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The Protest Vote That Still Haunts Me 50 Years Later

In 1968, as a college student, I didn’t vote for Hubert Humphrey. I regretted the decision almost immediately—and still do.

Anti-war protesters assemble with banners reading "Bring Them Home Now!"
Jack Rosen/Getty Images
Antiwar demonstrators gather in Chicago in 1968

Most of us, I suspect, have occasionally found ourselves lying wide awake at 4 o’ clock in the morning as a festival of regrets flashes before the inward eye. I am comparatively lucky since in my predawn melancholy I am not mourning a lost love, a foolish refusal to study podiatry, or an ill-considered major investment in a chinchilla farm. 

Instead, what haunts me with surprising frequency these days was my jejune refusal to back Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 out of misplaced antiwar passions. That year, I instead  squandered my vote on Eldridge Cleaver who was running as the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party. As I wrote in my campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily, on the eve of the election, “I cannot endorse the underlying premises of an American foreign policy that places national prestige before human lives. And I cannot vote to support the chief cheerleader of the war in Vietnam.” As a University of Michigan senior casting my first presidential vote, I pulled out all the stops as I melodramatically framed my refusal to vote for Humphrey as “a simple moral act.” 

With more than a half-century’s perspective, I realize there was nothing simple or particularly moral about my self-righteous decision to opt out of the two-party system. It was rather the product of my stacking flawed premises on top of each other in the hopes that the entire edifice didn’t topple from the weight of its own illogic. The reason for revisiting my long-ago electoral folly is because I fear that, in similar fashion, a significant number of young, idealistic voters will wrongly conclude that it is more important to bear personal moral witness over Gaza than to prevent Donald Trump from returning to the White House.

In the context of 1968, I performed more mental contortions than a circus acrobat to convince myself that Humphrey and Richard Nixon were interchangeable cogs in the war machine. True, I had to gloss over the reality that Nixon had been excoriated by all right-thinking liberals since Washington Post cartoonist Herblock had depicted him emerging from a sewer in the early 1950s. Humphrey, in contrast, was a liberal Senate icon who had morphed into Lyndon Johnson’s spineless vice president. 

It helped that Walter Lippmann—one of the founders of The New Republic and still writing a newspaper column from Mount Olympus—decreed that Nixon as president would end the Vietnam War because the Republican was too good a politician to continue the march of folly. (Not one of Lippmann’s finest predictions.) But then there was that pesky matter of domestic policy. Conveniently airbrushing away the reality that the Democratic Congresses of the 1960s were some of the most productive in history (passing everything from the Voting Rights Act to Medicare), I stipulated that “very little of what Humphrey proposes will ever be enacted into law.” Yeah, sure. 

But to register a protest vote, a refusnik has to be certain that the establishment will recognize their fine-grained sentiments. In Michigan in 1968, the Democratic attorney general announced that the state would not tabulate write-in votes. That killed my notion to write in antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had resisted endorsing Humphrey until the final days of the campaign. 

In fact, I wished that there was a special line on the ballot where I could write out a long, earnest personal statement about my distaste for both Humphrey and Nixon.

Unless I wanted to protest with invisible ink by casting an invalid write-in vote, I was limited to the candidates on the Michigan ballot: Humphrey, Nixon, former segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, the old-time Marxists who ran on the Socialist Labor and Socialist Worker lines, plus Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. The author of the acclaimed memoir Soul on Ice, Cleaver had recently been wounded in a shoot-out with the Oakland, California, police—and right after the election fled to Cuba.  

It was a bit of stretch to envision my guy in the Oval Office, especially since Cleaver, at 33, was technically too young to serve as president under the Constitution. I remember standing in the voting line with my girlfriend as we both giggled over “pulling the lever for Cleaver.” We were not exactly part of a groundswell, even in Ann Arbor: Cleaver received just 4,585 votes statewide. Also, rendering my protest irrelevant:  Humphrey carried Michigan by more than 200,000 votes.

By election night, I had already regretted my anti-Humphrey sentiments. As I later described watching the returns, “For a few moments … as the computer struggled futilely with the tight vote totals, one succumbed to the vision of a Humphrey Administration which would transform America both internally and externally.”

It is hard to know what kind of president Humphrey would have been. But it is a safe prediction that there would have been no Watergate had the Democrats won in 1968 and probably no secret bombing of Cambodia, a disastrous escalation concocted by Nixon and Henry Kissinger. 

Of course, I was not responsible for any of it. Because I had, with exquisite antiwar sensitivity, pulled the lever for Cleaver.