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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Janison: How parallels to 1968 fit — and how they don’t

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the former Osram Sylvania light bulb factory in Manchester, N.H., June 30, 2016. Credit: AP

Mentions of 1968 keep making their way into news reports, commentaries and conversations.

Forbes says the 2016 election “is looking a lot like” the one 48 years ago. A Princeton historian pens a piece in The Atlantic with a headline asking if we are “repeating the mistakes of 1968.” The Vox website suggests “1968 was still much worse.”

On the surface, you have a choice of parallels.

Last week Republican nominee-to-be Donald Trump lifted a line straight out of Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign by vowing to “restore law and order.”

Of course, violent crime rose in the Nixon years and White House violations of law became legendary. But we didn’t know that yet, and the words had appeal.

Maybe you could compare Nixon’s 1968 bid to Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. He was coming back from a failed run eight years earlier, served in the Senate, and faced trust issues among voters who’d seen him before.

Or is Clinton a little like Democrat Hubert Humphrey, the vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, whose unpopular Vietnam legacy weighed down his would-be successor? Not quite.

The current Democratic administration has had its fatal quagmires in the Mideast, but not on the scale of Vietnam. Johnson’s job approval rating sank to 35 percent in August 1968; President Barack Obama’s is currently reported at 51 percent. His former secretary of state isn’t running from Obama’s record the way Humphrey did from Johnson’s.

Can Trump be said to draw just a bit from Alabama segregationist George Wallace, a career Democrat who ran as an independent candidate, garnering 13 percent in 1968? Or do many populist candidacies simply sound similar?

Before the term “politically correct” was in widespread use, Wallace told supporters at a New York City rally that October: “The liberals and left-wingers in both national parties have brought us to the domestic mess we are in, and also the foreign mess we are in.”

According to news accounts, Wallace stopped his speech to taunt protesters at the raucous Madison Square Garden event, and accused the news media of aiding and abetting “the rebellion in our streets.”

The loose chatter about 1968 seemed to gain momentum this time with concerns about racial tensions and inequality and protests in cities following police shootings of African-Americans, and from the prospect of clashes at the conventions.

The televised sight of cops beating protesters outside the Democratic parley in Chicago mocked the image of Humphrey, who was known as the “Happy Warrior.”

The difference this time is that Republican delegates and insiders are showing more dissatisfaction with their presumptive nominee than the Democrats, and disorder so far has erupted outside GOP rallies.

But neither party is entirely unified.

Perhaps the movement that coalesced around anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy was echoed in some ways by Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic nomination this year.

The McCarthy scenario had a different script. In June, an assassin shot Sen. Robert F. Kennedy as he was moving toward the Democratic presidential nomination.

Slayings of police officers in Dallas (and earlier in New York City) instantly brought to many older minds a cluster of killings of cops by the so-called Black Liberation Army in the early 1970s.

But there are big differences today in the way campaigns are conducted, the organization of the parties, the feel of the cities, the nature of economic problems, the way we communicate.

Familiar themes may resound, but we do not hurtle backward, for better or worse.


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