1968: The Presidential Election Campaign
When in the early spring of 1968 I found myself in Paris and ready to take off hitch hiking in a southerly direction, the name of Orléans appealed to me as my first destination. I was lucky to get a lift all the way there with a truck driver. He spoke not a word of English and I spoke no French but we managed to get on well and he stopped for lunch at a café where we both ate steak with pommes frites and drank red wine. He was very good company and having lunch with him provided a window for me onto the French way of life.
I met some very interesting folks as I rode south. One man spoke perfect English and was absolutely scathing about English and American tourists not speaking anything but their native tongue. “It is lazy,” he railed. “And it is insulting to the natives of the country they are visiting.” I guess he was condemning me along with all the rest but he was a very nice guy and drove me all the way to Lyon.
When I got to Grenoble I met and fell in with a group of English university students, two young women and a young man who took me to this great café which was very cheap and served delicious food. They were all good conversationalists and my short time with them seemed to bring me out of myself a bit. My next ride down to Nice was with a beautiful blond caucasian woman who I guessed was in her early thirties. I thought she was a business person of some description as she was very smartly dressed but the language barrier prevented any conversation so I simply gazed out the window as we zoomed along mountain roads carved out of alarmingly vertiginous cliffs.
My plan was to hitch across the south coast of France and then on into Spain. It soon became clear that I’d been lucky with lifts down from Paris as people were not stopping for me along the southern coast. My meals were mostly a stick of French bread and cheese unlike in Paris where Marc and I ate in great inexpensive restaurants and drank good wine. But as I trudged through Toulon and Marseille with my bread and cheese, I walked as much as I rode. I managed to get a lift as far as Barcelona and from there took a train south as I wanted to visit Morocco. Stupidly I didn’t buy any food for the train to Algeciras, thinking I could get something to eat on board but this was not the case. I shared a compartment with a large Spanish family who brought out their lunch to eat and immediately offered me some. I was too embarrassed to accept but when it became clear that I actually had no food, they insisted and I was very grateful as, by this time, I was extremely hungry.
From Algeciras I took the ferry across the Strait of Gibralter to Tangier but because I had long hair and looked like a hippy they refused me entry and sent me back. I hitched a ride with an American service family who got me to the rock of Gibralter and by the time I got back to Paris the student rebellion had all but paralysed the country. I flew back to London on what I later learned was the last flight out before a general strike shut everything down.
I returned to San Francisco with big ideas of getting myself back into the psychedelic poster business. I went to see Bill Graham at the Fillmore who paid me a few hundred dollars on the sales of the four Fillmore posters I had done. This was before he took over the copyrights and deprived Wes Wilson, Bonnie MacLean and myself of any future royalties.
The reality was that my mental state was unhealthy and the idea of getting myself back into the poster business proved to be a goal which I was in no condition to reach. It was at this point that I went to see Doctor Weinberg who prescribed me some sedatives and suggested I get a job. So I went back to work on the waterfront. My father Blackie wanted me to stay on the front, get on the B-List, which was a step up from going into the hall each morning, and take art classes at night school. It was actually a very good plan but I was determined to go back to London and that was that. I worked as much as I could and saved my money.
Though I had followed my father’s wishes and kept my hair short while working on the front there was one clerk who was on the B-list who had shoulder length hair and he simply ignored the cat calls which inevitably occurred when he walked down a pier. “Are you a boy or a girl?” was a regular refrain. One guy I noticed on the waterfront was a forklift truck driver who had hippyish long hair but because he was tough nobody gave him a hard time. His nickname was ‘the Greek’ and I was to make his acquaintance in dramatic circumstances later in the year. A young man from our neighbourhood in Mill Valley was also working on the front. His name was Steve and he too had a bad time with drugs but unlike my experience with LSD, which gave me psychological problems, he had become physically addicted to speed. Steve had cleaned up but looked like he’d seen a ghost when he talked about his time strung out on amphetamines.
The presidential campaign began soon after the Republicans chose Richard Nixon as their candidate. I remember Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California, making an unsuccessful bid for the candidacy along with Nelson Rockefeller but it was tricky Dick who won in the end. After the harrowing Democratic convention in Chicago which was beset by violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and equally violent police tactics, Hubert Humphrey emerged as the Democratic candidate and both he and Nixon found they were in a three horse race with George Wallace who ran as an independent.
Wallace was the governor of Alabama and a Democrat who made his name on the international stage as a rabid opponent of racial integration. According to my father he originally was pretty liberal but lost an election to a white supremacist and vowed never to lose another, hence embracing the cause of racial segregation.
Every night on the television news during that campaign, a clip of Wallace played from whichever packed auditorium he was in that day. As there was always a section of the crowd with heckling opponents, he would shout loudly to the baying mass: “You communists and anarchists better have your say because after November 4th you are through in this country!” At this the crowd of supporters roared its approval.
Wallace’s campaign garnered a lot of support in the bay area. His basic appeal was for white segregationists and though we up north didn’t have the kind of segregation they had down south there was a racial divide which operated economically. Mill Valley was a case in point. By the time I graduated from Tam High there were only two families of colour who lived there. Whenever a black person would try to buy a house in Mill Valley, the realtor would jack the price up so high it became unaffordable. Rumour had it that the first black teacher at Tam High, Mr Marshall, tried to buy a house in our town and was kept out by the prohibitive price hike.
