Politics in historical perspective
“We think these are tumultuous times. The tumult and shouting for 2016 are nothing compared to 1968” – Monte Bona, who ran for Congress in Michigan in 1968
Some people are fired up about Hillary Clinton using a private email server and, by all appearances, lying about it. They fear if she’s elected president, she’ll bring corruption to the oval office.
Other people are scared to death of Donald Trump, who has lied about everything from whether Bark Obama was born in the United States to how much money he has. They don’t believe he has the public policy knowledge or temperament to be president.
Almost all of us are sick to death of campaign surrogates interrupting and talking over each other. We want the election to be over so we don’t have to watch the mud-slinging anymore.
Maybe it’s time for some historical perspective, says Monte Bona, who has been involved in politics and public service for most of his 79 years.
He served 20 years on the Mt. Pleasant City Council, was the key force in establishing the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area and has stayed on with Mt. Pleasant City as the volunteer director of the town’s Community Development and Renewal Agency.
In earlier years, he founded and ran successful businesses and taught political science at the college level.
“We think these are tumultuous times,” he says. “The tumult and shouting for 2016 are nothing compared to 1968.”
Bona was 30 that year and was running for Congress as a moderate Republican in the 16th Congressional District in Michigan, a dominantly Democratic district. Bona lost.
In April 1968, with the nation embroiled in the unpopular Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term as president.
Richard Nixon, who had lost to John Kennedy in the 1960 election, was trying to make a comeback. Other Republican contenders included former Gov. George Romney of Michigan and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York.
The Democratic field included Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, all U.S. senators.
Gov. George Wallace of Alabama had created his own political party, the American Independent Party, and was making a third-party run for the presidency. Wallace “exploited deep-seated prejudices and race issues and divisions over Vietnam,” Bona says.
In that context, violence and mayhem broke out.
In April, actually a couple of weeks before Johnson dropped out of the presidential race, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Race riots broke out in cities across the nation.
Two months later, Robert Kennedy won the California Republican primary and was assassinated just after giving his victory speech.
One month after the Kennedy assassination, with the Democratic National Convention set to convene in Chicago, the Youth International Party (Yippies) announced they would shut down the city by dropping loads of nails from overpasses to tie up traffic and by putting LSD in the drinking water.
In violent demonstrations during the convention, about 500 demonstrators were injured, including 100 who required hospital treatment.
At the time, Hillary Clinton was a college student living in a Chicago suburb. She went downtown to meet up with an acquaintance who was helping bandage up demonstrators hit by police clubs.
The final Republican candidate that year was Nixon, with Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential running mate. The Democrats nominated Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, with Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine as their vice presidential pick.
The outcome was razor thin. No candidate got a majority of the popular vote. Nixon got 43.4 percent of the popular vote but won 32 states, which translated to 301 electoral votes. That was about 30 electoral votes more than required for an electoral college majority.
Humphrey got 42.7 percent of the popular vote but won just 13 states and the District of Columbia. He came out with 190 electoral votes.
If you only count the 63 million votes cast for major-party candidates, the difference between Nixon and Humphrey was about a half-million votes.
Meanwhile, George Wallace got 13 percent of the popular vote, won five states, and ended up with 48 electoral votes.
If you’re concerned about corruption, Bona says, you need to look back at the 1972 election, the next election after 1968.
Nixon and Agnew were seeking re-election. The Democrats nominated South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. “McGovern was really a decent man,” Bona says. “But the Republicans painted him as a socialist.”
Early in the campaign year, even before the party conventions, five men carrying burglary tools, bugging equipment and wads of $100 bills were arrested at 2:30 a.m. in the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The offices were in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C.
By October, one month before the election, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, citing “Justice Department and FBI files,” reported the break-in was part of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” conducted on behalf of Nixon’s re-election campaign.
But Woodward’s and Bernstein’s stories didn’t get a whole lot of traction with the electorate. Nixon and Agnew won in a landslide. They got more than 60 percent of the popular vote and 520 out of 539 electoral votes.
Because Bona had been a good Republican warrior, the party committee in the 16th Congressional District in Michigan chose him as a presidential elector. In essence, he was elected to the Electoral College.
So, as outlined in the U.S. Constitution and federal law, on Dec. 11, the first Monday after the first Wednesday in December 1972, Bona and other Republican electors gathered at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.
Michigan Gov. Bill Millikan presided over a roll-call vote of the electors. “I cast my vote for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew,” Bona recalls.
Votes from similar meetings in all states were transmitted to Washington, where, on Jan. 6, the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate opened the votes, counted them and read the totals to a joint session of Congress.
Twenty days later, Nixon was inaugurated to a second term.
That’s when things went completely crazy in Washington.
One month after the inauguration, a jury found two employees of the Nixon campaign guilty of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping in the Watergate break-in.
“It was really quite amazing,” Bona says. “Nixon got over 60 percent of the popular vote. But if the campaign had gone a few more months, McGovern would have won.”
Two months after the inauguration, a U.S. attorney in Maryland charged Vice President Spiro Agnew with bribery and tax evasion for his behavior several years earlier while governor of Maryland. In turned out Agnew had taken somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000 in bribes.
In a plea deal, Agnew resigned as vice president, paid a $10,000 fine and was placed on probation.
Nixon appointed Gerald Ford, congressman from Michigan and House minority leader as vice president.
The next couple of years were laden with televised congressional hearings, prosecutions and White House aides going to prison.
In August 1974, 20 months after the inauguration, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. Ford was sworn in as president. The new president appointed Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, the third U.S. vice president during a single presidential term.
That gave Ford the distinction, as Wikipedia put it, of being “the first and to date only person to have served as both vice president and president of the United States without being elected to either office.”
So in 2016, an election year journalists, historians and many average citizens view as exceptional, if not outrageous, Bona takes “a lot of consolation” in recalling the turmoil the nation has survived in the past.
As Robert Kennedy put it in an impromptu speech the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, “We’ve had difficult times in the past…and we will have difficult times in the future…. But the vast majority…in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.”