As we close out the final days of 2018, it is important we stop and understand what this year has meant to the citizens of our nation. To do so, I decided to look at not only the events of 2018 but to use this opportunity to look back fifty years to see the incredible events of that year.
In her exceedingly well-reviewed new book, These Truths: A History of the United States, award-winning historian, Jill Lepore, notes that the US was designed around three principles or truths: political equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty. The Founders believed we could establish good government “from reflection and choice” as opposed to being “forever destined to depend, for their political constitutional protection, on accident and force.” She tells a story of repeated torment and betrayal offset by decency and great innovation. Of a nation that has repeatedly departed from its founding truths but always, even in the worst of times, returned to them.
So, it is with this idea in mind, worthwhile to review the events of the past year and those of 1968 to determine our nation’s ability to recover from prior departures from a failure of “reflection and choice” to return to times where decency and innovation restored our commitment to these ideals. Here is what happened as these two years — fifty years apart — ensued:
In the midst of the Vietnam war where over 54,000 American lives were lost, the year saw a beleaguered President Lyndon Johnson be challenged first by Sen. Eugene McCarthy then, in March the announcement that Johnson’s former Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, announce his own run only to lead, two weeks later, to the surprise announcement by the President that he would not run for re-election.
Two stunning events happened shortly thereafter. On April 4 while preparing to give a speech in Memphis Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, triggering riots by blacks in US cities. Only two months later, on June 5, Robert Kennedy is shot and killed in Los Angeles immediately after winning the California Democratic primary. The August Democratic convention in Chicago turns into a riotous event. The uprising in Chicago saw the National Guard called out and the arrest of 150. To many, this event signaled a national uprising against the belief that governments could be trusted to do the right thing.
The Democrats’ selection of Vice President Hubert Humphrey was seen by more progressive Democrats as a desire of the establishment to maintain the status quo. To young people, it was seen as a commitment to keep the war in Vietnam going on while more young men were being cut down month after month. The GOP candidate Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s “law and order” campaign leads to his election, barely, while third party candidate, George Wallace secures 19% of the vote and wins five states.
One of the most striking but little recognized events of that year was the request by US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren secretly signaled to President Johnson his intention to resign by the end of the year, anticipating that Nixon might win the election.. Incredibly, Johnson chose not to appoint a liberal replacement to carry on the leftward leaning of the Warren Court. As a result, with the election of Nixon, he makes the appointment of Warren Burger, starting a five decade process of tilting the Court to a right wing orientation that continues to this very day.
Later in the year, three astronauts flew for the first time around the moon and returned safely leading to the first landing on the moon a year later. But, the nation was left to deal with the residue of the disruptive events that shattered a belief that we could establish good government “from reflection and choice”, two concepts that few Americans could associate with the events of 1968.
Fifty years later, our nation is still challenged by events that divide us along lines of gender, race, religion and ethnicity. According to a new NBC\Wall St Journal poll out this month, Americans, just before the stock market collapse of the past two months, cited that the improving economic outlook was the key public event of 2018, Running closely with this finding was the realization that the American people viewed the year of the Parkland shootings and the mass slayings at the Pittsburgh synagogue as either the first or second most significant event of the year.
It was a year where the separation of migrant families and the number of immigrants seeking asylum was deemed in the poll almost as significant to Americans as the spate of terrible hurricanes and fires that damaged major parts of our nation — both attributable to aspects of climate change. Uncertainties over the outcome of the tariff wars and trade negotiations was followed by the Mueller investigation and the advent of the #MeToo movement to expose sexual harassment.
On the political platform, in a review of the Trump presidency, Michelle Goldberg, columnist of the NYTimes wrote that this was “The Year Justice Caught Up with Trumpworld”. She noted that “things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.”
But the larger question is whether our nation, in 2019 is on a path to returning to its founding truths, returning slowly to a centrist government that is what most Americans believe governs best or will continue to be one of bitter divisiveness that turns citizen against citizen.
But, she also notes, that in 2018 this was a year when, perhaps, things may have started to begin sounding normal again. When the year started out Michael Cohen was still the loyal fixer for Donald Trump; Paul Manafort was still sleeping in his own bed waiting for a pardon from Trump; Special Counsel Mueller’s team had not yet sent a person to prison; Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, was still indulging in enormous acts of corruption, Rob Porter, the presidential assistant, despite being accused previously of abuse by two ex-wives, was still in the White House, Gen. John Kelly was the new Chief of Staff trying to rein in Trump’s tweets, Steve Brannon had still not had his private sell out of Trump aired in Michael Wolfe’s book “Fire and Fury” and Gen. Jim Mattis had not resigned in protest as a result of a quixotic decision of the president to withdraw troops from Syria and Iraq.
The last twelve months has turned all this upside down and more. But the larger question is whether our nation, in 2019 is on a path to returning to its founding truths, returning slowly to a centrist government that is what most Americans believe governs best or will continue to be one of bitter divisiveness that turns citizen against citizen instead of rallying together to challenge the larger important issues of political unity, equal rights for all, and addressing the issues of our perilous infrastructure, climate change and permissive laws that permit our sickest citizens to use assault weapons on the best and most innocent of us.
Here’s hoping for a healthy and optimistic year ahead to each and every one of you.