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May 03. 2011 12:23PM

1968: McCarthy stuns the President

In November 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had defeated Senator Barry Goldwater in Now Hampshire — 182,065 to 104,029. This would be the only time since the end of World War II the Democratic presidential nominee carried the Granite State.

In 1968 New Hampshire would return to the GOP fold. The pattern of always having the winner of either the Republican or Democratic primary become President would continue. The 46th Presidential election resulted in the victory of former Vice President Richard Nixon, who had won the first primary with the support of three out of every four Republicans casting ballots on March 12, 1968.

The decision that year had an impact on the course of American politics that matched, if not exceeded, 1952. A long shot was transformed into a serious contender (Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota), a popular leader was drawn into the Democratic sweepstakes (Senator Robert Kennedy of New York) and just a few weeks after a weaker-than-expected showing in New Hampshire, President Lyndon Johnson emulated Harry Truman and announced that he would not seek another term.

For President Johnson, the vote on March 12 provided the first popular test of his policies and the controversial involvement of almost half a million American soldiers in the Vietnam War.

On November 30, 1967, Senator McCarthy announced for the Democratic nomination for President, stating, "My decision to challenge the President's position, and the administration's position, has been strengthened by recent announcements out of the administration — the evident intention to intensify the war in Vietnam and, on the other hand, the absence of any positive indications or suggestions for a compromise or for a negotiated settlement. I am concerned that the administration seems to have set no limits to the price that it is willing to pay for a military victory."

In the first primary state, the McCarthy effort started slowly. Most of the party leadership backed the President. The senator's low-voltage stump and speaking style failed to stir his audiences. The army of student volunteers that later gained so much notice was barely a battalion in January and early February.

Unlike other states in which McCarthy had chosen to campaign, New Hampshire seemed to have few flickers of progressivism still aflame. The turmoil and activism that was sweeping college campuses was scarcely evident in the sedate college campuses dotting the state.

President Johnson declined to have his name placed on the presidential preference ballot. The resulting misguided attempt to educate the voters on how to write in his name provided the McCarthy camp with their first advantage.

Perforated three-part cards, individually numbered, were printed and distributed by Johnson supporters. The center section of the "Pledge card," called the "White House Copy," turned out to be a public relations disaster. The recipient was asked to fill out his name, address and phone number, and to indicate whether he was a Democrat or Independent. That part of the card included this note: "As an expression of your support this card will be forwarded to President Johnson at the White House in Washington, D.C."

The timing for the distribution of the pledge cards could not have been worse, for the Communist forces in South Vietnam launched their most aggressive and widespread military offensive, and the American public observed via television that the oft-promised victorious end to the conflict was not at hand.

Senator McCarthy charged the pledge cards were part of a "Texas-style branding party" and an "intrusion into a free democratic process not altogether inconsistent with the way the Johnson administration is operating."

The in-fighting among Democrats, which would reach a bloody culmination at the Chicago convention in August, had its start here, for rarely have the Democrats spent so much time and effort castigating each other.

In a speech before the Berlin City Democratic Committee on March 3, the Johnson state chairman, third-term Governor John King, told the group the Communists were "trying to destroy the support of the people at home for the boys on the firing line by sowing the seeds of mistrust in our government." At a press conference a few days later King commented that a victory for McCarthy would be "greeted with great cheers in Hanoi."

Senator Tom McIntyre, also a Johnson partisan, accused his Minnesota colleague of advocating a law to allow draft dodgers to return to the country, a position that "will destroy the very fabric of our national-devotion. This is fuzzy thinking about principles that have made our nation great."

In response McCarthy called the accusations "lies" and "slanders upon my patriotism and loyalty." He believed the effort for the President "consisted of a single, shrill, irrelevant and false note — the implication that the opposition to the President's policies is somehow disloyal."

The Democratic National Committeeman from the state at the time was Joseph Millimet, an attorney in Manchester. Three weeks before the primary Millimet, confident matters were well in hand for the President, departed for a lengthy ski vacation to St. Moritz in Switzerland. In a later interview, he recalled: "I come back the day before the primary and I got into town and went down to the Wayfarer. There were all these friends of mine from the news media sitting around that I"d known for years. I was a now person to talk to and it was kind of a joke for them to start popping questions my way since I"d been away and completely out of touch. They hopped all over me to explain what was occurring — this surge for McCarthy — and I didn't know. The McCarthy thing just blossomed while I was skiing in Switzerland. I wouldn't have gone if I thought the thing was going to be such a mess. It didn't take me long to see there was a problem — a very big problem."

As in 1952, the predictions by the experts that a Democratic President would win the first primary handily were far off. McCarthy, a man scarcely given a chance of reaching 20 percent of the vote a few weeks before, tallied 41.9 percent. Johnson failed to win a majority, collecting a plurality of 49.6 percent.

