Forty years ago this week, on the eve of the presidential election of 1968 (the last one I wasn’t eligible to vote in), there was a last gasp of hope that Hubert Humphrey had managed to overcome a big early lead in the polls by Richard Nixon. Humphrey was a fiery speaker, a populist, a champion of labor and a leader in the civil rights movement. Nixon, on the other hand, had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. The election was close. So close that it took us into the early hours of Wednesday morning before we knew that Nixon had won.
The president at that time was Lyndon Johnson. We had a love-hate relationship with LBJ. When he came into office five years earlier, I hated him simply for not being JFK. Of course, I was only fifteen at the time and in ninth grade and only thought I knew everything. We loved Johnson for pushing civil rights legislation through Congress, and then we hated him again for getting us so deeply involved in the war. That was Humphrey’s downfall, but sadly there was no secret plan, and that war didn’t end until after Nixon had resigned in disgrace a few years later.
That election was the most compelling political moment of my life, until now. It was also a watershed moment in U.S. history, the beginning of the end of an age of hope and optimism and inspiring leaders that we could look up to. Things were never going to be the same, even though we didn’t realize it right away. Nixon was a paranoid little man who kept lists of enemies that included most of the public figures I admired. It was the politics of exclusion that won the day.
It’s hard not to believe that we’re at another watershed moment. If Barack Obama wins the presidency tomorrow, the nation will be forced to examine its attitude toward race. Our standing in the world community will get a huge boost and restore some of the high standing and good will squandered under Bush.
Obama is the anti-Nixon — expansive, inclusive, open and forward thinking. We can stand a little taller with hope in our hearts, and shut the door on the name-calling and innuendo that the McCain people have resorted to. We can reverse the mistakes of the last four years and put them behind us. The only things that can stop the momentum are fraud, complacency, or not counting the votes. This is too important to let any of that happen.