50 Years Ago Tuesday: A Night in American Political and Network News History

https://youtu.be/xTeW-wkin6A

This is another interesting week in the transition of life for baby-boomers.

Jerry at 70

Jerry Mathers (The Beaver) turns 70 June 3, 2018

Already, we’ve shared that today, June 3, is the 70th birthday of Jerry Mathers, an icon of the TV Generation. In our TV minds, The Beav is still between 8 and 14 years old, depending on the rerun we watch. I commented to a friend today, I wonder if Beaver at 70 would be able to get out of that big bowl of soup on a billboard in the legendary “In the Soup” episode.

Tuesday is the 50th anniversary of a dark day in the spring of ’68 and American history. Within the span of five days in April 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek a second full term as president. That was on a Sunday night. The following Thursday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. June 5, 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy won the California Primary. Moments after leaving the ballroom where he delivered his victory speech, he was shot and later died at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan.

RFK 1

Robert and Ethel Kennedy moments before his California Primary acceptance speech June 5, 1968

My colleague Stu Shostak shared with us footage from YouTube of ABC News’ live coverage of the California Primary returns, the victory speech and then the awful news of the shooting (Kennedy died approximately 28 hours later).

This was a different era in politics. Most states in the late 1960s still did not hold primaries to select delegates for the national conventions. In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy stunned the country by finishing within two percentage points of President Johnson in the opener, the New Hampshire Primary. That opened Kennedy’s eyes to a vulnerability in the incumbent. Shortly thereafter, he announced his candidacy and entered the remaining primaries.

Two things led to Johnson’s withdrawal in a Sunday night address to the nation that ostensibly was to announce a new strategy in Vietnam. One was the strong performance of McCarthy and Kennedy’s entry into the race. Second was Walter Cronkite’s series of reports from the battlefront on the CBS Evening News. On the final evening, the Friday before Johnson’s address, Cronkite delivered a rare personal commentary. By that point, Cronkite had overtaken Chet Huntley and David Brinkley as the top-rated anchor in network news. In his perspective, Cronkite suggested that the best the United States could hope for in Vietnam was a negotiated truce. A number of books and other published accounts quoted Johnson as saying to his wife Lady Bird and his close associates, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Two nights later, in a dramatic addendum that was not included in advance copies of the speech to the media, Johnson uttered his famous lines, “I shall not seek, nor will not accept another term as your President.” CBS News correspondent Harry Reasoner, anchor of the late-night CBS Sunday News, reflected first on the stunning news of Johnson’s departure from the campaign instead of the Vietnam strategy.

Kennedy, largely on name value, overtook McCarthy in the primaries where both were entered. McCarthy won in Oregon where Kennedy had not campaigned. The X factor was Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

In 1960, Humphrey badly wanted the Presidency but ran out of money after several primary losses to John F. Kennedy. Humphrey accepted the number two slot with Johnson in 1964. With Johnson out of the way, Humphrey opted to enter the race in 1968; however, Johnson’s late decision was past the deadline for Humphrey to enter any remaining primaries.

RFK 3

ABC News covers RFK’s victory speech for the California Primary June 5, 1968.  Note that ABC was still in black-and-white for remote live coverage.

Humphrey was forced to go the traditional route of negotiating with Democratic Party bosses such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. CBS News estimated that even with Kennedy’s victory in the California Primary, Humphrey would enter the Democratic National Convention with approximately 1,200 of the needed 1,340 delegates for the nomination. Kennedy would have slightly more than 1,000. The battle between the two to cross the finish line may have been one of the most epic in American political history. We could have seen a brokered convention or perhaps a delegate vote that went beyond the first ballot (something I have not seen in my lifetime).

Howard K. Smith

Howard K. Smith of ABC News reports on the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy

This historical ABC News coverage takes you back to that fateful night in 1968. I was about to enter my sophomore year of high school. This was the first week of summer vacation from school. As a young political junkie, I sat up after midnight to hear Kennedy’s victory speech for the California Primary, then went to bed. I awoke the next morning to around-the-clock news coverage of the shooting and perpetual analysis of whether Kennedy would survive.

We will never know to the degree this changed political history. Even if you are not a fan of politics, I encourage you to watch this as a snapshot of history.

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