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Editorial | Remembering 1968

Lessons for a new year

Forty years ago tomorrow, America embarked on one of the most tumultuous 12 months in its history. It's worth remembering 1968 as 2008 begins with the country facing two similar predicaments: an unpopular war and an unpredictable presidential election.

In 1968, Americans experienced the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war, President Johnson's shocking decision not to seek reelection, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the student shutdown of Columbia University, race riots in dozens of cities, and Chicago police mauling antiwar protesters at the Democratic Convention.

It was one year that defined a decade - the Sixties, a decade America would like to relegate to history but keeps seeing in the fault lines of race, class, gender, and war that still define us.

So 40 years later, we're still arguing over civil rights, though the discussion has moved from public accommodations and voting rights to reparations and affirmative action. Women still get paid less than men for the same job. The income gap between rich and poor is even greater. And while no one likes the war in Iraq, we can't agree on how to end it.

This war isn't comparable to Vietnam in scale. Draftees don't have to run away to Canada to escape fighting it. The body bags returned from battle are rarely of someone that today's college students went to school with. As a result, campus antiwar protests lack the fervor of 1968.

But the Iraq war may be the most important issue facing America as it enters 2008. Its tentacles touch everyone through the economy, as dollars and attention spent on the war keep the nation from tackling other worthwhile subjects.

Our system of national health care and old-age benefits limps along because our leaders are too engaged in the Iraq debate to do much of anything else. When they do talk of other matters, partisan politics gets in the way.

The presidential candidates all talk of a new day. But in their zeal to portray themselves as either hawks or doves on Iraq, they bring us back to 1968.

That year, the election was all about who could convince America that he had the best plan to end the war. Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, but only by the slightest of margins. That was a watershed election. Democrats had won the presidency in seven of the previous nine elections. But, including Nixon's victory in 1968, Republicans have won seven of the last 10 elections.

Will 2008 provide a similar landmark? Should Democrats now expect the presidential pendulum to swing their way?

Party affiliation won't matter as much to Americans as their desire to choose a president who can move the nation beyond the mediocrity it has been willing to settle for in other endeavors as it tries to free itself from the morass that Iraq has become.

They don't want 2008 to become a 1968, a year marked by tragedies and disappointments, assassinations and dead soldiers, riots and desperation.

Forty years ago, a new year began that had America reeling by the time Dec. 31 finally arrived. The portents for 2008 make one leery of what's ahead. But if we survived 1968, what should we fear?