Home > 1968 Campaign > By Rebecca Alt–Party Pandemonium: Hubert Humphrey’s Losing Rhetoric in the 1968 Election

By Rebecca Alt–Party Pandemonium: Hubert Humphrey’s Losing Rhetoric in the 1968 Election

The 1968 election was a chaotic political contest between Richard Nixon (R), sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D), and third-party candidate George Wallace (I). From the moment President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced he wouldn’t pursue another term (March 31, 1968) through election night November 5, 1968, the candidates—specifically Democrat Hubert Humphrey—faced a challenging battle for the top spot in the White House. In the throes of the Vietnam War, which had gotten bloodier on the watch of Lyndon Johnson, and the ongoing Civil Rights struggles (Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of this election year), a serious state of political and social chaos and violence became a daily reality in the United States. This was the political context that candidates faced in the election of 1968.

Alt Humphrey 1Like the political and social unrest troubling the nation in the 1960s and especially this presidential election, the Democratic Party suffered from ideological divides, infighting, and general disunity. Whereas Richard Nixon’s nomination to the Republican Party ticket was “smooth and almost mechanical,” Humphrey was nominated in a starkly different situation: party pandemonium. [1] In the Democratic primaries, there were several candidates vying for the nomination—Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey—and these initial contests were heated and messy, especially during the primary debates. Democrats were divided among the primary candidates—most were initially drawn away from Hubert Humphrey due to his association with LBJ; Humphrey symbolically represented “the Establishment” and therefore its dangers: the “pro-war, bomb-the-Cong position.” [2]. This rhetorical transfer made Humphrey’s campaign for the White House increasingly difficult. He was often heckled at his rallies with signs reading “How Many Primaries Have You Won?” [3] Although all three of the candidates experienced serious heckling on the campaign trail, Gordon Bennett argues that Humphrey’s hecklers heckled Humphrey the worst. [4] In the time between the primaries and the general election, Eugene McCarthy withdrew and Robert Kennedy—considered to be a real contender—was assassinated. Humphrey had garnered enough delegates, so the Democratic Party nominated him for its presidential ticket to take on Nixon.

Convention Chaos

Humphrey was slated to deliver an acceptance address to a favorable attending party audience that August in Chicago (Text here; Video here). However, the Democrats “were beset by organized plans to disrupt the convention proceedings within the hall and throughout the city. The Coalition for an Open Convention had brought about 1,200 dissenting Democrats to Chicago two months in advance in order to plan challenges to delegate credentials and also a platform repudiating the Democratic administration.” [5] The area outside the convention was overrun with mobs and riots broke out. Perhaps it was Humphrey’s synecdoche problem—his White House administrative connection with LBJ that equated Humphrey with Johnson—or perhaps RFK’s lingering supporters were the main culprits. Regardless, the Democratic Party was truly tumultuous, and Humphrey’s occasion was the opposite of the traditional ritual purpose of the party convention: to celebrate party unity, bolster the party ideology, and celebrate the candidate. Brock argues “The confrontation at the Chicago convention had more symbolic or rhetorical impact than any other event in the 1968 campaign. It served as a climax to the Jonson administration, and it communicated to the nation that the Democratic Party and our society were deeply divided between doves and hawks, blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old. No one liked nor understood what they saw and heard, so they rejected the entire experience.” [6] Meanwhile, in Miami at the Republican National Convention, all was peaceful on the Nixon front.

Alt Humphrey 2Before turning to the text of Humphrey’s speech, some common features of Nominating Conventions/Partisan rhetoric is worth noting. Scholars Trent and Friedenberg assert that acceptance addresses at National Conventions should satisfy four purposes:

First, the address is the means through which the candidate publicly assumes the role of a candidate/leader of the party;
Second, the address should generate a strong positive response from the immediate audience;
Third, it should serve to unify the party;
Finally, it is a partisan political address, which in some instances may be the most important such address the candidate makes through the campaign. [7]

As Robert Nordvold reminds in his article, Humphrey’s immediate rhetorical constraint was delivering this address “to the dissent and riot-torn convention.” [8] Drawing on Lloyd Bitzer’s term “rhetorical situation,” Nordvold characterizes the final evening of the political convention as such “not just because the nominee’s acceptance speech is scheduled for that time, but, quite the reverse, the nature of the occasion, the character of the audience, and the constraints engendered by the previous days events, structured to produce a climactic moment of victory.” [9] Like Trent and Friedenberg’s purposes for the acceptance speech, the convention speech functions as “a public assumption by the nominee of the leadership of the party; elicits from the delegates concerted, vocal response indicating their support of the nominee; and presents to the wider audience a demonstration of political solidarity and ideological unity.” [10] Traditionally, Nordvold argues, this combination of purposes and functions results in political ritual.

With these party convention purposes in mind, I turn to a very brief analysis of the primary text of Humphrey’s Acceptance Speech. Considering the broad political and election context along with the “party pandemonium” framework, I will highlight the ways in which Humphrey’s address either succeeded or failed to satisfy those purposes and venture to answer the question of why Humphrey’s rhetoric failed to deliver a victory in November 1968.

