It was Jackie Kennedy, in an interview carried in the December 3, 1963 issue of LIFE, whose vision of a lost “Camelot” set the tone for the historic year that followed--1964.
Our nation hung in the balance in 1964. Throwback President Lyndon Johnson, milking the emotion generated by Kennedy’s assassination, passed the first meaningful civil rights law since reconstruction, launched the war on poverty, kicked off years of unbroken economic growth by passing Kennedy’s tax reform measure, and defeated extremist Berry Goldwater in a historic Democratic Party sweep that reduced the GOP to rump status.
But 1964 was also crucial for what Johnson didn’t do. Though he won approval for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave him a free hand, Johnson postponed action in Vietnam until after the election. Unfortunately Johnson wasted precious time in 1964, time he could have used to master Vietnam, to understand the consequences of bombing and, especially, to realize the error of sending U.S. draftees to fight Vietnam’s civil war. Big mistake. Johnson’s Vietnam catastrophe not only terminated his administration, it also wiped out Democrat cold war liberals and damaged party moderates, yielding up a left-wing party takeover and George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 presidential campaign.
To me, the 1965-68 Camelot aftermath were years of Vietnam escalation, race riots, profound student unrest, more assassinations, death, high draft calls, death, Richard Nixon’s election--“the worst of times.” I was completely shocked, therefore, to hear two weeks ago--on PBS’s “American Experience: 1964” (at 1:52)--Carter administration official Hodding Carter III call the period “the best of times.” Hodding said:
I would pay money to go back, and to live through that whole era again. I would make all the same mistakes, but I would know, as I knew then, that I could never ask for a better time to be involved in the affairs of the nation. ’64 was the propulsion from the past into the future.Unbelievable. But while progressives were initially whacked, that lasted only until Richard Nixon’s Watergate led to Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-81), and Washington jobs for the likes of Hodding Carter. And 1964 did unleash the forces that carried Democrats “into the future”--the loss of Southern conservatives (and much of “middle America”) true, but big gains from growing numbers of environmentalists plus youth, and from the Eastern Establishment, minorities, unmarried women, wrapped around the baby-boomer-led anti-war cause. A more purely progressive party.
Jimmy Carter failed as president, so from 1980 to 2008, Democrats won the White House only when Southern moderate Bill Clinton ran, and even he twice failed to garner a majority.
Now, however, progressives are in full flower. Conservative Charles Krauthammer, in the Washington Post, outlines how under Obama anti-war Democrats have thoroughly triumphed:
If he wasn’t committed to the [Afghanistan] mission, if he didn’t care about winning, why did Obama throw these soldiers into battle in the first place?
Because for years the Democrats had used Afghanistan as a talking point to rail against the Iraq War — while avoiding the politically suicidal appearance of McGovernite pacifism. As consultant Bob Shrum later admitted, “I was part of the 2004 Kerry campaign, which elevated the idea of Afghanistan as ‘the right war’ to conventional Democratic wisdom. This was accurate as criticism of the Bush Administration, but it was also reflexive and perhaps by now even misleading as policy.”
Translation: They were never really serious about Afghanistan. (Nor apparently about Iraq either. [former Defense secretary Bob] Gates recounts with some shock that Hillary Clinton admitted she opposed the Iraq surge for political reasons, and Obama conceded that much of the opposition had indeed been political.) The Democratic mantra — Iraq War, bad; Afghan War, good — was simply a partisan device to ride anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War feeling without appearing squishy.
Look, they could say: We’re just being tough and discriminating. Iraq is a dumb war, said Obama repeatedly. It’s a war of choice. Afghanistan is a war of necessity, the central front in the war on terror. Having run on that, Obama had a need to at least make a show of trying to win the good war, the smart war.A progressive, phony “national defense” effort that produced all-too-real deaths.