Buyco on Schumacher, 'The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America's Soul'
Michael Schumacher. The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America's Soul. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Illustrations. xix + 540 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-9289-7.
Reviewed by Raymand Buyco (San Jose State University) Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2022) Commissioned by Ignat Ayzenberg
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56679
Michael Schumacher’s The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul is an extensively researched character examination of each of the power players surrounding the 1968 presidential campaign. Schumacher writes like a novelist, developing the characters in full before his storyline matures. The story unfolds in a way that keeps the reader in suspense and the excitement builds up with anecdotes and conversations, derived from oral histories, biographies, and autobiographies. Even little-known conspiracies based on Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documents are weaved into the narrative. There are several important themes in the book, from Lyndon B. Johnson’s tendency to follow the advice of his hawkish advisors to the detriment of his own political future, to George Wallace’s success in harnessing the backlash to civil rights, to the remaking of Richard Nixon. The book also explores the New Left. Most important is the deep divide that emerges within the Democratic Party as a result of Johnson’s policies in the Vietnam War. The narrative in The Contest is centered on the complex but sympathetic story of Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey’s struggle to break with Johnson for his own political and moral benefit in order to unite the Democratic coalition behind him to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 election.
Schumacher’s Humphrey is a passionate social justice warrior. He is a well-intentioned liberal public servant who is torn between his heart and the brutal realities of party politics amid war and domestic unrest. The author does not stray too far away from the historiographical consensus. The strength of Schumacher’s narrative is that it is structured in such a way that the events on the timeline match up so perfectly in support of his overall character analysis of Humphrey. The author retells the story of how a young Minneapolis mayor led a long-shot outsider’s effort to put a robust civil rights plank in the party’s platform at the 1948 Democratic Party convention in the face of opposition from southern delegates. Yet Schumacher shows that Humphrey’s eventual embrace of a party insider’s political career was based on lessons learned in his early days in the Senate: “The Southern senators, in control of some of the most important committees in the Senate, still harbored deep resentment of Humphrey’s leading the civil rights charge at the 1948 Democratic Convention. Humphrey had barely settled into his desk in the back of the Senate chambers when Richard Russell of Georgia, a venerable figure in the Senate, said, loud enough for Humphrey to hear, ‘Can you imagine the people of Minnesota sending that damn fool down here to represent them?’ Humphrey, stung by this remark, was reduced to tears” (p. 50). A second mistake, according to Schumacher, was the freshman senator’s unwise and “devastating critique” of the Joint Committee on Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures, which prompted a bipartisan group of about twenty-five senators to come to the defense of the powerful committee chair, Senator Richard Byrd (D-VA), by relentlessly attacking Humphrey one by one on the Senate floor (p. 51). Humphrey, learning from his experience, successfully navigated the halls of power to build a solid liberal resume by 1960. Just a few years later, as majority whip, Humphrey was instrumental in helping pass LBJ’s 1964 Civil Rights bill in the US Senate.
There is no doubt that the sources convinced Schumacher that Humphrey was a good, honest man. The author brings the reader close to a man who was regularly self-reflective. Humphrey wanted to be president one day. Yet, perhaps because Humphrey was a man of great character, he lacked the cunning and often ruthless realpolitik of Johnson. He certainly was not as rich and charismatic as the Kennedy brothers, as he found out running against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic primaries. For Humphrey, this meant that his only pathway to the presidency would be through the vice presidency, but that too would require compromise. Becoming LBJ’s running mate in 1964 required that Humphrey acquiesce to all of President Johnson’s policies, misguided or not. Johnson’s terms were laid out in an interview with the Washington Post: “The vice president, Johnson asserted, was allowed to disagree with him until he had made a decision; once the president made up his mind, the vice president was expected to totally support him” (p. 77). Agreeing to the terms would come back to haunt Humphrey in 1968. When Johnson announced to a televised audience that he declined to run for reelection on March 31, 1968, Humphrey’s plan to run after serving two terms as Johnson’s vice president was shattered. Instead, the vice president would have to run in 1968, closely tied to an unpopular president and his policies on an increasingly unpopular war that was dividing the nation. For better or worse, Humphrey, having transformed himself from an idealistic civil rights warrior to an LBJ loyalist, would be the ultimate insider in the 1968 presidential election. This time, being an insider would not be an advantage, and Humphrey would not find his own path until it was too late.