“A New Day for America”: Humphrey’s Rhetoric Miscarries

Humphrey’s acceptance speech was an opportunity to unify the party after a tumultuous primary season, which would hopefully result in a Democratic win in the general election. It was also an opportunity to distinguish himself from the legacy of LBJ and the horrors of the Vietnam War. Humphrey could have proposed specific social and legal policies or made promises to the party. He could have addressed his rhetorical situation with humility, or referenced the angry mob of dissenters outside of the convention hall. He didn’t quite do any of those things in the speech; he even said, prior to the convention that “events are going to have more to do with this election than my rhetoric.” [11] Nordvold goes as far to argue “in short, he solved the problems confronting him by avoiding them.” [12] Throughout the speech, Humphrey speaks very abstractly with platitudes like “At this convention, too, we have recognized the end of an era and the beginning of a new day” without explaining what he means by the former era and what would be new. [13]

Alt Humphrey 3Without any mention of his own stances on the issues of the day or “the new day,” Humphrey appeals to tradition and the “godlike” Democrats that preceded him in office, in the effort to transfer their positive qualities to his candidacy, a common rhetorical technique during campaigns:

In the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, who knew that America had nothing to fear but fear itself…and it is in the tradition of Harry Truman who let’em have it and told it like it was. And that’s the way we’re going to do it from here on out.

It is in the tradition of that beloved man, Adlai Stevenson, who talked sense to the American people. And, oh, tonight, how we miss that great, good and gentle man of peace in America.

And my fellow Americans, all that we do and all that we ever hope to do, must be in the tradition of John F. Kennedy who said to us: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country.

He continues:

And what we are doing is in the tradition of Lyndon B. Johnson who rallied a grief-stricken nation when our leader was stricken by the assassin’s bullet and said to you and said to me and said to all the world: “Let us continue.”

And in the space of five years since that tragic moment, President Johnson has accomplished more of the unfinished business of America than any of his modern predecessors.

Humphrey channels his predecessors’ successes but presents no “new” policies or ideas. He praises LBJ’s character in the wake of John Kennedy’s assassination, but does not speak of the controversial decisions made regarding Vietnam. He speaks of peace in Vietnam but lays out no plan. In this way, I believe Humphrey is aiming to transcend the divisive party attitude towards LBJ and instead replace it with a quality most would agree is virtuous: his leadership and fortitude during and after JFK was tragically assassinated. It seems as though Humphrey is aiming to bolster this quality while suppressing the controversy.

He channels JFK once again:

Now, let me ask you, do you remember these words, at another time, in a different place: “Peace and freedom do not come cheap. And we are destined — All of us here today — to live out most, if not all of our lives, in uncertainty and challenge and peril.”

The words of a prophet? Yes.

The words of a President? Yes.

The words of the challenge of today? Yes.

And the words of John Kennedy to you and to me and to me and to posterity.

If there were a catalogued rhetorical strategy “Appealing to JFK,” Humphrey surely would fit the bill for employing it liberally (pun intended). Both parties appeal to past “great presidents,” probably in the effort to transfer their qualities to the present candidate at the podium. While it works to pull the heartstrings and bring about glandular responses in the audience, in Humphrey’s particular situation it did not work. Humphrey wasn’t at the center of a usual party convention—the situation called for something else. What Humphrey lacked in savoir-faire, he arguably made up for in empty clichés.

There are many more detailed analyses on the text of Hubert Humphrey’s Acceptance Speech and the rhetorical ornament he (unsuccessfully) employed. However, what I hoped to do in this brief analysis was to highlight the relationship between the party and the presidential candidate and the importance of unity. There is a clear relationship between the chaotic Democratic Party of 1968 and the events of the 1968 Democratic Campaign, as well as a possible causal relationship between the health of the party and the outcome of the election. Richard Nixon did not need to worry about unifying a party on top of all the existing work it takes to win an election. Humphrey’s acceptance speech illustrates an attempt to transcend party division—smooth over, bolster past success—rather than an honest attempt to actively unify through rhetorical action.

This was certainly not the first—or last—time a political party would be divided. Is it possible, though, that even given the problems of a two-party system, party unity prevents American political pandemonium?

[1] Robert O. Nordvold, “Rhetoric as Ritual: Hubert H. Humphrey’s Acceptance Address at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.” Today’s Speech 18, no. 1 (1970): 34-38.

[2] Gordon C. Bennett, “The heckler and the heckled in the presidential campaign of 1968.” Communication Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1979): 28-37.

[3] Ibid. Hubert Humphrey was the only candidate not to enter any of the primaries, which was why the signs read as such.

[4] Ibid

[5] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 8th ed., s.v. “United States presidential election of 1968.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1586266/United-States-presidential-election-of-1968.

[6] Bernard Brock, “1968 Democratic Campaign: A Political Upheaval.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 55, no. 1 (1969): 26-35.

[7] Judith S. Trent and Robert V. Friedenbert, Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices 2nd Edition. New York: Praeger (1991), 183-189.

[8] Robert O. Nordvold, “Rhetoric as Ritual: Hubert H. Humphrey’s Acceptance Address at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.” Today’s Speech 18, no. 1 (1970): 34-38.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid

[13] Hubert H. Humphrey, “A New Day for America” (Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, IL, August 29, 1968) The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25964. Also, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJ-659b76h4.


Riot photo from Chicago Tribune files.

Heckler cartoon: http://d1k217qge1tz5p.cloudfront.net/img/Items/6000/5507.jpg

Humphrey speaking: http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/Hubert_Humphrey_5779.jpg

Interesting Reference: 1968 Democratic Party Platform



Categories: 1968 Campaign
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