Forty years ago, this country entered what would turn out to be the most politically charged, disorienting, violent and tragic year in modern American history. The year we're now heading into has some surface similarities to 1968: a protracted and wrenching war in Asia, an unpopular president, a wide-open presidential campaign and raw-nerve controversies over civil rights (with gays and immigrants this time) and geopolitics (featuring jihadists instead of communists). The murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan is another awful reminder of 1968, when two American heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, lost their lives to assassins.
History repeating itself: It's a tidy premise. In fact, it's irresistible and wrong, but wrong in interesting ways that shed light on both years. Sure, elements of '68 persist in the world and in America today (because folly is durable), but the difference between 2008 and 1968 is the difference between needing psychotherapy and requiring a brain transplant.
In 1968, the country came close to political disintegration. Authority wasn't merely questioned; it literally lost control. The Tet Offensive in late January 1968 shocked those who had assumed we were winning the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson essentially quit his job on live television. Days later, the apostle of nonviolent resistance was gunned down in Memphis. The cities burned.
Just like today, millions of people vehemently opposed the war, but for many of them it was a highly personal matter: The military announced in early 1968 that it would draft 300,000 more troops. Americans were dying in Vietnam by the dozens and even the hundreds every week. Countless young people lost all confidence in the ordered, officially sanctioned version of reality.
My Washington Post colleague, David Maraniss, a college freshman in 1968 (he wrote a book, "They Marched Into Sunlight," about events on campus and in Vietnam in the fall of 1967), recalls: "There was a mood that anything was possible, good or bad, that life was changing by the week, that something a week or a month ago seemed old all of a sudden. You didn't know what was going to happen. It was kind of dizzying and exhilarating and tragic all of those things at once."
The big question is not why 2008 has so many echoes of 1968, but why the two years are so different.
No draft, obviously. And technology may have supplanted politics as the dominant agent of change. Information runs riot, not protesters. The news cycle spins so much faster; for every action there is an instant reaction. The odd result is not a world where things are out of control, but one in which issues get quickly categorized, organized, bureaucratized and, if necessary, outsourced. Everything is more precisely measured and calibrated. There's an expert for every problem just ask Google.
On the campaign trail, you will occasionally feel an aftershock of the '60s. Sen. John McCain is still tweaking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for earmarking $1 million for that "hippie museum" at the site of the Woodstock festival, which took place while he was a POW in Hanoi. A demonstrator at the Iowa straw poll a few months back carried a sign saying, "Defeat Hillary Clinton and Jane Fonda." Sen. Barack Obama, trying to cruise a high road, declares that we shouldn't refight the battles of the 1960s.
This may be the most unpredictable political year since 1968, when Johnson, stunned by rising anti-war sentiment and Sen. Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, announced that he wouldn't seek another term. Kennedy jumped into the race. Long viewed as a ruthless operator and Cold Warrior, Kennedy had transformed himself into a liberal, inciting frenzied adulation rock-star stuff as he took his campaign into impoverished rural towns and inner-city ghettoes.
Where is the spirit of that Kennedy campaign? Certainly with Obama, who's so often described as Kennedyesque. But you can also find it in the candidacy of John Edwards.
A week before Christmas, Edwards stopped in Keene, a small city in a valley in the southwest corner of New Hampshire prime turf for liberals, leftists, artists, organic farmers, college professors. Edwards brought Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne as his warm-up act. They sounded terrific, the lyrics saturated in idealism:
"Things like hunger, greed and hatred
"One way or another, gonna be eradicated"
Out came Edwards, and he was on fire. The former senator talked about ending the war in Iraq and taking power away from big corporations. He said 35 million Americans last year went hungry. He talked about the uninsured Americans who must take their sick kids to the emergency room in the middle of the night and beg for treatment. He talked about a man who spent 50 years with a cleft palate, unable to talk, without money or insurance to pay for an operation that would finally let him speak. "In America," he said. His rhetoric could easily have come from Kennedy or King in early 1968. He predicted that he will ride a wave of popular sentiment that will shock the mainstream. He was, in essence, describing what in the '60s would have been known as The Movement.
