It has been forty five years gone by this summer since what I consider the year that I started noticing the world outside of Missouri. I was eleven years old as 1968 rolled onto the history rolls and I began to become aware of seeing Walter Cronkite every night at 5:30 in the evening. No matter where I happened to be Cronkite would be on the television every evening. My parents were staunch followers of Cronkite as were my grandparents. He was called the most trusted man in America and from what I remember, that was pretty much true.
Cronkite did not report the news as they do now. Cronkite gave facts and would let the viewer interpret what it meant to them. That is how I remember it anyway. Cronkite would tell the facts then once or twice during the broadcast a reporter out in the field would make a report from the scene of the story so that you could picture what was going on a little clearer. Today's newscasts seem to go out of their way to tell you what it means instead of just giving you the story. As a matter of fact, there is a commercial on the Oprah Winfrey Network that has Tom Brokaw, another very well respected news anchor, saying that people don't want you just to tell them the story, they want you to tell them what it means. This is where the news industry has gone wrong over the last forty five years. This is why if you are a conservative any argument you give for an opinion is disregarded if you quote from Fox News, or if you are a liberal the same holds if you quote from MSNBC. The news organizations have agendas now. Forty five years ago, you couldn't tell what Cronkite's political leanings were, and that is how it should be.
Back to 1968 though. I started the year an eleven year old in fifth grade and would end the year as a twelve year old in sixth grade. Between January first and December thirty first, there would be a summer that would live forever in history. It was probably the most turbulent time in American History aside from the Civil War years and the founding of the country.
It was the year that we began to look at current events in school. Instead of show and tell on Fridays, we would have to cut out an article from the newspaper of a current event and write what we thought about it and share it with the class. It was an eye opening experience for me.
I was aware of a war being fought in a country called Vietnam but had not paid much attention to it until that year. It seemed that every night there would be a report from Morley Safer from Vietnam as he sat with the troops who were fighting the war. Americans who had never seen war before suddenly were observing what war was like for the first time. Every night at the end of the broadcast, Cronkite would give the tally for the number of soldiers killed and wounded of both the Viet Cong and the United States. The numbers were sobering as I realized that these were people actually dying in an effort to preserve freedom for people who did not want to come under totalitarian rule. At one point I must have come to realize that one day, I might be one of those soldiers in Vietnam fighting for the American ideal of freedom as the leaders of the free world. It was then that I started to pay close attention to the war and the film that Safer was sending home to be televised every night.
On January 30, 1968 I became aware that in war, there are really no rules. It was the lunar New Year, otherwise known as Tet. Tet was almost like Christmas to the Americans. There had been an agreement that had held for years that Tet would be met with a ceasefire from all sides in the conflict. Tet of 1968 the agreement was broken. The Viet Cong attacked through out South Vietnam striking cities and hamlets and bases catching the Americans and South Vietnamese by surprise. It was one of the most devastating days in the history of the war. I think that Tet of 1968 was what really woke me up to taking an interest in world events, politics, along with the civil rights movement. It was also at this time that I took notice of the differences between two men that would effect my political philosophy for the rest of my life. The two men were President Johnson and Richard Nixon. These two men served as my baptism into politics and Nixon won. At the time it just seemed that he made more sense then the President and the President had been widening the war for a long time. My family was totally Democratic and so I held my own thoughts to myself until much later in my life, not wanting to be beat down by my very intelligent Grandfather and Father when it came to talking politics.
The next big event happened on April 4th of that year. Summer was just around the corner and the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a crescendo. Huge strides had been made but much was left to be done when the movement's leader, Martin Luther King, checked into a Memphis motel that day. King was standing out on the balcony of the motel when gunshots rang out. King was fatally wounded. He was not the only civil rights leader to give his life in the quest for equality and the freedom of all Americans, but his was the most devastating. I remember watching news reports that night as riots broke out across the country as anger at Dr. Kings assassination erupted. Several cities, including Kansas City, were issued a curfew to try to get things under control. The National Guard was dispatched to major cities to help with law enforcement. It was a senseless killing that showed how far the country had yet to go in trying to change the mindset of so many people who did not like the agenda of the civil rights movement. It was another eye opener for this eleven year old.
That year was an election year for the Presidency. President Johnson had decided not to run for re-election and so both parties had primaries that were wide open for anyone to win. As the primary season wound down, it began to become clear that Richard Nixon would be the Republican Nominee and Robert Kennedy would represent the Democrats. Then Came the evening of June 5 in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just won the California primary and clinched the nomination for President. I was up watching television that night as he gave his speech at a hotel. After his speech he was walking out the hotel through the kitchen. I remember watching Cronkite after the speech and suddenly they switched to the kitchen area, where Kennedy was lying on the floor, on his back, with a pool of blood forming under his head. He had be shot and would die within hours. It was the second assassination during this year of turmoil. It seemed the country was falling apart.
To further cement the impression that the country was on the edge of mass chaos, in August the Democrats met in Chicago for their convention, which the outcome had drastically changed since Kennedy's death. The youth of America took to the streets of Chicago protesting the policies of President Johnson, which was seen as the policies of the entire Democratic Party. Mayor Daley countered the youthful protesters with what seemed like the entire Chicago police force. Every night for four days, the country was witnessing more chaos in the streets of Chicago then they were seeing what was going on inside the convention center. While Miami hosted the Republicans that year who peacefully nominated Richard Nixon, the Democrats struggled between the riots outside the hall and the political fight inside the hall. They came away nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey to take on Nixon in November. It was looking to be a battle of political titans.
The election would be seriously effected when Governor George Wallace of Alabama decided to make a third party run at the White House. Rarely do third parties effect an election much, but this was when the country was coming to terms with civil rights and one section of the country did not approve of Johnson's civil rights act. That was the southern states. These states were usually counted on by the Democrats but in 1968, Governor Wallace would siphon away those valuable states and give Richard Nixon the prize he was denied eight years earlier. I sat up that election night and listened to Walter Cronkite tally up the votes as they came in from east coast to west coast. It was early in the evening when it became apparent that Wallace was going to sweep the southeastern states. At about midnight that night, Walter Cronkite finally said that Richard Nixon would be the next President of the United States. It was the first time I had sat up for an election watch. It was the first time I had witnessed a President being elected. It is a memory I still carry with me. Out of all the chaos of politics in 1968, the country survived and elected a president through the process set up by the Constitution and in January 1969 a peaceful transfer of power would take place as it always has in this country. This is one of the major things that make this country so great. We don't have coups, or revolutions, but rather we choose this transfer of power every four years and the country keeps going. After watching the returns that November night, I had a new appreciation for our process and for the way our country worked.
The whole year of 1968 was wild and unpredictable. Two major political assassinations, either one of which could have disrupted the country even holding elections had occurred. Two very special men with very special agendas and promise were cut down in their prime and the country still suffers from those two events.
Now, I would be amiss if I didn't mention something else that was very special that happened in 1968. On October 2, 1968 Bob Gibson took to the mound to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. These two teams had dominated their respective leagues all season long and it was surely going to be a great Series. Bob Gibson did the unthinkable that sunny day in St. Louis as he struck out SEVENTEEN Tigers. The Cardinals Beat the Tigers and Denny McClain, who had won 31 games that year, 4-0. Fittingly, the Series would go the full seven games ending with the Detroit Tigers winning game 7 and the Championship in St. Louis.