Cover Story: Then And Now

How today's political climate mirrors 1968 ... and how it doesn't

Sean Hughes


His hair is white, and he steadies his step with a cane as he takes a seat on a sofa in the living room of his home in Clifton. He turned 87 in March. He reaches back in time to that turbulent year 40 years ago, arguably the most tumultuous year in the second half of the 20th century. Maybe in all of American history.

John J. Gilligan ran against U.S. Sen. Frank Lausche in the Democratic primary in 1968. Lausche had previously served as governor of Ohio.

"Part of the issue was the (Vietnam) war, and I was a peacenik," Gilligan recalls. "The odds were formidable against my winning. But young people got revved up."

By 1968, Gilligan had served on Cincinnati City Council and one term as a U.S. Congressman.

Little known across the state, he nonetheless defeated Lausche, and it signaled perhaps a changing America, beginning in Ohio.

Gilligan went to Chicago for the Democratic Convention in August, hoping to influence the outcome of the presidential election. But Chicago ended up something of a political disaster for the Democrats, and Gilligan's anti-war platform was rebuffed by party leaders.

That fall, Gilligan, who would be elected Ohio governor two years later, narrowly lost to William Saxbe, a Republican, for the U.S. Senate. The outcome mirrored Richard Nixon's national victory.

1968 was both energizing and enervating. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a Minnesota Democrat challenging President Lyndon Johnson, captured an extraordinary 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary in early March. New York Sen. Robert Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic nomination shortly thereafter, and Johnson announced on March 31 he wouldn't run for re-election.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis less than a week later, and civil disturbances broke out in several cities, including Cincinnati, a continuation of riots in inner cities that had occurred during the three previous years.

Two months after King was shot by a sniper, in early June — 40 years ago this week — Kennedy was killed after winning the Democratic primary in California.

There are parallels between 1968 and 2008, both presidential election years with unpopular wars and unpopular presidents. There's a similar political dynamic as well: war and race, a peculiar divisiveness (Democrats fighting not over a war but over who's best qualified to win and to lead) and the specter of backlash. Not to mention young, exciting presidential candidates.

Comparisons between Barack Obama and Robert Kennedy have been inevitable. Both are/were first-term senators representing adopted states. Obama is 46, Kennedy was 42.

Both attracted somewhat similar constituencies — especially young and black voters — although there are some differences. Kennedy appealed to blue-collar workers and poorer rural whites, especially Appalachians, as well as Hispanics. Obama has appealed to the more affluent and better-educated.

"Bobby Kennedy managed to excite people," Gilligan says. "They really believed they could turn things around. There are echoes of that now, through the party, through the halls of history. It took a remarkable personality to bring it off. Obama just happens to be it.

"If you had said two years ago that the guy who may capture the Democratic Party is this obscure biracial senator with no organization, what would you think of that? Do you want to get on that train? This isn't just a campaign, this is a movement."

'Easier' to be anti-war today
Tom Brokaw's Boom covers the 1960s in general, focusing a good deal on '68, and has sold well. Newsweek did a cover on 1968 back in November. Last month's Vanity Fair had a cover story on Kennedy's final campaign in 1968, an excerpt from Thurston Clarke's recent book.

Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, was a sophomore at Xavier University during the 1967-68 school year.

"1968 really did lay the groundwork for a lot more student activism that you saw come the following year," he says. "And it certainly had an impact on what I did for the rest of my life. And there are certainly parallels with today in presidential politics. There is not, however, the divisiveness on issues within the Democratic Party that there were in '68. It's easier today to be anti-war and more acceptable than it was back then."

An irony, especially viewed 40 years later, is that despite all the upheaval in the late '60s — the awakening of feminism, the political excitement, the gains in civil rights and a country becoming impatient with the Vietnam war — voters turned to Nixon as the next president of the United States.

Gilligan believes had Kennedy lived he would have won the '68 Democratic nomination and then the election. So do others. It's hard to imagine what might have transpired throughout the 1970s had Kennedy become president.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination at the 1968 Chicago convention but resisted a peace plank in the party platform that called for an unconditional end of the bombing of North Vietnam, phased withdrawal of American troops and negotiations between North and South Vietnam — positions pushed chiefly by Gilligan and a handful of others.

