PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager

Time and Again

Standin' in line
down at the County Hall
I heard a man say
"Gonna build some new apartments for you all."
Everybody want to know
why I sing the blues
I been around a long time
I've really paid my dues

-- BB King

Washington, D.C.
Thirty years ago four great national tragedies were performed in the space of a springtime. The echoes of 1968 have not yet ceased to reverberate across the American landscape from slum to boardroom. Yet neither the events nor their consequences are much discussed, or even remembered. Partially this is because of the American notion that history is anything older than the latest advertisement, and its corollary belief that events more than two years ago are about the same as events two centuries ago: i.e. negligible. But mostly the silence is the result of the natural tendency of those who profit from squelching an upheaval to pretend that things worked out the way they should.

In its essence 1968 was like the great European revolution year of 1848 during which even the bourgeoisie perforce chose the streets as the only available forum to assert their unacknowledged power. Like 1848, its aftermath resulted in a flood of spiritual exiles who colonized the world in their diaspora. And as with 1848, the official structures of political and economic repression were reassembled afterward in slightly more disguised, but nonetheless excruciatingly durable form.

The four political tragedies for America were tied together by more than chronology. In a Shakespeare play, not just the hero is tragic, but all the characters as well. Both our leaders and ourselves failed to rise to the occasion. And the best book about the year remains the work of three journalists from the London Sunday Times, called with typical British approximation, An American Melodrama. (Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page: Viking Press, 1969)

The events of 1968 warped the proper working of the political system out of true for a generation. Together they ensured a lack of balance in public matters that led to our becoming the kind of country in which men as ludicrously inadequate as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan could each be elected twice.

The missed opportunities for growth, reformation and repair within the political system in 1968 were more tragic even than the public funerals that punctuated that dismal spring. The principal events that could have gone the other way and would, if so, have led to straightforward challenges between competing American visions were spread from March to June.

In chronological order, they were:

* Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the Presidential race

* Robert Kennedy's entrance to it * Martin Luther King's assassination

* Eugene McCarthy's loss of the California primary

Many would add Robert Kennedy's assassination, but that was a tragedy only for a certain segment of society, not society as a whole. Much like the assassination of Malcolm X four years earlier, the death of Robert Kennedy affected his own wedge of society far more than it did the national polity.

In Malcolm's case as well as Robert's, the loss muddied the self-expression of more people in the opinion amplifying business than of regular folks, though part of the danger of each was that he certainly had attracted his share of the latter.

Lyndon's withdrawal was a continuation of his lifelong habit of hiding behind the loftiest expressed motives whenever doing anything particularly convenient. While his courage on civil rights is justly celebrated, his calculation in offering the conservatives a war they could believe in long enough to let him alone was underplayed at the time by his defenders and subsequently forgotten by, apparently, just about everybody.

The closeted gay editorialist Joe Alsop used to taunt Lyndon about having to prove his "manhood" by continuing to prosecute the war long after its utter, horrid futility had become obvious to some in the defense and intelligence mandarinates. Unfortunately, the taunts worked, so much so that Johnson decided he would rather have his war than reelection.

Eugene McCarthy won the battle of expectations in the New Hampshire primary with 35 percent of the vote against the Democratic establishment. By withdrawing from the primaries after New Hampshire, Lyndon refused to come out and fight for the hearts and minds of the voters on the issue of the war. This was the first political tragedy of 1968, and the others all flowed from it.

Lyndon's unwillingness to brave the electorate and stand up for his convictions meant he could try to claim the high moral ground as President without having to convince Democrats he deserved to be renominated, or the country that he deserved to be reelected.

Lyndon's flight from the electorate's judgment was a piece of flawed pragmatism curiously paralleled by Robert Kennedy's rush toward it. It was widely assumed at the end of 1967 that Robert's best play was to point toward 1972, when he would still be youthful and vigorous. As heir-apparent in the Democratic party, Robert had the luxury of time and the likelihood of public forgiveness for almost any intervening sins except greed and pride. Like Hamlet, his job was to wait for the old king to finish his natural term out and not try to hurry things along so he could become king himself a lot sooner.

Once Eugene had united the peace movement with the middle class in New Hampshire, Eugene had every likelihood of being able to make a credible showing against whoever Lyndon designated as his successor in the primaries. At that juncture, Robert's most honorable course was to assist Eugene. Slightly less honorable, but still understandable, would have been a position of neutrality.

But the demon Impatience met the temptress Opportunity, a situation not unknown to Hamlet, Oedipus, or Julius Caesar. And the result was not just the death of one tragically flawed man, but material diminution of the country's well-being. By splitting the antiwar movement, Robert virtually ensured the continuation of Lyndon's war policy, either by Lyndon's Democratic heir or, as it turned out, by his Republican successor.

Martin Luther King's assassination either in sight of, or at the behest of, FBI agents (or both) was much more a tragedy for the white people of America than for its black underclass. Underclasses have a way of getting their own back, sometimes in bloodshed but often by merely spreading squalor, whereas not too many ruling majorities have ever been saved by those they oppressed.

Martin almost managed it. Having progressed beyond civil rights toward economic justice, Martin was that most dangerous of men: a standard-bearer who wanted nothing for himself but everything for his followers. In that respect he is resembled more by Eugene than by Robert and Lyndon. Deprivation of Martin's evolving understanding of the role of nonviolence as a supremely practical political weapon has been the worst consequence of his death.

What spluttered to life in India in the early part of the century was a spiritual answer to physical deprivation, and the flame was lit again in Birmingham jail. When it was blown out at the Lorraine Motel there was no guarantee it would ever be rekindled again in human history. There still isn't.

Eugene's loss to Robert in California by less than 1 percent of the vote meant that no one would hold the political and economic establishment responsible for the way they wasted the national treasure fighting real foreign peasants in the name of some quasi-theological construct like anticommunism or the domino theory. Without Eugene's radical traditionalism at the head of the antiwar movement, the way lay open for the establishment to keep the war going, keep building too-large automobiles, and keep a quarter of the population (and more than a third of its children) in poverty.

Had Robert lived to try to bring his famous pragmatism to bear upon the war and the economy it so well represented, his mettle would have been sorely tested. Examination of the record shows that his principal objection to the war was that it was impractical. Martin and Eugene said that it was unwinnable but, even if winnable, still immoral.

In chaotic and desperate circumstances such as prevailed after the California primary, it was obvious that America had failed the test posed by the war. Too many of us profited from it for the rest of us to be able to stop it, too many let it go on for fear of losing the approval of the establishment. Lyndon's electoral cowardice, Robert's hasty miscalculations, and Eugene's defeat all frustrated any impetus the nation might have had toward self-regeneration. And Martin's death meant we had failed to convert a struggle for legal rights into progress toward human dignity. These overpriced tragedies remain a glut on the market even today.

James McCarty Yeager served as press secretary for Eugene McCarthy's independent campaign for President in 1976.

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