Witcover: 50 years ago and now

If you think this country is in impossible turmoil today with a president at war with his own Justice Department and FBI over Russian meddling in our affairs, just look back to where we were a half-century ago.

Then, another president, Lyndon Johnson, had already been driven to the political sidelines in his own party by a crippling war in Vietnam. There were street protests across the land because of it. The Democrats were torn apart by a struggle for new leadership among Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. And the country was still reeling from the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

There was more tragedy to come a few nights later at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy would make a victory speech upon winning the California Democratic primary over McCarthy, and then die at the hands of a young Palestinian refugee in the hotel kitchen.

What followed was a raucous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that gave Humphrey a joyless nomination amid what was dubbed "a police riot" to cope with violence in the streets. The party of Jefferson, Jackson and FDR could not recover, delivering the presidency to Republican Richard Nixon. Eventually came the scandal of Watergate that deposed him too.

The Republican Party of the day contained a core of unity and respectability, composed of a moderate establishment of seasoned politicians who prevailed on Nixon to resign rather than face certain impeachment. It elevated one of its own, the mild and likeable Vice President Gerald Ford, to the Oval Office.

Today, by contrast, there is no comparable GOP middle-road establishment in Congress willing or able to take on Donald Trump, who has replaced the Grand Old Party with the Party of Trump. So far, only a few Republicans, such as Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, one of the 15 also-rans in the 2016 Republican primaries, have stood up to him.

Mr. Kasich said on cable television on Thursday that while he would not make any personal attacks on Mr. Trump, he deplored his diminution of decency in the current discourse of politics, and particularly the absence of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill in the Trump era.

Harkening back to his 18 years as an Ohio congressman, he called on his former Republican congressional collagues to "get a grip" on the old collegial spirit that he said guided relationships across the political aisle in his days there.

Meanwhile, for all the public despair over the dysfunction in Washington, the only major marches here have been those by young students calling for more gun control and the #MeToo movement's pushback against male sexual harassment in the workplace.

For all the news-media focus on the Mueller investigation and Mr. Trump's outrageous attacks on the Justice Department and FBI, it hasn't caught on yet. One usual Trump ally, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who sat in on the recent White House briefing on the status of the Mueller investigation, has said he heard of no evidence to justify Mr. Trump's contention of FBI malfeasance against him.

Regarding the concern over the state of our politics today, it is no worse than it was 50 years ago, when it seemed then that the wheels were coming off our democratic process and public civility. Despite the current furor, we're still looking to the next congressional elections in November to determine our national course ahead. Our fate remains in our own hands, if our politicians in both parties can only, as John Kasich says, "get a grip."

Although he shies away from talk of a second try of his own for the next Republican presidential nomination in 2020, he gives off all the sparks of it, whether or not Trump is still around to contest for the second term he boasts is his for the taking.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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