.F.K.
Arthur Schlesinger, in his biography of Kennedy, quotes Richard Harwood of The Washington Post:
“We discovered in 1968 this deep, almost mystical bond that existed between Robert Kennedy and the Other America. It was a disquieting experience for reporters. ... We were forced to recognize in Watts and Gary and Chimney Rock that the real stake in the American political process involves not the fate of speechwriters and fund-raisers, but the lives of millions of people seeking hope out of despair.”
Hope and despair, hung on a cult of personality, are the carrot and the stick used to make people dance to the song of those who would rule it all.