The 2016 campaign may look like the craziest campaign in modern political history. But we’ve been here before. Forty-eight years ago, another racist demagogue who “told it like it is”; played on white racial anxieties and pledged to bring law and order to America ran for president. Alabama governor George Wallace might have run on a third party ticket that year – and only ended up winning 13 percent of the popular vote – but he gave Republican politicians a blueprint for how to use racial and cultural fear and anti-government populism to their political benefit. Wallace’s rhetorical appeals in 1968 would become the template for a generation of Republicans and can be heard directly in the campaign musings of this year’s Wallace-like figure, Donald Trump. Indeed, by the fall of 1968 Wallace was running a strong third in the polls, nipping at the heels of Hubert Humphrey and seemed to poise to potentially win enough states to stop any candidate from winning a majority of electoral votes and thus throw the 1968 election into the House of Representatives.
Then he picked his vice presidential running mate, General Curtis Lemay, and practically overnight, the bottom fell out of his presidential campaign. This adapted excerpt from Michael A. Cohen’s recent book American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division tells the story of perhaps the most disastrous campaign press conference in modern American history – a story that will likely sound very familiar to those who have followed this year’s wacky and seemingly unending presidential campaign.
By the first days of October 1968, George Wallace had reached the apex of his political rise. Featured on the covers of Life, Time, and Newsweek, Wallace, according to the New York Times led in seven states versus only four for Humphrey. His campaign rallies remained as enthusiastic, well-attended, and unruly as ever — twenty thousand greeted him at Boston Commons (far more than Humphrey turned out), and thirteen thousand in Fort Worth. The overflow crowds lapped up his paeans to the policeman and the firefighter, the beautician and the truck driver and his harsh attacks on the anarchists, the hippies, and the meddling, liberal elite. Angry and bigoted taunting of reporters and demonstrators as well as fisticuffs between pro- and anti-Wallace forces was the norm.
As his poll numbers began topping 20 percent Wallace suddenly became a major political problem for both parties. Humphrey worried about Wallace eroding his support among blue-collar workers. Nixon feared losing the votes of disaffected and resentful whites –people who without Wallace in the race were likely to vote Republican. So Nixon soon followed Humphrey’s lead in attacking Wallace.
Nothing the two candidates did, however, could match Wallace’s own self-sabotage in his choice of a running mate. All else being equal, Wallace would have preferred to run alone, but many states required a vice presidential candidate to be on the ballot with him. Wallace’s close aides wanted a national figure, someone who might lend credibility to the ticket while also extending their electoral possibilities outside the Deep South and into places like Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virginia. A. B. (Happy) Chandler, the one-time commissioner of Major League Baseball and former governor and senator from Kentucky, seemed like the perfect candidate.
Wallace, however, was unconvinced. “Well, you know, that fellow’s liberal now . . . . He’s the one . . . that integrated baseball.” Chandler’s tenure had indeed coincided with the breaking of the color barrier by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As governor of Kentucky he had mobilized the National Guard to protect black students integrating previously segregated schools. Further complicating matters, Chandler was unrepentant in his pro–civil rights positions.
As speculation mounted that he would get the vice presidential nod, Chandler told reporters, “I wouldn’t change my record if I could.” Sure enough, as Chandler’s name began to leak, Wallace’s backers publicly denounced the pick.
Wallace quickly reversed course: Chandler was out. He instead turned toward a candidate whose name had floated around the campaign for several weeks — General Curtis LeMay. Wallace, who believed that a military man would appeal to soldiers and veterans, could hardly have done much better than LeMay. During World War II and later as chief of staff of the air force, he became an infamous and, in some circles, heroic military figure. His decision to fire-bomb Japanese cities had killed hundreds of thousands of civilians but also helped to short-circuit an invasion of the Japanese mainland by American troops. In 1948 he had led the successful Berlin airlift during the Soviet siege of the city, and he had enshrined the nation’s nuclear deterrent capabilities as head of the StrategicAir Command.
With his square jaw; gruff, no-nonsense manner; and uncompromising views on the use of military force, he represented the ultimate foreign policy hawk.
LeMay, however, had one glaring liability. When it came to the use of American military force, he was something of a nut. “If you have to go [to war], you want LeMay in the lead bomber,” John F. Kennedy said. “But you never want LeMay deciding whether or not you have to go.” Practically no man in American public life spoke more loudly about the benefits of air power — and countenanced the use of nuclear weapons — than LeMay.
Indeed, in the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove, director and cowriter Stanley Kubrick used him as a model for the flamboyant and hawkish General Buck Turgidson. Unlike Wallace, LeMay was neither a segregationist nor a doctrinaire conservative, but on war and in particular the use of nuclear power he was practically an evangelist. Unsurprisingly, then, even though Wallace’s aides warned LeMay over and over against raising the nuclear issue when preparing for his introductory press conference in Pittsburgh on October 3, LeMay could not leave well enough alone.
It took only one question after Wallace had introduced the general to the assembled reporters and the millions watching on live television to light the firestorm. As a potential vice president, one reporter asked, “What do you feel your experience can bring to the solution of the nation’s domestic problems . . . and secondly, as a potential President, what would be your policy in the employment of nuclear weapons?” Unsurprisingly, LeMay chose to answer the second question first. “We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons,” he replied. “I think to most military men that a nuclear weapon is just another weapon in our arsenal. . . . I think there are many occasions when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons.” With the first words out of his mouth, LeMay had already begun to self-destruct.