Schumacher seems to have found every relevant quotation by prominent individuals that support his character analysis of Humphrey: “Bill Moyers, Johnson’s former press secretary, who had split with Johnson over the war, had praised Humphrey as ‘a man of unlimited compassion’ suffering from ‘believing that everyone else is as good and decent as he is’” (p. 306). The good man struggled to find himself during the campaign. As New Left and anti-war protesters were battling Mayor Richard Daley’s police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Humphrey blamed them for the violence in his acceptance speech. Schumacher asserts that Humphrey even blamed the rebellious youths for “destroying his big moment, his reward for a lifetime of work and planning” (p. 419). Unfortunately for Humphrey, the evidence supports the notion that the police were largely responsible for the violence. Law and order was on the ballot, and the Democratic nominee did not wish to be completely outflanked by Nixon on the issue, even though he had earlier insisted that “the relationship between ‘law and order’ on the one hand and ‘social justice’ on the other hand should be made plain to all Americans” (p. 306). After all, as Schumacher points out, Humphrey was “more chained to tradition than either Eugene McCarthy or Richard Nixon. He favored the old way of doing business, which meant that he dealt heavily with the political bosses and party movers and shakers” (p. 307). This included paying his respects to Daley.
The narrative is so well written that it reads as if history is unfolding in the moment of reading it. The reader cannot be blamed for rooting for Humphrey to hurry up and find his magic so he could win the “war for America’s soul.” After all, it would be quite difficult to root for Schumacher’s Nixon: “there was something Shakespearian about him, an almost sinister aura that could make one believe that, in the end, he would impale himself on his own foibles” (p. 99). And sinister he was: newly released FBI documents that Schumacher examined confirm two articles printed in the New York Times in December 2016 and January 2017. Nixon was indeed interfering in President Johnson’s peace negotiations with North Vietnam.
Still tied to an unpopular war, Humphrey was jeered by anti-war protesters at almost every campaign stop. Eventually, the vice president found his backbone. On September 30, 1968, Humphrey promised to end the bombing of North Vietnam if elected president, arguing that it was the best way to end the war. Humphrey made a clean break with LBJ on the issue of the war while attempting to unite the Democratic Party and bring in as many anti-war populists into the coalition as possible. He had little more than a month to make it work.
Schumacher’s book is not only a well-researched history but also an intimate look into the personalities who played a major part in fighting for the future of the country. I suspect Schumacher could be criticized for being too favorable toward LBJ’s number two man, but I doubt the available documentary sources would let him do otherwise. Humphrey, by all accounts, was a good and decent man. His main fault was losing the 1968 presidential election. Published in 2018, Schumacher's retelling of the 1968 presidential election is especially relevant considering the two most recent elections at the time of this review. Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was a “battle for the soul of the nation.” There are certainly some important lessons to be learned from this history of politics. Students of political science will find, and/or perhaps reaffirm, that many of the theories they learned often do not work in practice. Activists, if they are open-minded, might learn that pragmatism in addition to their idealism might prove a better course toward achieving their particular goals of social justice. However, there are no guarantees in politics, and this history shows that society does not reach utopia in one election cycle and it can also sometimes take a step forward and two steps back. In The Contest, Schumacher provides historians with a fresh analysis of the relevant primary sources, oral histories, biographies and autobiographies, and other secondary sources, combined with an examination of new documents. Serious history and literature enthusiasts will discover, as did I, that Schumacher’s masterpiece will be difficult to put down.
Citation: Raymand Buyco. Review of Schumacher, Michael, The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America's Soul. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56679This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.