The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul, by Michael Schumacher

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Michael Schumacher, and the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

While many will argue the importance of all elections in a democratic system, Michael Schumacher posits that the American Presidential Election in 1968 might have been the most important voting event in the country’s modern history. Held in the middle of the bloody Vietnam War, the election saw a true split in the American political psyche, dividing those in favour of the war and those wanting to get soldiers out of the region (likely more than either World War before it). With a sitting president who could not turn his back on America’s involvement, Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) soon became tarred and feathered for allowing so many men to die in a military action that had no direct connection to the country he led. This pushed him to the brink and left him to wonder how he ought to handle the upcoming presidential election campaign. Schumacher argues that the electoral importance began late in 1967, when the likes of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy agreed to challenge LBJ, feeling the country needed peace and should remove troops from the region. This divisive issue would soon snowball into disaster for LBJ, who took it upon himself to admit defeat and make the famous speech on March 31, 1968, where he refused to run for re-election. Schumacher opens the book with the narrative around this announcement and how those closest to him took the news on a decision that had been pondered but only decided that day. The decision opened the contest for the Democratic nomination, as well as solidifying some of the strong contenders within the Republicans. Schumacher spends an early part of the tome offering up mini biographies of the serious contenders within the Democratic Party (Vice-President Hubert H Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy), the Republicans (Richard Nixon, with a peppering of information on Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan), as well as an outsider Third Party candidate (Alabama Governor George Wallace), who sought to push for state-rights and push the election in the House of Representatives for a final decision. Armed with this knowledge, the reader can follow the push on into the primaries, where Schumacher lays out a succinct narrative of some well-established races within both parties in an attempt to solidify the nomination ahead of each party’s respective convention in the summer. Filled with detailed analysis of the political shoving and maneuvering, Schumacher explores how the candidates sought to win favour with the electorate and use the War to their favour, some vilifying LBJ while others trying to spin their own version of events and staying true to the country’s leader. During this time, three significant deaths cast a shadow on the primary campaign: the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the wife of George Wallace, Lurleen. While the former two did stun the country, the third appeared to light a fire under Wallace in his attempts to promote segregation as a viable option. Schumacher then forges on and turns the focus to the conventions, where the party’s decision would have to be made. Miami Beach may have been smooth sailing for Nixon, but it was anything but a foregone conclusion. Armed with an unlikely vice-presidential candidate in Spiro Agnew, Nixon was ready to do battle and began his treachery in covertly tinkering with the peace negotiations to end the War. Meanwhile, all eyes turned to Chicago, where much disruption was expected (and found). Schumacher uses an entire chapter of the book to lay out some of the strongest forces in the groups protesting outside the convention and their push to disrupt the goings-on, more to speak out against the Vietnam War than the Democratic Party. Inside the convention hall, the political bloodbath was beginning, but it paled in comparison to the brutality on the streets. Democratic candidates struggled for control and tried to vie for last minute votes, which eventually gave Hubert Humphrey the nomination, while violence filled television screens. Schumacher juxtaposes the two ‘fights’ effectively and keeps the reader pushing onwards into the final step of the contest, the General Election. Here, Nixon and Humphrey traipsed across the country to secure votes, all while LBJ continued to waffle on how to handle Vietnam. Pushing for peace, LBJ soon realised that Nixon may have spoiled the Democratic Party with his own promises (much like Reagan would do a dozen years later in the campaign against Jimmy Carter). The last week of the campaign turned out to be the most exciting, as Nixon and Humphrey sought to secure key states, while Wallace pushed to spoil the Electoral College victory for either man. Once all was said and done, Nixon prevailed by just over half a million votes cast, proving to be a close contest and, in a way, Wallace did prove (Democratic) spoiler. Wonderfully written and paced, the book educates the curious reader who has a passion for history and electoral politics. I’d highly recommend this for anyone who has the patience to plunge into the inner workings of American political campaigns to see just how contentious they can be and why 1968 will likely be seen as one of the most important in modern American history.

Being a political addict, I could not give up the opportunity to read this book when I discovered it. This being the fiftieth anniversary of this election, I allowed myself to be enthralled with the way in which Schumacher delivered s much information in an easily digestible fashion. The book is divided effectively, giving the reader much context as to how and why 1968 was such a political powder keg in the United States. Beginning with the important LBJ speech, Schumacher offers key themes that would return throughout the campaign, namely: the War, infighting about America’s presence in Vietnam, and the segregated states. He then pushes into the primaries, which splintered the country further before turning to the conventions, where America’s youth took centre stage, outside the political event proper. Schumacher turns the final campaign into a succinct narrative, as though all the glitter of 1968 ended once the bloody streets of Chicago had been cleaned in late August. I felt a significant shift towards an anti-climactic ending of the book, which forces the reader to skim over the last few months and not find that last push towards a defining end to what was a strongly worded build-up over four hundred pages. One might argue that the intensity was gone (and the book had taken up so much to that point), forcing a quick end so as not to lose the reader. If I could extract a single, overarching sentiment that Schumacher offers in this piece, it would be just how destructive and divisive the election became for America. Politicians and the electorate alike found themselves deeply divided on the issue of the Vietnam War, which also helped fuel a generational divide in the country, where young and newer voters turned to protest in order to make themselves heard. Tearing at the familial fabric would surely alienate many at a time when parents were trying to make sense of their ‘liberated’ children and Americans watched revolutionary demonstrations on television, seeking to push the American state to its limits. Filled with significant detail, Schumacher left me feeling as though I were right there and wanted to know more, the key to a successful piece of writing. I could not ask for a better introduction to the 1968 campaign than with this book and will surely sift through the biographical notes to find further pieces to whet my appetite.

Kudos, Mr. Schumacher, for a brilliant piece. I will check to see what else you may have published, as I found your writing to my liking and your delivery engaging.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: