As the eventful, alarming year of 2008 lurches and sputters to its sour and exhausted conclusion the American people should take comfort in comparisons with last century's "annus horribilids" (year of horrors) 1968. Reflecting on both similarities and contrasts with the shattering events of forty years ago should serve to remind the downcast public that, for all the predicaments of the present day, the twelve months just past hardly constitutes a uniquely bleak moment in our history.
First, the haunting echoes: in December 1968, as in December 2008, the Americans eagerly welcome the imminent departure of controversial presidents from Texas (Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush) who had squandered their once considerable popularity on unpopular wars (Vietnam and Iraq). In both years, the public had been shaken badly by grim surprises no one had predicted – assassinations and major riots in 1968, collapse of the financial system in 2008. Today, as much as forty years ago, many social critics visualize the United States as a "sick society" with no conscience or moral compass, and public opinion surveys reveal a general expectation that the next generation will inherit a diminished, demoralized nation. Russian bullies selected the month of August in 2008 as well as 1968 to use overwhelming military force to crush pro-Western leaders (in Czechoslovakia and in Georgia) while the U.S. could do nothing to protect the forces of democracy from Moscow's aggression. The election of '68, like the election of '08, saw millions of young people mobilized by political promises and demands for change, though the triumphant candidates (Richard Nixon and Barack Obama) at year's end assembled cabinets and White House staffs comprised almost entirely of seasoned, business-as-usual Washington insiders. In both Decembers, the president-elect faced a deeply divided electorate and a raging, unpredictable war (in Vietnam forty years ago, Afghanistan today) with demands for more troops and no clearly defined strategy for victory. Then, as now, mass media glorified the hedonistic and the radical ("Make Love, Not War"/"Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out") while deriding "uptight" middle class traditionalists who try to defend family and faith.