FIFTY YEARS AGO a cadre of young people — distressed about the course of the country, impatient with the customs of conventional politics, determined to win change — mobilized in the tiny state of New Hampshire, cut their long hair, shaved their beards, packed away their jeans, and took to the streets. And rocked the country.
They organized phone banks, canvassed neighborhoods, drove older people to the polls, all in perhaps the most remarkable New Hampshire primary in history, a youth offensive on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy that hit with such force a half-century ago today that it pushed Lyndon Johnson out of the 1968 presidential race, invited Senator Robert Kennedy in, propelled the Vietnam War to the top of the presidential-election agenda, and taught a generation a lesson in the power of citizen protest and political engagement.
“For young people there was a sense for the first time that you could make a difference,” said Sam Brown, one of the principal architects of McCarthy’s strong second-place finish and the coordinator of the 1969 Vietnam moratorium marches. “For older people it was a wake-up call, that there was something going on here they did not understand.’’
Like the youth uprising against gun violence, the student movement against the Vietnam War arose from a mixture of frustration with national leadership, moral outrage over an issue that affected them directly — and a profound feeling of powerlessness.
Anti-war activists, led by the indefatigable Allard K. Lowenstein, searched for a candidate to challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. Finally McCarthy, a poetic-minded Minnesotan with almost no national profile, acceded to the pleas, and as the winter chill deepened in New Hampshire, a corps of war opponents undertook a massive mobilization.
‘The people involved in the campaign were believable,’’ said Sandra Hoeh, a Hanover, N.H., housewife at the time. “We had supported Johnson in 1964. We never expected this to take off the way it did. And then the kids got involved, and they came up by the thousands.’’
In crowded carpools, by bus and as weary hitchhikers, the students from Harvard, Smith, and Mount Holyoke joined the Dartmouth students already in the state. “The McCarthy campaign marked the moment that an entire generation of college students — my generation — suddenly became serious about electoral politics,’’ said Robert B. Reich, a Dartmouth senior who later became labor secretary.
New Hampshire may have voted Democratic in six of the last seven presidential elections, but in 1968 it was a devoutly conservative state. Campaign placards routinely boasted that political candidates were “honest’’ and “conservative,’’ suggesting that the two virtues were equal. The state’s leading newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, was published by William Loeb, who ran on his news pages pieces with headlines like “Liberal Establishment Has Created Era of Idiocy” that spoke of the “Red Media.”
The students — “shaven and shorn for world peace,’’ as the columnist Mary McGrory put it — learned that a political insurgency required more than fury and indignation, and that not everyone thought the guerrilla shock troops from the campus occupied the moral high ground. But they won credibility by practicing politics on the streets as canvassers rather than as protesters, engaging voters in conversations rather than in confrontations.
This youth uprising is all but forgotten in today’s America, where presidential politics, even in New Hampshire, increasingly is practiced on television and, recently, on tweets.
“I knew zero about this guy McCarthy, but I figured what the hell — I was willing to do anything to bring down LBJ,’’ said Richard Parker, a Dartmouth student who became a cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and now is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “This affirmed what I thought was important, as I was still holding on to the idea that electoral politics mattered.’’
That may be the lesson for students in Florida and elsewhere looking to channel their wrath and resentment to win political change.
They will have one major advantage over the 1968 Granite State crusaders: clarity of purpose and surround-sound media attention. Some of the voters Parker encountered as a foot soldier in the towns of Hanover and West Lebanon thought the McCarthy that the students were supporting was Senator Joseph McCarthy, one of the founding fathers of the 1950s-era Red Scare. Then again, in conservative New Hampshire, where a half-decade later GOP Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. would suggest that the state’s national guard ought to have nuclear weapons, that might have helped.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.