Since the President's name was not on the ballot, he could not control the number of delegates favorable to him. McCarthy won 20 out of the 24 delegate slots.

While the Democratic Party organization helped the President win the total vote in the 13 cities, 16,466 to 11,225, in the towns it was another matter — McCarthy won 12,044 to 11,054. The senator from Minnesota was able to carry five of the 10 counties and he even won in four cities — Berlin, Concord, Portsmouth and Rochester.

To a enthusiastic crowd at the Wayfarer in Bedford, McCarthy said of his surprising showing: "If we come to Chicago with this strength, there will be no riots or demonstrations, but a great victory celebration."

The result led Senator Robert Kennedy to a dramatic political reversal. On the following Saturday in the Senate Caucus Room, the same place his brother had declared in 1960, he joined the race.

For Richard Nixon, the first primary outcome would prove most beneficial in his achieving the party nomination and finally the Oval Office.

Polling done for Nixon in 1967 told him that while the New Hampshire voters sampled considered the former vice president experienced, intelligent and able to deal with foreign policy matters and leaders, he was also perceived as a loser always running for the Presidency but unable to achieve it, someone similar to Harold Stassen.

Nixon had not won a general election in his own right since 1950, when he defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas for a United States Senate seat in California. Nixon had to overcome not only his loss to John Kennedy in 1960, but also his humiliating defeat by Edmund G. "Pat" Brown for the governorship of the Golden State in 1962.

In 1968 New Hampshire would prove to be "Nixon Country." In the 1964 primary he had finished fourth with 15,587 write-in votes for President, only five percent less than what Barry Goldwater reaped in finishing second. That was a remarkable show of strength with no overt campaigning on Nixon's part, and helped set the stage for his comeback a quadrennium later. (Some contend that if Ambassador Lodge had disowned the draft movement on his behalf, Nixon would have emerged the victor over Goldwater and Rockefeller in that primary.)

On Wednesday, March 13, Nixon would have to depart the first primary state with the image of a winner — and he did.

Michigan Governor George Romney was advised not to challenge Nixon here, and instead await the Wisconsin primary on April 2. It was believed by some advisers that the conservative nature of New Hampshire's Republicans and Nixon's popularity among its leaders and rank-and-file were too strong for Romney to overcome, and he should begin his quest for the nomination in a state closer in both ideology and geography.

Romney was not dissuaded by such arguments, and failed to realize that his not-quite-irresistible candidacy would collide with the immovable support from New Hampshire Republicans for Richard Nixon.

Although Romney's campaign was technically proficient, had adequate funding, operated hundreds of home headquarters in operation and mounted an elaborate media blitz, it never caught on. One of his backers later moaned, "The minute George Romney lost his aura, they literally wouldn't cross the street to meet him."

Romney's 1968 candidacy was never able to overcome the negative reaction to comments he had made the previous summer in an August 31, 1967 television interview in Detroit.

The Michigan governor, who had been accused of waffling on the war in Vietnam, was asked what he proposed the United States do there. He responded: "Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I had just the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job." Romney added that he had studied the war in detail since his 1965 trip there and had now concluded "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression."

His comments became national news. Newsweek magazine wrote: "With that statement, the Michigan governor casually handed his critics a catch phrase as potentially lethal as the "rum, Romanism and rebellion" slogan that destroyed James G. Blaine's presidential bid 83 years ago. Romney, in effect, suggested that he was vulnerable to back-room pressure. And if he could be had by U.S. generals and diplomats in Vietnam, how would he stack up in the big leagues with de Gaulle and the British, with the Russians and the Chinese?"

As the primary approached, Romney was being forced to compete not only with Nixon (who enjoyed massive leads in polls), but he was also confronted with the threat that an unauthorized write-in for Nelson Rockefeller (who had endorsed Romney) would overtake his own vote and leave him in a humiliating third plate.

In what would becomes the first "technical knock-out" in primary history, the Michigan governor on February 28 withdrew from the race in a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Nixon would coast to an easy victory with 80,666 votes. The effort for Governor Rockefeller, led by former New Hampshire Governor Hugh Gregg, tallied only 11,241 write-ins.

In explaining the hold Richard Nixon had on Granite State Republicans, George Gilman, a former aide to Senator Bridges who served as commissioner of the state Department of Resources and Economic Development from July 1970 until his death on May 1, 1984, said: "He was viewed as the underdog who represented something other than the Eastern Establishment. And, of course, he had the unremitting and provocative support of the Manchester Union Leader. He just turned New Hampshire people on as not being one of the elite — one of the intellectual elite. He won the hearts of a lot of good, common, hard-working New Hampshire folks."

On November 5, Nixon would finally achieve his dream. He defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey (who did not enter a single Democratic primary) by just 510,645 votes.


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