"We thought that if Hubert came out against the war he'd win the election," Gilligan says. "He thought about that and decided that, well, the Johnson people just wouldn't let him."

The plank was defeated, as was Humphrey three months later.

"Then the war went on for another six years," Gilligan says, shaking his head and grimacing. "Another six years of blood and sacrifice. A national tragedy."

'The enormity of reality' in '68
In Cincinnati in 1968 six Republicans controlled Cincinnati City Council, and Eugene Ruehlmann was mayor. William Wichman was the city manager.

Ladies dresses were selling at McAlpin's department store for between $9 and $13, mink-trimmed coats for $59. Men's dress shirts were selling at Mabley & Carew for between $3.97 and $5.97. A three-bedroom brick ranch house in Deer Park was for sale at $14,900, and a '68 Chevy Bel Air could be had for $2,525.

Letters to the editor in The Enquirer in early 1968 dealt with one letter writer who suggested Jesus Christ was a hippie. That sparked a spirited response.

Well, one wrote, "Jesus didn't smoke pot." Wrote another: "Jesus didn't take acid." Yet another: "Christ didn't advocate premarital sex."

David Altman, a local attorney who deals with environmental issues, was a senior at UC during the 1967-68 academic year and editor-in-chief of The News Record. He and his team of editors and reporters had begun to change the culture of college journalism that year, where a prior editor was a "dewy-eyed sorority person."

Altman saw his team as transitioning from a sports-dominated, fraternity-and-sorority-minded, social-calendar culture to a more edgy, skeptical and questioning brand of journalism. Just a few years after the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, politics had begun to arrive on other college campuses.

"I was kind of in the middle there, questioning the New Left but also questioning President Johnson and (Defense Secretary Robert) McNamara," Altman recalls. "And of course the biggest thing that drove a lot of us was the draft. Everyone was worried about the draft. It was a factor in everybody's lives."

The News Record, publishing twice a week, covered not just the divisions over the war but also perceived racism. It covered what the few black students were up to at UC as well as the predominantly black Hughes High School across the street. And it covered an emerging arts culture and emerging counterculture along Calhoun Street.

"The News Record went off campus," Altman says. "My philosophy was, 'This is an urban university and whatever is going on in the city affects the students and ought to be covered.' Ours was a trampoline workout on the politics of the day."

So when King was assassinated on April 4, Altman and staff didn't hesitate to cover the crowds of young blacks collecting in Avondale. About a half-dozen business windows were broken, and fire alarms were set off in Avondale, Camp Washington and Mount Auburn. Then it grew quiet.

The Reds' Opening Day, scheduled for April 8, was postponed until April 10. Flags in the city were lowered to half-staff. Ruehlmann said that the day of King's funeral, April 9, would be declared a "day of commitment for all Cincinnatians."

It didn't remain quiet. By the evening of April 8, there were broken windows, fire-bombings and looting in Avondale. The Ohio National Guard was activated. Public schools closed.

A curfew was imposed, first in the city and then in all of Hamilton County. Liquor sales were halted. Gas stations closed. There would be more than 175 arrests and 20 people treated at General Hospital (now University Hospital).

Before it was over, Altman and a photographer headed to Avondale.

"By God, there's a riot, we're going to cover it," says Altman, who also went to Atlanta to cover King's funeral for The News Record and had planned to go to work for Kennedy's presidential campaign when he graduated. Kennedy was killed just days before UC's graduation ceremony.

"It was a great year to be a newspaper editor," he says. "Everybody who lived through the era was scarred by it. They also learned because of it. And they lost their innocence. It was a year in which you could not escape the enormity of reality."

Watching Avondale burn
"I remember standing on the roof of one of the dorms and watching the smoke from over in Avondale," says Gene Beaupre, recalling April 1968, when he was a junior majoring in philosophy at Xavier University. The next school year, 1968-69, he would serve as student body president.

"The university was a very closed place back then," says Beaupre, who is director of government relations at XU, where he also teaches in the honors program. "Next to our dorm was a basketball court with a goal at each end. In the summertime, when students were gone, they would take down the goals so the neighborhood kids couldn't come and play."

While neither UC nor Xavier seethed with the sort of political discontent that was apparent at Columbia University in 1968, the times were a'changing.

