Watching the delegates at the national Democratic Convention shouting “Bernie or bust” got me thinking about what the “bust” part of that phrase meant. Had those delegates really thought about what a Trump presidency would mean for them? Had they thought about what it would mean for those without the resources to become delegates?
In 1968 I cast my first ballot in a presidential election. I couldn’t vote for Richard Nixon, who had been a largely silent vice-president through my childhood in the 1950s and largely silent during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. But neither could I vote for Hubert Humphrey, who had reluctantly supported the war in Vietnam that so many of us college students were against for personal, political and moral reasons. In the end, I voted for comedian turned political activist Dick Gregory, and Humphrey lost one of the closest elections in political history.
When I voted for Gregory, it was in truth a vote against Humphrey and the Democratic establishment that nominated him. We taught them a lesson but we really didn’t think much about the consequences of electing Nixon. Campaigning on a “law and order” platform (recently adopted by Trump) and a promise to end the Vietnam War, Nixon lived up to half that pledge. He greatly increased federal resources going to local law enforcement agencies – that were in the process of creating SWAT teams—through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration Act. Under Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI stepped up its repression of Black power groups and civil rights activists alike. But instead of ending the war in Vietnam, he extended it to Cambodia and Laos. Beyond that he appointed a Supreme Court that assisted him in slowing down and even halting school integration. Nixon rapidly dismantled Johnson’s “war on poverty” and began a period of “benign neglect” when it came to civil and political rights. And all of this was a prelude to “Watergate.”
Ironically, almost four years to the day of Nixon’s election, I began working for Hubert Humphrey on his return to Capitol Hill. As an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, I served as a legislative assistant to the Minnesota senator in the fall of 1972.
In that position I came to appreciate his long history as a civil and human rights advocate, his dedication to students, farmers and the disabled, and his expertise on nuclear disarmament. I found him to be a warm, witty, humane person and I began to wonder what the country would have been like under a Humphrey rather than a Nixon administration. The civil rights revolution might have led to something more profound rather than ending in a bust.