Ask me which news events I remember most from 1968 and I will say the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. But today's presidential race also evokes memories from my sophomore year in high school of Eugene McCarthy, whose youth movement in many respects resembles what we're seeing with the wave of young idealists propelling the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Conventional wisdom says Sanders will meet the same fate as McCarthy when a nominee is finally chosen in July at the Democratic National Convention here in Philadelphia. But who knows? Conventional wisdom has lost a lot of bets so far in this election. I think Jeb Bush would agree with that.
No one gave McCarthy much of a chance 48 years ago when he decided to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination. The Minnesota senator wasn't well known outside his home state and Washington circles, but as a presidential candidate he tapped into the antiestablishment fervor of the hippie-infused counterculture and ably articulated liberal Americans' frustration with the Vietnam War.
McCarthy took 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, which revealed LBJ's vulnerability and prompted previously reluctant Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. The brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy became the man to beat despite criticism that he had let McCarthy test the waters before daring to run against Johnson. Kennedy had name recognition, campaign money, and a strong organization. His nomination seemed inevitable, especially when Johnson surprised the world by dropping out of the race.
"With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office – the presidency of your country," Johnson said. "Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Johnson spoke as if his nomination was assured. In truth, he appeared to be on the verge of losing the Wisconsin primary when he shut down his campaign. That opened the door for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, whose late entry in the contest prompted him to skip conventional campaigning and rely on "favorite-son" candidates as proxies who were pledged to give him any convention delegates they won in state primaries.
Kennedy's campaign epitomized the youth and vigor synonymous with his late brother, but he was having a hard time wooing young voters who favored McCarthy. Winning the California primary might have been the game-changer to put Kennedy solidly in front, but he was assassinated after making his victory speech at a Los Angeles hotel. Humphrey went on to win the nomination on the first ballot, but what I and many people remember most about that convention is the televised warfare between Chicago police and antiwar protesters led by the Youth International Party, known as the Yippies.
McCarthy got only 23 percent of the 2,622 votes cast for the Democratic nomination. Humphrey went on to lose the presidential election to Richard M. Nixon in a race that featured a forerunner of Donald Trump, George C. Wallace, the bombastic governor of Alabama who with his criticism of Washington politics also tapped a nerve among blue-collar conservatives. It was a close election. Nixon got 31,710,470 votes; Humphrey, 30,898,055; and Wallace, 9,906,473. McCarthy sought the Democratic nomination again in 1972, but lost to another peacenik, George McGovern. An independent campaign by McCarthy in 1976 ended unsuccessfully as well.
The McCarthy story should resonate with Hillary Clinton, whose campaign clearly reflects the Democratic establishment while Sanders is strong among younger voters. Considering her name recognition, campaign treasure, and solid organization in practically every state, Sanders should be eating Clinton's dust. In fact, most national polls do give her a comfortable lead – 55 percent to 36 percent, for example, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. But polls showed Sanders with the lead heading into the New Hampshire primary, and he was on Clinton's heels in Iowa before its caucuses.
Clinton could survive losses in either or both states, but her task will become much more difficult. Sanders' challenge, though, will be even harder. Iowa and New Hampshire aren't so much like the rest of America that they can be predictors of what is yet to come. Like McCarthy, Sanders has to do better than win the adulation of younger voters who too often lose their fervor when it's time to show up at the polls on Election Day. More important, Sanders has to persuade people who agree with him that this country isn't doing enough to help people who were already struggling before the recession, and are having an even harder time keeping up with their bills now, that his "democratic socialism" has a chance of prevailing over a Republican Congress that tends to favor the affluent.
Either way it goes, Sanders deserves credit not for just ensuring the eventual Democratic nominee has been tested in the heat of a campaign. He has also given voice to the hopes and frustrations of lower-income, medically underserved, educationally disadvantaged, emotionally distressed Americans whose votes might otherwise be taken for granted.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.