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‘Retracing my own steps’ from 1968

August 9, 2018

Writing a book about the pivotal presidential election of 1968 turned out to be a walk down a not-always-pleasant memory lane for Michael Schumacher.

“It really fired me up all over again,” Schumacher said of writing “The Contest,” newly published by the University of Minnesota Press. “It flooded back to me what those times were like.”

In 1968, Schumacher was an 18-year-old political junkie who kept a close watch on national and international events, including the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and, of course, that year’s presidential election. It was a year of tragedy, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. It was a year in which a sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson, announced he would not run for re-election.

And, it was a year in which two Minnesotans, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, ran for the White House and fell short.

It was McCarthy’s unexpected strong showing in the New Hampshire primary on an anti-war platform that drove Johnson from office. Humphrey picked up the Democratic Party once Johnson was out, McCarthy had faded and Kennedy had been killed. But Richard Nixon ended the year as president — and we all know how that turned out.

“The message was that you can protest in the streets, whatever you want, but the powers that be are still in charge,” Schumacher said in an interview.

In writing “The Contest,” though, he cast aside his personal bad memories of that year. “I wanted to go into it without any preconceptions,” Schumacher said. “I knew how it turned out, but I wanted to look at it as if for the first time.”

In 1968, he said, “I was too young. It was all gut. What I didn’t know was what was really going on.”

In preparation for writing the book, Schumacher read everything he could find on the election, including biographies of the major players, and listened to countless hours of oral history recordings.

“I’m very proud of the amount of material I used from oral histories,” Schumacher said. “A lot of those people aren’t around anymore. I was able to get voices in the book of people who have been long gone.”

After all that, his take on a few of the candidates:

• McCarthy: “He lost all of his starch when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. They had put so much energy into their campaign against each other.”

• Humphrey: “His campaign was just about as poorly run as you can imagine. He stubbornly stuck by Johnson, but the people wanted a change and they wanted it right now.”

• George Wallace: “While I’m not defending Wallace, he was a much better candidate than I originally thought he was.”

As for the election itself, Schumacher said it ushered in a realignment of American politics that lasted for decades. Nixon’s so-called southern strategy and law-and-order platform appealed to reactionaries unhappy with what today would be called identity politics.

While writing the book, Schumacher immersed himself in the music, television programs and movies of 1968.

“I wanted to understand,” he said. “I wasn’t just writing a book. I was retracing my own steps.”

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