"There was clearly a division on campus," Beaupre says. "A significant portion of the student body was opposed to the war. Secondly, there was a mood to challenge authority and to challenge the status quo. Three, some were looking for ways to build relationships with African-American students on campus, trying to bridge the gulf between black and white students."

Beaupre recalls a boycott of a mandatory Mass the university had at the beginning of the school year. It was scheduled to inspire the students for the coming year.

"It wasn't that we objected to going to Mass," he says. "We objected to the authority mandating it. So we picketed the Mass. We held an alternative Mass. Sounds like something out of the '60s, doesn't it?"

Burke would follow Beaupre as student body president during the 1969-70 academic year. He also recalls in 1968 "standing on the balcony of the Xavier cafeteria and watching Avondale burn."

"The whole issue of race relations was taking on a bigger and bigger role on campus," Burke says. "The African American population was still small but growing. ... And of course you had the war and the McCarthy campaign. Xavier was probably behind many schools in terms of having a higher profile anti-war movement, but we had a lot more activity the following year."

Over in Clifton, UC was also still relatively quiet in 1968.

"A couple of faculty members had become outspoken," says Herbert Shapiro, who taught contemporary American history at UC from 1966 until he retired in 2001. "But on the whole the UC campus didn't have any large protests or demonstrations."

King's assassination was a significant event, Shapiro says. His wife knew Coretta Scott King, King's wife. The Shapiros were at a McCarthy campaign meeting on the West Side when they got word of the assassination in April. They left the meeting and drove home.

"As we drove home and up Reading Road toward North Avondale," Shapiro recalls, "there were already a number of police with shotguns on the street."

For him, as well as others interviewed for this story, as crucial as 1968 was, it truly blends — even blurs — into a series of interconnected years. For some, the era began with the death of political innocence with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. For others, younger and more active politically later, it began in 1967 and continued through 1970, a year marked by the shootings at Kent State that perhaps signaled — literally — the death knell for student activism.

'Harmonious' and 'fun' in high school
Not all students from 1968 recall the year as enmeshed in politics and absorbed in the headlines of the day. Some high school students recall the political upheaval — you couldn't avoid the headlines — but their recollections are nonetheless more intimate.

They remember the year more vividly as a time of first dates, of high school proms, of high school sports, of social clubs, of participating in high school plays, of boyfriends and girlfriends, perhaps breaking up, remembering favorite teachers. They remember beginning to spread their wings.

Jan Frankel graduated from Walnut Hills High School in '68, went off to college, taught history for three years and is now an attorney in town.

"Do I remember hanging out at the Frisch's Mainliner and places like that?" she asks. "Yeah, sure I do. Walnut Hills had an extremely diverse population, which was what was so wonderful about it. There were different races, different religions, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and it all jelled and was a real learning experience. You had friends from all over the city."

Some of her classmates, Frankel says, did participate in demonstrations, and she vaguely remembers a sit-in and demonstration on Fountain Square. She recalls the late '60s as an early bloom of the women's movement. She remembers Cincinnati being catapulted onto the national stage that year.

"The thing that was most troubling was the Martin Luther King assassination and the race riots," she says. "I will tell you every single plate glass window down Reading Road was not there. They ended up boarding them up. I vividly remember that."

Mike Oestreicher, Walnut Hills Class of '68, serves on the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, appointed by President Bush on Rob Portman's recommendation. He recalls class plays and shows, the student body's diversity.

Even outside of high school, he lived anything but a sheltered life. He worked at a shoe store owned by his grandparents at Peebles Corner in Walnut Hills.

"It was very harmonious and diverse and fun at Walnut Hills," says Oestreicher, a local attorney. "Blacks, whites, rich, poor, Jewish, non-Jewish. Then '68 came along in our senior year. There were no racial tensions until my senior year. I worked at the shoe store at nights and on weekends and wasn't ever afraid of being there. Then it started to change in my senior year.

"People who were good friends were starting to ... there was a palpable change. It was more of a breaking out and an identity search thing than a racial tension. It was never a nastiness, just a distancing."

He doesn't recall much focus on the war while in high school and not much for the first two years at Miami University. That changed in 1970 with Kent State.

Oestreicher was arts-inclined, interested in the theater and had a passing interest in presidential politics, being interested in the candidacy of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican. "I probably helped out passing out flyers or something," he says.

