Thursday, February 17, 2011

Russell Baker and President Robert Kennedy?

RFKThere have been many exciting and pivotal presidential elections.  But I am most intrigued by the election of 1968, largely because of its political turmoil and my obsession with the campaign as an 18-year-old.  High drama permeated this election, and I think that it was a story for the ages.

Here is a recap of the campaign.  A poor showing against Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary and the albatross of Vietnam prompted President Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal in March.  (See earlier blog:  http://www.ghostofherodotus.com/2011/01/gene-mccarthy-runs-for-president-1968.html

Senator Robert Kennedy entered the Democratic race but was assassinated in June, two months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Vice President Hubert Humphrey gained the tainted Democratic nomination after a violent convention in Chicago.  Humphrey closed the gap with Republican rival Richard Nixon, but it was too late; Nixon won with a razor-thin popular vote and a comfortable electoral vote.  Potential third-party spoiler George Wallace fell far short with 46 electoral votes.

Various guidebooks came out before and during the election.   Among those that I still have is something called Elections 1968, published before the primaries by the now-defunct National Observer newspaper.  Another is entitled The Official Voters’ Guide 1968, released after the conventions, and it included the nominees’ profiles and the party platforms.

A different kind of book, one which might now be seen as alternative history, was a novella published by columnist Russell Baker ahead of the election year, Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections.  I read it went it first came out and recently re-read it. 

Baker’s tale takes a sometimes satirical direction, reflecting keen insights on politics and also highlighting the vagaries of presidential politics.  He produces a brisk story which relies on a “what if” scenario that some pundits considered when George Wallace’s candidacy emerged.

Not anticipating Kennedy’s death, the author presents the Democrats’  ticket as Lyndon Johnson-Robert Kennedy.  A deadlocked Republican convention is manipulated by kingmaker Richard Nixon to accept a John Lindsay-John Tower (Texas senator) ticket.   Lindsay, the New York mayor, falls four electoral votes short of victory, partly because of a strong showing by Wallace.

The House of Representatives then follows the 12th Amendment and meets to choose a President, with each state having one vote.  This process was used successfully in 1824 but not in this fictional election; the vote becomes deadlocked.

Baker’s story then moves to the Senate, which makes a temporary selection.  The 20th Amendment states:  “That if a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term…then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate selects Kennedy as vice president and, therefore, acting president.  In an amusing end, it is clear that Kennedy will treat his assumption of office as permanent; he has legally usurped the presidency from Lyndon Johnson. 

Baker, who has written humor columns, nicely blends politics and irony to tell an intriguing and credible story.  And yet, the actual election of 1968 was a dramatic event, one with so many twists and turns that it, too, is reminiscent of a riveting novel.

2 comments:

  1. Jeff Greenfield recently wrote a book called

    Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (Hardcover)

    which includes a replay of the 1968 election (this is one where RFK does not get assassinated. rthe other two scnearios are JFK getting killed in December 1960 and Ford winning in 1976 setting up a 1980 Gary hart vs Ronald Reagan election

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Sammy. I am currently reading it and enjoying it; I'm eager to finish it. Greenfield certainly is a good and knowledgeable writer. These "what if" histories, if well done, are thought provoking.

    It is fascinating to think how single events (elections, deaths, etc.) can have an important impact on history.

    Suppose, for example, FDR retained Henry Wallace as his vice president in 1944 instead of selecting Harry Truman? Many, many other examples.

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