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Ceremony will mark 50th anniversary of NH's 1968 primary

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 11. 2018 1:13AM
A woman with a child on her back prepares to mark her ballot in a Bedford voting booth in the New Hampshire 2016 Presidential Primary on Feb. 9, 2016. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

CONCORD - Many observers believe the 1968 first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which turns 50 years old on Monday, cemented New Hampshire's legacy as an unreliable, very dangerous place for the political elite.

For the anniversary celebration, Secretary of State Bill Gardner is assembling at the State House a star-studded cast of key actors from that 1968 drama, which helped topple a Democratic President and anoint a future Republican chief executive who 6½ years later would resign in disgrace.

"This primary was so dynamic and so surprising on so many fronts," Gardner said during an interview.

"Who could have predicted everything that would happen that year, and it all started in New Hampshire?"

A year of fireworks and senseless tragedy on the Democratic side began March 12, 1968, when soft-spoken Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy parlayed the support of anti-war activists to win 42 percent of the vote to 49 percent for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who chose to run as a write-in candidate.

While Johnson's campaign got more votes, delegates pledged to McCarthy actually won 20 of the 24 delegates chosen in that primary.

"That's why McCarthy to this day is considered by many historians to have won New Hampshire even though Johnson took the popular vote," Gardner said.

Former state Rep. Jim Splaine, author of the 1975 presidential primary law, was a 20-year-old University of New Hampshire student who chaired the campus effort for Johnson.

Splaine said the decision to identify Johnson supporters by having them sign "pledge cards" was a colossal blunder.

"My brother was a UNH lecturer, and we both were really opposed to the pledge card approach. Both of us felt it reeked of having a loyalty oath," Splaine said. "That really didn't sound Democratic to me, and I didn't use them."

Five days after New Hampshire's verdict, Sen. Robert Kennedy did an about face and leapt into the presidential race, only to be assassinated in Los Angeles by a madman months later.

A dispirited Johnson, 19 days after New Hampshire's outcome, said he would not seek a second term, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, went on to capture the Democratic nomination.

"I know many historians disagree with me, but I think the New Hampshire result wasn't the biggest reason Johnson stepped away. I think health reasons played a factor and also this resignation that there was nothing he could do to get the country out of Vietnam," Splaine said.

State Rep. Chuck Grassie, D-Rochester, was a 16-year-old student at Spaulding High School who worked for McCarthy after having seen him at a Strafford County campaign stop.

"I was considered a commie at the time. McCarthy was anti-war and if you were against Johnson then you were for Hanoi," Grassie recalled. "I had older friends of mine going off to Vietnam, and it was really a difficult time. Even then I was a good Democrat, I supported Johnson's Great Society, but what happened in the war shook me up, and the more I would read about it, the more determined I was we needed a change."

Two other students for McCarthy, Hampton state Rep. Renny Cushing and Mark Stevens, also will be on hand Monday.

"All of them came to be known as McCarthy's ballot children," recalled Gardner, who was a UNH sophomore in 1968 but was uninvolved in politics.

Former nominee for governor Paul McEachern of Portsmouth and Sandy Hoe of Hanover were on the ground floor of the McCarthy movement, and months before the primary, they took part in private meetings to convince a reluctant McCarthy to run.

Hoe's late ex-husband, David, chaired the delegation to the explosive Democratic National Convention in Chicago and later wrote a book about McCarthy's campaign.

"Those three, Paul, Sandy and David, all played a pivotal role in New Hampshire's outcome," Splaine said.

Meanwhile on the Republican side, all the handicappers were expecting a bloody battle to the GOP nomination, with establishment power brokers determined not to let Richard Nixon have the race all to himself.

Nixon had ended up in political exile after losing a White House bid in 1960 and then a California gubernatorial campaign two years later. Little could they have imagined Nixon would storm to a 78 percent blowout victory.

Former Michigan Gov. George Romney was the choice of many leading Republicans, but he never recovered from his comments that the generals had "brainwashed" him about the Vietnam War, and he dropped out before the New Hampshire primary.

Former Gov. Hugh Gregg ran a pyrrhic write-in campaign for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller that managed to get only 11 percent of the vote.

"What the Nixon campaign did here with Pat Buchanan so much in the forefront of it remains very impressive even to this day," Gardner said.

Former House Speaker and lobbyist George Roberts of Gilmanton and ex-Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin of Portsmouth will be on hand as Nixon delegates.

Gardner said since that memorable primary, New Hampshire has for the 12 primaries to follow been in the crosshairs of leaders from other states who have tried to weaken its influence.

"A year after 1968, Rep. Harry Reid would go on to shepherd through his home state Legislature a bill to give Nevada a primary one week after New Hampshire. Fortunately that bill was vetoed," Gardner said of the retired U.S. Senate majority leader.

"And we've been fighting to keep our primary first ever since."

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