Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Year of Years:1968

If you are of my vintage you remember with crystalline clarity the place and circumstance of a handful of events outside your personal sphere. For me they were the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of RFK, the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and 911 which happened on my 60th birthday. Of the three that happened in 1968, MLK, RFK and the Chicago riots, I had a peripheral connection to two.

I had become friends with a David Gaon, a young lawyer at Baskin Robbins. And, while I don’t remember having strong political feelings, I must have tilted left. On the night of June 4 David and his wife and Peggy and I drove to the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park to hear Bobby Kennedy speak. Early in 1968 Kennedy decided that he had to speak out against the Viet Nam War, racial injustice and income inequality and that was the substance of his towering speech that evening. We were transfixed. At 12:50am Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. He was 42 years old.

In August I was in Chicago for my first Baskin Robbins annual convention which happened to coincide with the DNC. We spent the day writing slogans for the new flavors of ice cream that we were introducing and would perform skits later that day to reveal the flavors. How I got lumped with the marketing types I don't recall. One of new tastes was Orange Marmalade Ice for which I wrote the catchy and oh so flavorful line, “Spread it on your muffin.”

Later that steamy August 28 about 10,000 protesters gathered at Grant park for a demonstration against the Vietnam War. In mid-afternoon a young demonstrator began lowering the flag that was flying. The police broke through the crowd and began beating the young man. The crowd responded by pelting them with food, beverage bottles and rocks.

For the rest of the day and especially during the night the police attacked the protestors without restraint. Violence was inflicted on people who had broken no law, had disobeyed no order and presented no threat. Peaceful demonstrators, onlookers and residents who lived in the neighborhoods where the protests were being held were beaten and tear gassed.

From the Sheraton Blackstone Hotel I saw the tear gas envelope Grant Park a scant two blocks away and watched Mayor Daley’s goons bludgeon peaceful protestors. As I watched from my room on the fifth floor, CBS News was capturing the mayhem on the streets and at the convention center. On the CBS Nightly News Walter Cronkite, America’s most trusted person, decried the violence as “police brutality. He removed his glasses and wiped a tear from his left cheek.

At the convention itself, CBS reporter Dan Rather was manhandled by security guards when he attempted to interview a Georgia delegate who was being removed from the hall. The cameras turned their attention to Rather as he was approaching the delegate, “What is your name, sir? he asked. At that moment he was grabbed by the guards. He could be heard telling the guards “don’t push me” and “take your hand off me unless you plan to arrest me.” All of this on national television.

When he was released, the breathless Rather told Cronkite:

“Walter…we tried to talk to the man and we got violently pushed out of the way. This is the kind of thing that had been happening outside the hall, this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall. We…I’m sorry I’m out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that. What happened is a Georgia delegate, at least he had a Georgia delegate sign on, was being taken out of the hall. We tried to talk to him to see why, who he was, what the situation was, and at that instant, well as you can see, they put me on the deck. I didn’t do very well.”

An angry Cronkite tersely replied, “I think way we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan. If I may say so.”

A 20-year-old intern, Chris Wallace, was working in the CBS newsroom that summer. He remembers smelling the tear gas floating above Michigan Avenue. He watched police beat the anti-war protesters with Billy clubs. On the street his father Mike Wallace was assaulted by a policeman and arrested.

We lost our innocence in 1968. The pointless tragedy of Vietnam and the corrosive Nixon White House abetted by the Republican Party arose from mistakes of the sixties: errors and miscalculations built on a foundation of hubris and lies dating back to post-war Indo China and which were perpetuated through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. Kennedy had known the war couldn’t be won since he took office in 1960. So, too, did Johnson and Nixon but each allowed young Americans to continue to die. In fact, the bulk of those 57,000 deaths occurred after 1968 when it was already clear we could not win. Cynical isn't the half of it. General Westmoreland lifted his granite jaw and lied about the numbers. Robert McNamara knew but hid the truth. The war lasted seven more years. And for nothing.

John Laurence, a CBS reporter in the ground in Viet Nam recently looked back. “As a citizen [in 1968] I was worried that the country was being polarized as never before and that no good would come of it. I had to wait 50 years before having the same worries again.” Past is prologue.

Laurence’s reporting had led Cronkite, a former World War Two correspondent, travel to Viet Nam early in 1968.

“He had been hearing all of those lies from the Pentagon about how well it was going for three years,” said Cronkite’s senior producer, Ronald Bonn. “All of a sudden it exploded in every city in Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s trip led to a prime-time special on the war which aired on February 28, 1968. The broadcast was a watershed moment for television news in that Walter Cronkite declared that there was no victory in sight for the United States.

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” said the wise man. It was worse than a stalemate. It’s not a tie when you turn tail and your enemy gets the whole country. Walter. We lost that war.

To this day, conservative wags will say that Cronkite’s testimonial dampened support for the war effort. John Laurence dismisses that talk.

“All the optimists who argued that we were winning did a terrible disservice to our country. They really didn’t know what they were talking about. So, too, do the revisionists of today who would have people believe that Walter was undermining the war by being truthful about what he had learned.” Truth to power.

Cronkite’s even-handed reporting had become the television industry standard. His willingness to offer his interpretation based on the facts as he understood them gave birth to the blend of fact and opinion that prevails today, for good and sometimes ill.

On June 6, the day after Bobby Kennedy’s murder, and perhaps prompted by Cronkite’s February voyage into truth telling, NBC’s David Brinkley warned that political assassination was putting the country in the danger of becoming a police state. “And in a police state, people don’t shoot politicians, politicians shoot the people.”

In an autocracy those in power will do anything to maintain control. Read Russia, Turkey, Nicaragua and Venezuela and the heart of despotism, Africa. Which countries will join the descent into authoritarianism? Hungary, Poland, the United States? What could possibly go wrong when only 25% of the population believes that democracy is essential to its wellbeing (that number was 80% a generation ago)? And the legislative branch is unwilling to exercise its constitutional obligation to check the executive and appears to believe its first duty is to “protect” the president and the party before the nation.

Assault on the free press is always part of the path to dictatorship or military rule. Any coverage not entirely supportive of the Dear Leader is suppressed. To Nixon the press was the enemy. Echoes of that sentiment reverberate in the White House today. Attacking the press is a song out of the Hitler and Mussolini hymnal and is a device used by every tinpot dictator in history. Control the press, better yet be the press, and you’ll control minds. Hear one song and one song only and soon you’ll soon know all the words and believe every one of them. There’s nothing particularly inventive at play. There’s no need to reinvent the formula. The formula works.

Thomas Jefferson told John Jay in 1786, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it." And later, "The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by a despotic government."

The danger is real.


Chris said...

Wow Steve, I don't have words to express how moved I am by today's blog post; so I'll just say thank you for your insight which is so important. I am deeply sorry that as human beings we have to continue to live the same nightmares over and over.

Blacks Crossing said...

This is easily one of your best written works to date, Steve, and I, like Chris, was moved by it in so many ways. I had set my mind to work for Robert Kennedy in 1968 and like so many, his assassination crushed something very deep. The year did feel like the one during which America would be ripped to shreds. It is doubly sobering that the similarities to 2018 are so striking. We can hope that members in Congress now will soon find their courage somewhere. But it could be that the press, judiciary, and the people will once again save the Republic. Many, many thanks for your work, Steve. An elegant piece of writing.

j. Madison Rink said...

Outstanding piece and history, Steve! Thank you!

Steve Immel said...

Thanks to all of you. 1968 left quite and impression on all of us it seems. That piece could have been three times longer there's so much to say about 1968 and 2018 in juxtaposition.

Anonymous said...

Powerful article Steve.