After playing down the contamination risks that came from nuclear testing, LeMay argued that while nuclear war would indeed be horrible, “It doesn’t make much difference to me if I have to get killed in the jungle of Vietnam with a rusty knife or get killed with a nuclear weapon. As a matter of fact if I had the choice I’d lean toward the nuclear weapon.” Many Americans at home likely preferred a third option, dying not by a corroded blade or an atom bomb. His efforts at reassurance did little to help. “I don’t believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon,” he told the increasingly slack-jawed reporters, cheerfully noting that after viewing films of Bikini Atoll, which had been the site of numerous nuclear tests, he had become convinced that people were not only exaggerating the dangers but also downplaying the positive side of nuclear weapons. “The fish are all back in the lagoons; the coconut trees are growing coconuts; the guava bushes have fruit on them; the birds are back.” Even the rats had become “bigger, fatter, and healthier than they were ever before.”
Ed Ewing, a Wallace press aide, recalled that when he looked over at his boss, he had “never seen anybody angrier in his life.” An ashen-looking Wallace finally edged up to the microphones. He tried to nudge LeMay aside to clarify matters. “General LeMay hasn’t advocated the use of nuclear weapons, not at all. He discussed nuclear weapons with you. He’s against the use of nuclear weapons and I am too.” It was true LeMay hadn’t actually called for the use of nukes in Vietnam — yet. But the reporters were not about to let LeMay off that easy. Jack Nelson, of the Los Angeles Times, kept pushing the point. “If you found it necessary to end the war, you would use them, wouldn’t you?” LeMay rose to the bait. “If I found it necessary, I would use anything that we could dream up . . . including nuclear weapons, if it was necessary.”
Again Wallace tried to correct the record. LeMay preferred to use no weapon, he said, but if the “security of the country depended on the use of nuclear weapons,” he would, like any national politician, counsel that they be used. Wallace began to walk away from the microphone, assuming – or perhaps hoping — the press conference had finally come to a merciful end.
But the general was not done. “I know that I’m going to come out with a lot of misquotes from this campaign,” said LeMay, demonstrating for the first time that morning actual self-awareness. “And I’ll be damn lucky if I don’t appear as a drooling idiot whose only solution to any problem is to drop atomic bombs all over the world.”
The damage had been done. “Anyone who can speak so lightly about the use of nuclear weapons has no conception of the reality of their terror,” said Humphrey. Henry Reuss, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, more directly captured the sentiments of many. He called LeMay a “Neanderthal.” Even Nixon hit the Wallace-LeMay ticket for its “irresponsibility and excessively hawkish attitudes.”
LeMay’s selection had been intended to boost Wallace’s standing on national security; instead, it reminded voters of the man they had rejected four years earlier, Barry Goldwater.
The Wallace camp tried to argue that the general’s words had been blown out of proportion, but they were so desperate to get LeMay away from reporters that they sent him on a “fact-finding” mission to Vietnam. In the airport in San Francisco, as he prepared to board a flight to the Far East, LeMay was cornered by reporters and somehow found himself saying that China never would have gotten involved in the Korean War had it not been for “traitors” in the United States. “Who are those traitors?” LeMay was asked. “You know who they are as well as I do,” he snapped.
Days after returning from his mission he gave a speech at Yale on environmental conservation, an issue, oddly, that was close to his heart. Though the address would be well received, news headlines were dominated by LeMay’s statement in the question-and-answer period that he favored both birth control and abortion, comments sure to go over badly in the working-class Catholic enclaves in the North on which Wallace increasingly relied.
LeMay’s constant gaffes threw Wallace back on his heels. Compounding his problems, at virtually the same time as the disastrous Pittsburgh press conference, America’s labor unions launched a massive campaign highlighting Wallace’s antilabor record in Alabama.
In the end, Wallace became his own worst enemy. For four years he had reaped political benefit from campaign rallies that teetered on the brink of full-scale riots. After a while the disorder and chaos made him seem less like the man who could clean up America’s problems and more like the person partly responsible for them. Wallace, who once reveled in the abuse he took from hecklers, began looking increasingly haggard and even frightened by the barrage of abuse being hurled at him on the stump. His frustration soon showed. “You’re a little punk,” he growled at one demonstrator. In San Diego, protesters who took the satirical approach of screaming “We Want War” drowned out his remarks. At a rally in Texas, demonstrators yelling “Sieg Heil” were so loud and persistent that he had to leave the stage without finishing his speech. In New Mexico schoolchildren booed him. When he did speak he complained that reporters were distorting his words and claimed that polls showing his numbers slipping had been “rigged by the Eastern Establishment moneyed interests.”
Though Wallace pressed on, his candidacy was clearly in decline. The combination of his own excesses; the counterattacks from Humphrey, Nixon, and labor; and the traditional skepticism that third-party candidates generally receive at the tail end of presidential elections slowed his momentum. The race had become a two-man battle between a newly reinvigorated Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, whose efforts to run out the clock were slowly beginning to unravel.
Michael A. Cohen is a national political columnist for The Boston Globe and a frequent contributor on politics and American foreign policy. Excerpted from American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2016.
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