History Says Be Careful Changing Horses


            Pearl River      I can remember the news that President Lyndon B. Johnson was abandoning the race for a second term in March 1968, like it was yesterday.  I had dropped out of college only a few months before to organize draft resistance, returning to New Orleans from Massachusetts.  I was living then in a roach-infested apartment on 4th Street a couple of blocks from St. Charles Avenue.  I was working on the shipping dock and driving a lift truck for Luzianne Coffee at their Chef Menteur plant in east New Orleans and getting there by bus for a 7am shift.  Having thrown my life and future away in my parents’ view, Johnson’s decision was potentially life-changing for me.  Did I stay the course to fight for peace and justice or make the best of it and crawl back to school?  I can remember being so excited that I couldn’t sleep trying to sort everything out.  I went out to the St. Charles neutral ground and in a fury walked the whole length, dodging streetcars, to the Carrolton bend of the river.  Should I keep organizing against the war?  Could I be a poet or a writer?  Should I go back to school?  I had been to the Spring Mobilization at the UN.  I had marched on the Pentagon with thousands of others.  Everything was chaos and confusion mixed with happiness and excitement.  Did Johnson’s resignation mean we were winning and there would be peace and the end of the draft?  What might happen next to the country – and to me?

For me, I ended up later getting married, trying to go back to school for a couple of months, and trying to sort it out before making a lifetime commitment to organizing.  For the country, we ended up with Richard Nixon as president.  Johnson had been challenged in the primaries by South Dakota Senator George McGovern and New York Senator Robert Kennedy.  One failed to win the nomination and one was assassinated.  The country remained deeply divided.  Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President, emerged from a violent Chicago convention as the Democratic nominee.  Nixon had lost narrowly to Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy in the ’60 election, while Johnson had annihilated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in ’64, but was still a known commodity on the comeback.  The election wasn’t a walkover for Nixon.  He won by only 1% of the popular vote, but outside of the northeast, swamped the electoral vote, also aided by a third party run by George Wallace to his right.  And, so it goes.

History may not repeat, and despite similarities, this scenario would be different.  The country is certainly as divided as it was during the Vietnam War years.  Trump is an ex-president, while Nixon, Johnson, and Humphrey had all been vice-presidents – very well-known politicians.  Despite some hue and cry, it would be amazingly hard for anyone to replace Biden at this point, only a little more than four months before the election and win.  There would be problems in the convention that would test unity, and then little time to make the case, while Trump continued to be, well Trump.  Trump has beaten a woman before in Hillary Clinton, could Kamala Harris do better with such a short runway?  Would California Governor Newsome, a polar opposite from Trump be able to pull the middle towards him?

Who likes any of those odds?  Under those prospects, Trump wins.  Period.  For him not to win, Biden has to recover his form and make the contrasts sharper on his record and his ability.  Johnson would have beaten Nixon.  Like many others in the street protesting Johnson, I was only 19 when he made his announcement, and in 1968, 21 was still the voting age.  Like it or not, it seems to me that history teaches something here.  Similar to so many other elections, people tend to vote for the devil they know, rather than the one they don’t.  People know Trump and Biden very well; the country has to know which devil it wants to live with for four more years.