Weeds: 1968 – a year of great importance

When I was a kid, I liked to fall asleep with the Twins game on the radio. The gentle tones of Herb Carneal lulled me to sleep. Franklin Hobbs played soothing music through the night on WCCO to which I would occasionally wake and drift back to sleep.

On June 5, 1968, the Twins beat the Yankees 7 to 2. I looked it up; I don’t remember the game. The next morning, I remember clearly. I woke to the sound of a CBS newscaster reporting the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The window was open; the chirping of birds mixing with distressed voices coming from my radio.

I was only 12 years old, but I knew this was a moment of high tension. John Kennedy’s assassination was one of my first clear memories. Martin Luther King’s assassination in March was on everyone’s mind.

Moments like that stick in our heads, while myriad others pass unremembered. I bet you can script out the places you were on September 11, 2001, but not September 10, 2001. We remember times of intense tragedy and anxiety. Thankfully moments of joy and bliss stay with us, too. E.g., birth of children.

1968 is a half century in the past. If you are younger than me, you don’t remember much from that year. If you’re older, probably quite a bit. I listened recently to a documentary on Minnesota Public Radio called “The McCarthy Tapes.” It used radio archives from 1968 when Eugene McCarthy made his unlikely push for the White House. It included events beyond politics that made it such a volatile year.

As I listened, I was quite surprised how much I recalled. I was on the living room floor on a Sunday night when Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation, announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” I was listening on the barn radio when chaos overtook the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I was with my mom when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague over our kitchen radio.

I was thinking about the 12-year-old me. I must have been a kid-news junkie. I wonder if my parents thought I was weird caring about this stuff before I’d even discovered girls.

All these events arrived on our farm from a small number of sources. Channel 12 from Mankato was the only TV station we got. KNUJ was the only radio station anyone turned on until I discovered Twins games on WCCO. We got the New Ulm Daily Journal and the Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch. That’s it. Nothing like the thousands of ways news comes to us today.

Books have been written about 1968. The Minnesota Historical Society has “The 1968 Exhibit” up all year. There is a bias where we think the current time, the one we are living in, is critical to our nation and the world. Given the perspective of fifty years passing, that claim holds up for 1968.

While not true mathematically, 1968 was the middle of the “Sixties.” A number of issues were colliding: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war protests: it was as if a long burning fuse found the powder keg.

The year began with the incumbent president heavily favored to win reelection. Lyndon Johnson was a larger than life figure. He had long sought the presidency, but not the way it came to him on a plane back from Dallas in 1963. Important legislation passed during his tenure, but the conflict in Vietnam sucked more and more of his attention.

When 1968 began, a majority of Americans supported the Vietnam War. That was not true at the end of the year. In January, North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive made it clear this would not be the easy victory most had thought. In 1968, 16,899 Americans were killed, the most for any year.

Feb. 16, 1968 is another day I don’t remember. It was a Friday. I was a sixth grader in Mrs. Forster’s room. It was the last day of Gerald Milbrodt’s life, killed in Vietnam. Gerald graduated from Sleepy Eye Public in 1965. He was described by a classmate as a gentle soul and an artist. His was a life cut severely short.

For what ends? More and more Americans were asking that question. Minnesota Senator Gene McCarthy was one of the first national figures to oppose the war. His candidacy galvanized support from young people who vowed to “Get clean for Gene.” I met McCarthy later on at St. John’s University, his alma mater. Out of politics by then, he was a writer and a poet. Perhaps our nation would have benefitted from a poet in the White House.

After McCarthy finished strong in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson made his surprising announcement. Robert Kennedy entered the race along with Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. No one would emerge as a favorite until Kennedy won the California primary. That was on June 4.

Minnesota had an out-sized voice in national politics at the time. Humphrey became prominent at the 1948 Democratic Convention. As the young mayor of Minneapolis, he challenged southern delegates on civil rights, urging the party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” He went on to the Senate, the Vice-Presidency, and the nomination for president in 1968. Gene McCarthy was a good friend, but tensions over Vietnam damaged their relationship.

Walter Mondale replaced his mentor Humphrey in the Senate. He also became Vice-President and nominee for president. Orville Freeman was Secretary of Agriculture when that was an important national position. These Minnesotans were influential for a couple of decades.

It is interesting to think what a Humphrey presidency might have looked like. He was called the Happy Warrior, known for his energy and joyfulness. The Vietnam War chewed up Humphrey’s career like many others.

Richard Nixon did win in 1968, setting in motion a Faustian tale that would end badly six years later. Nixon was intelligent and savvy. Between Vietnam and Watergate, he gets credit for some large accomplishments: opening up China, arms reduction with Russia, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. This was back when Democrats and Republicans could work together.

(I never thought I would look back nostalgically on Richard Nixon. Current circumstances compel that.)

Sociologists point to the Sixties as a time when trust in institutions declined. While there was never pure support for government, churches, and business, there was not the level of cynicism that took root and remains with us today.

You can find sentiment that things were “better” before the Sixties. Increased tolerance of drugs and sexual license came with costs. But if we go back to the Fifties we’d find racism festering in many places. Domestic abuse was tolerated. If you were gay, you were bullied and worse. It’s complicated. It’s always complicated.

The Beatles’ White Album came out that year. I would discover that much later. In 1968, I was a chubby kid with a heinie haircut, desperately uncool. I was watching Walter Cronkite, not listening to records.

Walt ended every broadcast with something like this: “And that’s the way it is, 1968. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News; good night.”