The other morning, awaiting arrival of The Sun News, I jotted down the dates of the U.S. presidential elections in which I have voted and watched and reported or commented on as a newspaperman.
The election years stretch back to 1960, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Milhous Nixon both made brief campaign stops on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where I was a freshman journalism student. Two recollections from that election: My mother was certain that the election of Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would bring papal control of the United States; I cannot remember whether I voted for Kennedy or Nixon.
I thought about that 1960 campaign – the first in which I was eligible to vote – after a discussion about claims by doomsayers, including some writers of letters to the editor, that the republic surely will fall if the incumbent president is not replaced – or, depending on your political point of view, if the challenger does win.
Editorial Board colleague Dan Golden had asked if I recalled any presidential elections that were more important than others. I offered the 1964 election of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became president after President Kennedy was assassinated (1963) and then won his own term in ’64. His opponent was Barry Goldwater, an arch conservative. Goldwater carried six states, Arizona and the Deep South.
When President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, he noted that would the end Democratic control of the South. The Nixon campaign and election in 1968, when Johnson did not seek a second term, started Republican control of South Carolina and other Deep South states that had voted solidly, overwhelmingly Democratic throughout the 1900s.
The ’64 campaign perhaps is retrospectively more important than it was 48 years ago. However, Johnson used his considerable political power to pass the Civil Rights Act and it’s unlikely Goldwater could have done that. The war in Vietnam was not yet a national issue, and “total victory in war” Goldwater did not campaign against U.S. involvement.
Nixon did, in 1968, and he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are credited for ending U.S. participation in a war that had become immensely unpopular. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic candidate in 1968. Nixon was re-elected in 1972 and I don’t offhand recall his opponent. Nixon lied about his involvement in the Watergate burglary by his political operatives and in 1974 resigned the presidency when it was clear that he would be impeached by the House of Representatives and probably found guilty by the Senate.
Gerald Ford, appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, rose to the presidency, pardoned Nixon and lost to Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976. Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 made Carter a one-term president – a scenario Republicans would like this year.
Reagan served two terms and I don’t even remember who opposed him in 1984. George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s veep, won the White House in 1988 but was also a one-term president after William Jefferson Clinton won in 1992. Clinton won re-election in 1996 (was Bob Dole his opponent?) – a scenario Democrats like for 2012.
George W. Bush won in 2000 over Al Gore in a close, disputed election ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. The second President Bush was re-elected in 2004when John Kerry was the Democratic candidate. President Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008. I remember Gore, Kerry and McCain because they are still in the news, Gore not as much as the latter who are U.S. senators.
I don’t see this presidential election as even close to “the most important in our lifetimes,” as a friend said. For important elections, those which elected men who undoubtedly were the leaders the nation needed, look to 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the first of four terms, guiding the nation through the Great Depression and most of World War II, and 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won over a trio of segregationist Democrats.
The importance of the 2012 election will fade swiftly as the republic goes forward with either a re-elected president or a new man in the White House.
D.G. Schumacher is a senior writer on the Editorial Board of The Sun News. He may be contacted at dschumacher@ thesunnews.com