To answer those questions it will probably take some time to get a perspective. But I must admit, the sense that things are coming apart at the seams is intense in this summer's oppressive heat. Yes, with triple-digit heat day after day, there is a doomsday feeling about what is going down inside the beltway this summer.
The first time I can remember fearing that our society was coming unglued was in the summer of 1968, immediately after the riots in Chicago surrounding the Democratic convention. I felt moved to express that feeling in a letter I wrote to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s editorial page; that was the first time my thoughts about politics received any sort of public airing.
The events of 1968 unfolded the year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love. It was the year before American astronauts walked on the moon and the Amazing Mets won the World Series. It was a year in which we almost burned down the house.
Here’s some of how the political news played out that year, as I remember it:
Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces. Subsequently, as captives, its 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its country was too strong for such a thing to happen.
Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults taking place in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked/penetrated.
Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”
Apr. 5: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary. In Richmond, it ended an era; young adventurous whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized.
May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France itself was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, airports were closed, as were schools, etc.
May 24: Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got six years for destroying federal property by pouring duck blood over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.
June 5: Having just won the California primary Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night, since it’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Just as JFK’s death in 1963 had played into the radical escalation of the war in Vietnam, in 1968 RFK’s death meant it would go on for several more years.
June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime still linger today.
Aug. 21: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.
Aug 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets, CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched on the convention floor.
Nov. 5: Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey himself was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy; it cost him dearly. Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.
Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, North Korea released the 83 members of the Pueblo’s crew. The U.S. Navy had to just suck up the humiliation.
The Republican Tea Party caucus has been telling us how bad life is with President Barack Obama in the White House. They would have us believe that life in America has never been as bad or scary as it is in 2011; forget history, altogether, or you‘ll be labeled as an “elite,” looking down on some of their lowbrow celebrities. To prove their claim these self-styled patriots/economic terrorists seem ready to put us all on the road to hell, by sabotaging America’s economy.
If it gets much hotter this month that road to hell thing will get all the more believable. So far 2011 isn’t 1968, but we still have five months left.