Era in Judgement

One day when I was in fourth grade, my mother brought home a more-than-slightly-used set of World Book Encyclopedias. The books were worn and out-of-date, but what they lacked in currency they made up for in heft. This was the King Kong version of the set: Each volume was the size of the Kensington Runestone, and just taking them off the shelf became a major commitment of time and muscle—and an early lesson in the laws of physics.

For a kid with a curious but wildly undisciplined mind, those books seemed like a godsend, and my mother’s decision to bring them home was the equivalent of driving a herring truck into Shamu’s tank at SeaWorld.

It was the early 1980s, but for whatever reason, I often used those books to explore my fascination with almost anything having to do with the 1960s. No matter that, given the vintage of the volumes, the information was often sketchy at best. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to the moon shot, I couldn’t get enough. Indeed, after a while, the “J-K” volume fell open to the same page every time I took it down from the shelf, no doubt due the approximately 97,000 times I had read the entry on John F. Kennedy. (It probably goes without saying that I was not one of the cool kids in my neighborhood during this period.)

This Profile in Nerdiness came to mind when I first read the story that you’ll find on page 92 of this month’s issue, a piece by writer Tim Brady about the 1968 presidential election. The article explores the fight for the Democratic Party nomination—one of the most dramatic and contentious campaigns of the last century—and offers a revealing portrait of two essential Minnesota figures: Hubert H. Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. It also explains how these two individuals, men with vastly different interests and temperaments, both managed to rise from the small world of Minnesota politics to the biggest stage in American life, eventually battling each other over the future, and the soul, of their party.

The significance of the story goes beyond the two men’s personal history and their ties to Minnesota, however. Forty years later, one could make the case that we’ve yet to really get past that election. Even a cursory look at headlines over the last few months reveals that the issues that were so salient in 1968—civil rights, law and order, the generation gap, Vietnam—con­tinue to echo in the present. For better or worse, the era still defines how we see ourselves and how we pick our leaders.

The story also offers some simple lessons about issues that might normally illicit groans and eye-rolls: about power and politics, about freedom and responsibility. On the eve of another election—at a time when we’re fighting a war abroad and confronting economic uncertainty at home—those lessons don’t seem so inconsequential anymore. I guess that’s what one might call perspective.

Andrew Putz