For the first election in which I was eligible to vote, 1968, I began the year as a supporter of Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam War candidate for President. Only a handful of political leaders took on the challenge to oppose the war. The opinion polls indicated that a majority of U.S. citizens still supported the war even though the reasons for it changed with the calendar. Some military analysts stated that the U.S. would have to prosecute the war for another thirty years before any resolution could be expected. Already we had used more armaments than we had during the entire Second World War, and the prospects of suffering in Southeast Asia and loss of life for everyone involved would surpass that war if the analysts were correct.
When Bobby Kennedy joined the campaign, I did not immediately move to support him, even though I knew that he had a better chance of mounting a successful campaign than McCarthy. His willingness to join the war opposition seemed late and calculated, depending on the courage of McCarthy and others to clear the way. Nonetheless I knew that I would vote for Kennedy when the time came. Sirhan Sirhan removed that possibility in the wake of the successful Kennedy campaign in California.
Next came the Chicago convention and the disastrous clashes between demonstrators and police that alienated people on all sides. The convention nominated a stalwart and hard-working liberal, Hubert Humphrey, who in ordinary times would have seemed an outstanding selection to win the office. Humphrey had been supportive in his role as President Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, but as a candidate he tried to conciliate between those who supported and those who opposed the war, without specifying changes in the conduct of it. Republican candidate Richard Nixon promised that he had a plan for ending the war, but he was no more specific in describing his plan than Humphrey. Perhaps, given Nixon’s history, people could have foreseen that his plan for ending the war involved a major escalation in waging it, doubling the deaths and destruction, but a majority of voters chose Nixon and his secret plan.
Having my own views of the histories of Nixon and Humphrey, I opted reluctantly to support Humphrey. In this first election I also decided to work for him, canvassing the precinct including our apartment in Hyde Park on Chicago’s south side. I volunteered at precinct headquarters and was assigned to a Mr. White, a distinguished Jewish gentleman. While we worked together in his precinct, he invited me into his home, my wife and me to join him and his wife for a meal, and to worship with them at their Reform synagogue.
Mr. White had endured through many decades of Chicago politics and somehow remained idealistic. His work for Senator Paul Douglas and Alderman Leon Despres had given him sufficient hope to keep at it. Somehow he had managed to negotiate the tortuous route between the Chicago Democratic “machine,” the needs of people in his precinct, and his sense of the larger world beyond the city. He and his wife were the only bright spots in what proved to be a disappointing election.