Skip to main content

Hearing a Muted Echo of 1968

Democratic Party unity was an issue 40 years ago, too.

The American Presidency Project hosts the presidential nomination acceptance speeches of Democratic and Republican candidates dating back to the beginning of the last century and, for the GOP, to James Garfield's acceptance letter in 1880.

With at least one organization, Recreate '68, hoping to recall the positive spirit of the 1968 Democratic Party convention (no mean feat given its violent denouement), we take a look today at the speech given by Hubert Humphrey, then a senator from Minnesota, in accepting his party's nomination.

The national convention followed the assassination of candidate Robert Kennedy two months before. Humphrey, while having been a candidate, had not run in any primaries but won by the acclamation of party grandees. The painful results of that smoke-filled room tradition evolved into the complex nationwide nominating process that both parties endured this year.

While there are some surface similarities between 1968 and 2008 — a generally unpopular war, a rise in political awareness among the young, a lack of an incumbent to contest the election — Humphrey's speech starts on a note that Barack Obama's is unlikely to mimic: an elegy for the violence outside the auditorium doors. "Surely we have learned the lesson that violence breeds more violence and that it cannot be condoned — whatever the source."

Humphrey cited St. Francis of Assisi in calling for convention delegates to pray — "each in our own war" — for our country. His call for prayer and mention of the Italian cleric known for his devotion to animals was the most overt citation of religion in the speech, which contrasts with many of the 2008 addresses given so far, including an almost de rigueur shout-out of "God bless America."

He did give a shout-out to the big word of the current Obama campaign, "change."

"It is the special genius of the Democratic Party that it welcomes change, not as an enemy but as an ally ... not as a force to be suppressed, but as an instrument of progress to be encouraged."

And foreshadowing Hillary Clinton's at-times bitter loss, Humphrey addressed the divisions of the '68 party and its failed harder-left candidates (and hang-dog incumbent). "There is always the temptation to leave the scene of battle in anger and despair, but those who know the true meaning of democracy accept the decision of today, but never relinquish their right to change it tomorrow."

It was a theme he returned to later in the speech.

"And may I say to those who have differed with their neighbor or those who have differed with a fellow Democrat, that all of your goals, that all of your high hopes, that all of your dreams, all of them will come to naught if we lose this election. And many of them can be realized with a victory that can come to us."

Humphrey, who was vice president in an administration waging war in Vietnam, had a tightrope to walk in making the requisite call for peace while not throwing in the towel. And so he made no hard moves to the right or the left:

"No one knows what the situation in Vietnam will be on January 20, 1969.

"Every heart in America prays that, by then, we shall have reached a cease-fire in all Vietnam, and be in serious negotiation toward a durable peace.

"Meanwhile, as a citizen, a candidate, and Vice President, I pledge to you and to my fellow Americans, that I shall do everything within my power to aid the negotiations and to bring a prompt end to this war."

But, of course, storm clouds had arisen on the periphery of the Soviet empire, just as the West has now witnessed the Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. "Last week," Humphrey said from the podium, "we witnessed once again in Czechoslovakia the desperate attempt of tyranny to crush out the forces of liberalism by force and brutal power — to hold back change."

Following the convention, Humphrey's popularity inched up a negligible 2 percentage points, according to Gallup polling, and he eventually lost that November to Richard Nixon. We'll examine his speech when the spotlight shifts to John McCain and the GOP next week.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.