I was preparing to enter the sixth grade the summer of 1968 and had become fascinated with the political system in the United States. We had been taught a little about the subject in the fifth grade and during my sixth grade year would be the first presidential election that I was aware enough of to follow.
Sixty-eight was a rough year in the United States. The anti-war movement against the Vietnam war was climaxing in an ugly way. Martin Luther King had been assassinated earlier in the year on April fourth. His assassination divided the country even more than it already was. There were riots in the streets of all the major cities and the National Guard had been called upon to enforce curfews and keep the cities under lawful control. Tanks were not an uncommon sight in the cities immediately following King's assassination.
President Johnson was trying his best to keep the country under control and to insure our way of life but things were spinning too fast for him to keep up with what was going on in the country. Part of it was the President's own fault as he had increased the number of troops in Vietnam to try to win a winless war. His approval ratings had dropped through the basement and he stood practically zero percent chance of even coming close to being reelected in November. For the first time in a very long time a sitting President had decided not to run for reelection. Johnson had taken over the Presidency when President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas in sixty three. Kennedy was a very popular President and Johnson simply could not make up the difference between himself and the fallen President.
With the sitting President out of the running a slew of candidates came out of the woodwork to challenge for the prize. Among those were Eugene McCarthey, Robert Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. All of these men were more than well qualified for the position but each had obstacles to over come.
McCarthey was considered far too liberal to run the country. The biggest part of his campaign was to immediately withdraw all troops from Vietnam. It was a stance he would not be able to over come. Vice-President Humphrey was associated too closely with President Johnson. People equaled him with Johnson and during the primary season if you were for Humphrey, you might as well had been for Johnson. Richard Nixon had a past with some controversies when he was Vice President to President Eisenhower. He had ran for President in sixty losing to the ever popular President Kennedy and then had lost a run at the California Governor office to Pat Brown. Nixon's political career was considered to be over and this run for the presidency was there because the Republicans simply did not have anyone that looked like they could pull it off.
Then there was Robert Kennedy. He had been his brothers Attorney General and was presently the Senator from Massachusetts. He carried the Kennedy name was was aligned in the minds of many people with his brother John. He was very intelligent and not too liberal. He did have a plan for getting the United States out of Vietnam. If possible, it might be said that he was even more popular and better liked than his brother the President.
I had been following the primaries since New Hampshire. I had listened to campaign speeches and I had listened to victory speeches that were given after each primary. In June they were entering the final stages of the primary season. Nixon looked to have the Republican nomination and while it was close because Kennedy had entered the race late, It looked as though Kennedy was going to overtake the Vice President and win the Democratic nomination. It was setting up for a fascinating election between Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Would it be as close as the sixty election or would Kennedy run away with it.
The general feeling was that Kennedy could defeat Humphrey but that Nixon would have a very tough time against Robert Kennedy if any chance at all.
The California primary was held on June sixth of that hot summer. Kennedy had been on an impressive winning streak in the primaries and looked to be on the verge of wrapping up the nomination. He was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angelas to give his victory speech for the California primary. As always it was a good speech. He gave a gracious speech with a lot of class. There was a sense about him that night that nothing could keep him from winning the White House in November.
It was very late by the time he finished his speech and left the platform surrounded by supporters pressing in to shake his hand and to congratulate him. As Kennedy left the stage Walter Cronkite began to reiterate what the Senator had said in victory. Cronkite was giving an analysis of what this victory meant to the Democrats that were still in the race.
Suddenly Cronkite stopped talking. The screen went blank and a special bulletin was posted on the screen. Cronkite's face was back on the screen only it did not look as fatherly and confident as it usually did. He looked a little panicked. He then said they were going to a small hallway in the kitchen of the hotel where Robert Kennedy had just been shot.
It was a mad scene. They announced they had captured the gunman who had shot Kennedy from almost point blank range in the back of the head. People were screaming and yelling and everyone was moving in different directions. Then they tried to clear the area around the Senator to give him space to get air to breathe. There he was. A puddle of blood underneath his head, his arms stretched out and his eyes rather blank and staring off into space. Robert Kennedy was slowly losing his battle for life there on the floor of the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel.
I was up by myself watching as the scene played out. I had witnessed an assassination live on television. It seemed surreal. it was the second time in less than three months that an assassination of a major leader in the United States had occurred. Sixty Eight was only half over and the country was falling apart in shreds.
Everyone in the country wondered what was happening to our country. We had lost Robert Kennedy that night and had Lost Martin Luther King in April. This was not what the United States was suppose to be like. The primaries continued and the political parties held their conventions in August as always. There were riots in Chicago where the Democrats met and Mayor Daley had let loose the police and National Guard onto the protestors that filled the Chicago streets. Free speech was suspended for four days in Chicago that year. Hubert Humphrey would win the Democratic nomination and run a losing campaign to Richard Nixon who would resign the presidency in seventy four before his second term was completed. His Vice President Spiro Agnew would also resign and so for the first time we would have President that was not elected by the people of the United States as Gerald Ford took over the job of finally trying to bring the country together that had been ripped apart since April of sixty eight.
When Jimmy Carter took over the Presidency in seventy six, the country was finally putting 1968 behind and starting to look towards the future.
Nineteen sixty eight was a year that formed a lot of my beliefs and philosophies even though I was but a youngster at the time. Somethings you never forget. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were two of those things for me.