So there were no men in white Klan uniforms burning crosses on people’s lawns but the end result was the same. The majority of black people in Marin County all lived in Marin City, not Mill Valley, Sausalito or Tiburon and throughout my time at Tam High there were regular disturbances involving white and black students. As the grade schools I had gone to were full of white children, the only black people I ever met as a kid were friends of my parents.
I was always curious about the far right and went with an Australian friend to hear George Wallace speak at the Cow Palace. It was a spooky experience. The place was packed solid with white people from all walks of life. The hecklers occupied a relatively small section but they were very loud and gave Wallace his cue to repeat the mantra I’d heard every night on the news: “You anarchists and communists…etc.”
By this time I was reading Rolling Stone magazine and I saw a piece about a recording session that Elvis Presley was doing in Memphis and it stated that the studio was decorated with Wallace for President posters. Elvis was always very careful not to voice his political opinions and it is true that he had many close friendships with black artists. Memphis photographer Ernest C Withers, who was black, photographed Presley a few times and said of him: “I was there one time when a reporter asked him why he’d called a black man ‘mister.’ Not too many white people did that back then. And Elvis said, ‘I called him mister because he’s a man.’”
I’ve seen photos of Elvis shaking hands with George Wallace but, years later, when the politician was in a wheelchair after an assassination attempt.
Another celebrity who was questioned by the media about possible sympathy for the governor of Alabama was actor John Wayne who stated: “The only Wallace I know is Hal Wallis.” It was claimed that Wayne had contributed $30,000 to Wallace’s campaign but the Duke denied that, saying that he was a Nixon supporter.
Nixon seemed a reborn candidate in 1968. After his humiliating defeats, first as president against John Kennedy in 1960 and then as governor of California in 1962 when he lost to the incumbent Pat Brown. He famously told reporters: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
But this time he’d been groomed by Madison Avenue executives who sold him like soap powder. Chief among his advisors were Bob Haldeman, an ad executive at J. Walter Thompson and John Ehrlichman, a corporate lawyer. Both these men later went to federal prison for their roles in the Watergate conspiracy. Nixon made speeches about the war in Vietnam which sounded meaningful but said nothing. He concentrated instead on law and order. He held televised Q&A sessions in which paid actors asked him scripted questions. The ghost of the 1960 presidential debate where Kennedy looked cool and Nixon appeared sweaty and unshaven had clearly motivated his campaign managers to control every aspect of his presidential bid. His handlers made certain that no journalist capable of making him look foolish got anywhere near him and his campaign was aided by President Johnson’s decision not to run again.
Johnson’s bombing campaign of North Vietnam had, by this time, polarised opinion in the US and Hubert Humphrey supported Johnson’s Vietnam policy. And though Richard Nixon’s carefully worded speeches on the subject sounded critical of that policy and convinced floating voters that he would end the war, his words were ambiguous. I remember his TV ads in which he said over a soundtrack of dramatic music: “Never has so much military, economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam. I pledge to you we shall have an honourable end to the war in Vietnam.”
It is true that the Vietnam war had divided the nation. When I was still at Tam High School I recall those students who were gung-ho and couldn’t wait to sign up. Although I was against the war I didn’t really get involved in the anti-Vietnam protests. So here we were in the midst of a presidential campaign with Hube the Cube advocating Johnson’s policy, Nixon criticising it with great ambiguity and Wallace barely mentioning the war at all.
Both my parents had utter contempt for Nixon who had made his name as a junior congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and played a key role in the prosecution of Alger Hiss. Anti-Communism in the 1950s was an easy bandwagon for opportunist politicians like him to jump on and boy, did he jump on it. There was a poster from the 1950s which had a picture of Nixon and the slogan: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” A similar poster appeared after Ronald Reagan’s victory as governor of California showing Reagan as a bad-guy cowboy from one of his westerns saying: “Thanks for the votes, suckers!”
While all this politics was unfolding I was finding that living at home with Blackie and Beth was becoming problematic. In 1966 my brother Jim had joined the Army. He’d done his basic training near Seattle and was now stationed at Fort Ord. While Blackie and Beth were in London seeing my sister Nell and her family, brother Jim paid a visit and suggested it would be a good thing for all concerned if I moved out.
I had become friends with two clerks on the front who were close to my age. They were Jim Mulligan and Bill Bechtold and we agreed to look for a place together. We wound up renting a house in San Anselmo on Medway Road. It was an ordinary suburban house with a lawn in front and a swimming pool in the back. That sounds glamorous but it definitely was not. The pool was very small and a bit derelict. The surround was wooden and worn and one of the first alarming sights I had by the pool was the presence of a large can of ‘Black Widow Poison’ with a vivid illustration of the spider in question. Nobody ever swam in that pool.
To be continued: next time, the view from San Anselmo.
One thought on “1968: The Presidential Election Campaign”
Thanks John – it’s always interesting and illuminating to read your musings.