Therein lies his challenge: Can a candidate inspire a popular movement in a society that over the last 40 years has cubbyholed itself into self-selected social groups and generally been co-opted by consumerism?
The polls indicate massive anti-war sentiment in America, but if 500,000 people descended on the Mall anytime recently to protest what's happening in Iraq, I missed it. The only way people would riot in this country is if you announced that Best Buy just got in a new shipment of Wiis. There are only about three or four people in America who still talk about The Revolution, and they all live in treehouses.
The feverish rhetoric and verbal mayhem of the blogosphere is deceptive: America on the whole isn't as political as it was in 1968. In Iowa, many citizens told me they have no intention of going to the caucuses. Why not? It's simply not something they do. What they don't articulate is the obvious fact: They just don't care.
Todd Gitlin, a Movement veteran and the author of "The Sixties," says 1968 still stands apart.
"You have one president who's disgraced by a war and cuts short what had been one of the brilliant political careers of the century, you have the Democratic Party cracking up, you have two major assassinations, you have a growing number of American students who think they're on the brink of, or on their way to, a revolution. You have a political secession of the white South amidst a civil rights revolution," Gitlin told me. "You have millions of people thinking the end of history is at hand."
You can see that side of 1968 in the face of Bobby Kennedy in a framed photo in Frank Mankiewicz's living room.
Mankiewicz served as Kennedy's press secretary for those thrilling, chaotic, ultimately tragic 85 days from March to June of 1968. The black-and-white photo shows Kennedy RFK conferring with Mankiewicz on April 4; they're aboard a plane flying from Muncie, Ind., to Indianapolis, where Kennedy is scheduled to go into the black part of town and give a speech about race and poverty. But Kennedy's forehead is furrowed, his whole face heavy with the weight of horrible news: Martin Luther King has been shot in Memphis.
They got to Indianapolis and motorcaded toward the event, but the police peeled away because they didn't want to go into the black neighborhoods. Mankiewicz had thrown together a speech, but by the time he reached the stage, Kennedy was already speaking, extemporaneously. To gasps, he told his listeners that King had been killed. He said he understood their pain, because he, too, had lost a family member to violence. Then he quoted his favorite poet, Aeschylus, by heart: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
Mankiewicz still has the yellow sheet of paper with the notes he jotted down for Kennedy's last speech, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of June 4. Kennedy, celebrating his victory in the California primary, extemporized once again.
"I think we can end the divisions within the United States," Kennedy told his supporters. "(W)e can work together in the last analysis. ... We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country."
Minutes later, Mankiewicz was helping Ethel Kennedy off the stage when he heard what at first he thought might be firecrackers.
He rushed to Kennedy's side. He heard him say one word: "Noooooooo."
Charles Kaiser's book "1968 in America" quotes a young college student who despaired after Kennedy's RFK's murder: "It really was like the last straw that there was no longer reason to hope for anything; that the world was now just totally off its rocker, and that evil was ascendant."
Evil may have been ascendant, but ultimately, it could not vanquish the dream of King and Kennedy. People do, in fact, prefer to work together. And so it is that, 40 years later, the world is so much smaller, so highly networked. No one in 1968 had heard of the Internet or the cell phone cellphone or nanotechnology. Or the Human Genome Project. Or the "Information Age."
Today's America looks rich and fat and comfortable compared with the 1968 version. In fact, many of our chief challenges come from the consequences of our economic successes: transferring carbon from Earth to the atmosphere, income inequality, suburban sprawl.
At the moment, no one can tell who the presidential nominees will be. What's also uncertain is how much the identity of the next president will matter, at least compared with other cultural and technological vectors. Truly revolutionary change seems more likely to come from physics than from politics.Of course, we can't predict anything about the future with confidence, except that it will surprise us. It's highly probable that 2048 will be radically different from 2008. History replays certain notes, but it shouldn't be slandered as circular. The world is just more interesting than that.