Grisly Nostalgia: Remembering 1968's Horrors

PETER A. JAY

April 11, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace.-- We're hearing a lot about 1968 these days, as the 25th anniversary of one dreadful event after another arrives and is duly commemorated. As nostalgia goes, this is pretty grisly stuff.

The best that can be said for 1968, a quarter of a century afterward, is that because it was such a terrible time it made the worst of the years that followed a little easier to bear. In that sense, those of us who remember it vividly may be lucky. Living through 1968 gave us perspective. It made us tougher.

In my adult life there has been no other year so filled with despair, disillusion and shattered hopes. By the time it was over -- after the Tet offensive, after the assassinations, after Chicago, after the Soviet rape of Czechoslovakia, after what seemed a pointless presidential election contested by a pair of pallid second-rate candidates and a racist third-rater -- we the survivors were battered.

When Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, I was on vacation in Pennsylvania. Not long after, an editor at the Washington Post, where I worked then, called me and said he thought I'd better get myself to Baltimore. It was on fire. There was rioting in more than 100 other cities as well. Nationally, 46 people would die; there would be 21,000 arrests, mostly for looting, and $45 million in damage would be reported.

So I went to Baltimore. As I was driving into the city with a black reporter named Jesse Lewis, I encountered a National Guard roadblock. Armed guardsmen ordered us out of the car, patted us down for weapons. "We're with the Washington Post," I said. That cut no ice. "The Washington post of what?" one guardsman asked.

In downtown Baltimore during those days there was a sense of everything slip-sliding away, out of control, as though someone or something had tilted the world. In several parts of the city, there was smoke and shooting. The gunfire was limited and sporadic, but to a young reporter who hadn't yet seen people seriously trying to kill one another it was very scary. Yet in the suburbs, white kids on April-green lawns were obliviously tossing lacrosse balls back and forth.

The riots were only part of 1968's assault. We had already been through the Tet offensive, in which North Vietnam deliberately accepted the incredible slaughter of its troops -- more than 150,000 killed -- in order to win what would turn out to be a brilliant psychological victory in the United States. On March 31, Lyndon Johnson had withdrawn as a candidate for re-election.

On the night of the Johnson speech, I was one of several reporters traveling with Vice President Hubert Humphrey in Mexico City. He listened to a broadcast of the speech in the living room of the American ambassador and then turned white as a ghost. He was an affable and intelligent man, but I remember thinking that evening that Johnson had done him no favor by withdrawing.

On June 6, Robert Kennedy was killed, and on June 8 I stood by Union Station in Washington late at night and watched his body pass on its way to Arlington National Cemetery. Washington was no longer burning by that time, but great sections of it remained devastated.

On August 20, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the reform-minded regime of Alexander Dubcek. Eight days later in Chicago, as Humphrey was winning a bitter struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination, city police went on a rampage attacking anti-war demonstrators in a nearby park. It seemed reasonable to wonder if democracy, left for dead in Prague, was terminally ill at home too.

As my main assignment for the Post in 1968 was covering Maryland, I spent part of that fall assigned to cover Governor Spiro T. Agnew, whom Richard Nixon, incomprehensibly, had chosen as his candidate for vice president. Nixon had slipped between Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan to steal the Republican nomination; his mission for Agnew was to out-redneck George Wallace, and Agnew worked hard at it.

I was at the television station in Detroit where Agnew made his memorable declaration that "if you've seen one slum, you've seen them all." But by that point in the campaign, numbness was setting in. When I called the Post's national desk, the editor with whom I spoke, tough-minded Dick Harwood, was long past being shocked by Agnew. "Don't lead with the dumb quote," he advised me, and I didn't.

The choice in November between the two old politicians, Humphrey and Nixon, was truly nauseating. Each seemed a caricature, the one a well-meaning windbag, sort of a Midwest version of Jubilation P. Cornpone, and the other an unctuous menace, Uriah Heep with a knife in his pocket. I voted for Humphrey, but I didn't enjoy it.

That election essentially ended 1968. It was a sickening year, yet also an unforgettable one. As it melts into history, for many of us it seems a little less terrible than it did while we were living it -- if only because we were 25 years younger then. But we'd all best hope there's not another year like it lurking around the corner.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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