He is engaged in this year's presidential election, which he calls "one of the most fascinating presidential races that I've witnessed." Reinforcing the interest is his friendship with Portman, considered on the short list of possible vice presidential candidates to run with John McCain.

"I've known him for 25 years, before Rob Portman was Rob Portman," Oestreicher says. "Our country would be well-served to have him. It wouldn't be very difficult for me to decide who to vote for."

No draft, scant interest
Kevin Grace, UC archivist who teaches an honors seminar that incorporates the history of the 1960s into the curriculum, says that for many of his students 1968 is ancient history. Today's students are bright, dedicated, even driven, he says, but under economic pressure to make good on their college years.

"Today's students are much more well-traveled than students in '68 in terms of opportunities to study abroad," Grace says. "But I think overall they're more politically naïve than students of '68. I don't know if it's because they don't care or just can't conceive of political activism. Now if we had a draft today it would ratchet it up drastically. Otherwise, they can't see the day-to-day effects that global politics have on them."

Grace says the draft brought the Vietnam War home to every town in America.

"In '68 when we had a draft, and everybody felt that," he says. "I was 15 and in high school and I knew guys that summer after they graduated who were headed for Vietnam. I know several who never came back. Today's student really doesn't make that connection."

Beaupre also notes the generational differences.

"I've taught at Xavier for 30-plus years, so I've seen the evolution of students," he says. "For me (in 1968), we were much less constrained by economic issues and felt greater freedom. The students I see now come out with a huge debt and are pressured to get jobs. Social activism would be at a great cost to them in a way that it wasn't for us."

Both Grace and Beaupre say they have students who are exceptions, students who are politically savvy and have paid close attention to politics and the world despite the pressure to meet financial obligations.

Joshua Frankel will be graduating from UC next week. He plans to return home in Rockville, Md., and hopes to work for a sports marketing firm.

"I wanted to get involved in Barack Obama's campaign, but I just have too much going on in terms of finishing out my last quarter here at UC," he says. "I didn't think I'd be able to devote the right amount of attention to it. Students I think are paying attention. Obama visited the campus (in February), and I remember seeing lines starting very early in the morning. Students are interested in how (the election) is going to affect them. This (new) president will be affecting our first jobs out of college."

Kevin Hoggatt graduated from Xavier a few weeks ago and works about 25 hours a week for Portman and a law firm downtown. The future includes helping on the McCain campaign and perhaps law school.

He's familiar with the events of 1968, citing the comparisons between Obama and Kennedy, between Iraq and Vietnam, between the controversy over urban riots and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. But Iraq is different, he says, being fought by a volunteer military, and few have taken to the streets in protest. The controversies over race have been verbal and peaceful.

"We have come a long way since 1968," Hoggatt says. "Many college students have not been hit by the political bug. They know very little and aren't bothered by the political stories and controversies. The draft in 1968 got people motivated. Obama's charisma is doing that to some extent (today)."

Briana Hansen also graduated recently from Xavier and has been paying close attention to the presidential campaigns.

"From a collegiate perspective, I feel like there is more excitement for this election than any I have experience before," she wrote in an e-mail. "People know who the candidates are and they seem to even know what they stand for. ... Like in 1968, many people have turned to the presidential race because of a very unpopular and confusing war. I know friends of mine in the ROTC program here are most definitely paying attention to what the candidates are saying about the future of Americans in Iraq.

"I live and breathe this stuff — I absolutely love it. So my opinions will obviously be rather biased and will make it sound like a lot more people care than may actually care."

Jessica Glass, who will graduate from UC next week, would rather not say who her preference is for president.

"They all have great aspects to their campaigns," she says. "I don't know if there's one I agree with 100 percent. I've paid more attention this year than in the past. Students in general talk about it a lot more, with everything going on, seeing where the economy is going, where the war is going to end up."

Glass plans to remain in Cincinnati — she has a job offer here — and has been working full-time while in school.

"It's kind of crazy," she says. "You don't have time for much else. You spend the weekends doing homework. I'll work during the day and then I'll take night classes. Work has been good about being flexible with my schedule."

Did Glass attend the Obama rally at UC?

"I didn't go," she says. "I had to work that day." ©