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Recalling the 1968 N.H. Primary

The recently held 2024 New Hampshire primary election brought back memories of a more consequential primary held on March 12, 1968. At the time, our family lived in Allenstown, N.H., a small town about 10 miles southeast of Concord, the state’s capital and my birthplace. Allenstown abuts its larger neighbor to the north, Pembroke. The Suncook River divides the towns, and the older Village of Suncook is contained within both municipalities.

The waterfall at the Suncook River bridge was always a source of fascination to me. It was easy walking distance from our house. The river, at the time, was polluted, and the waterfall smelled nasty. The Suncook River has since been cleansed, after the textile mills that lined most major rivers shut down. Pembroke has an actual downtown, unlike Allenstown. As a kid, I enjoyed walking to downtown Pembroke and browsing the five-and-dime store, peering into storefronts.

In March 1968, the Vietnam war was raging. Lyndon Johnson was vying for his second full term as president. Richard Nixon was again seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The antiwar movement was growing. I was already an avid newspaper reader. My parents subscribed to both The Concord Daily Monitor and the Boston Record-American, a tabloid newspaper. I devoured both newspapers each day, keeping up with my beloved Red Sox, Boston Celtics and then-Boston Patriots — but also politics and the Vietnam War.

Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota undertook a longshot race in 1968 to unseat an incumbent president of the same party, calculating his steadfast opposition to the war would attract young voters and those who opposed U.S. involvement. McCarthy pinned his hopes on winning in New Hampshire, then as now the first presidential primary in the nation.

After school, on March 12, 1968, I walked to downtown Pembroke, to the grounds of the congregational church at the top of the hill, serving as a polling place. A pretty college girl had a fistful of fliers and stood outside in the snow, handing them out. She noticed I was staring at her and beckoned me over.

“I’m handing these out for Gene McCarthy. Do you want to help?” she asked. I was flattered to be asked by this pretty girl and readily acquiesced. I am certain I was a ridiculous sight, this short, near-sighted kid handing out McCarthy leaflets.

McCarthy didn’t win the N.H. primary, but he garnered 42% of the vote to 48% for Johnson. It felt like a victory, but the euphoria was short-lived. Four days after the primary, Robert Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from New York, changed course and entered the race. On March 31, Johnson announced he would no longer seek re-election.

The rest of 1968 was tumultuous for the nation and also brought about some life-changing events for our family. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in April; Robert Kennedy assassinated in June. There was rioting in several cities. A few weeks later, a moving van appeared in front of our house. My dad hooked a U-Haul trailer to our 1964 Mercury Comet. We were moving to Longview, Texas. We spent the summer living with my grandfather, newly widowed but not for long, until my parents could find a house.

I watched the Democratic convention on my grandfather’s television, as demonstrators were clubbed in the streets for protesting the war. Inside, Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president, managed to gain the nomination despite not having entered any of the primaries. McCarthy was left out in the cold. Nixon easily won the Republican nomination and the election as well.

My parents bought a house on South Twelfth Street at the end of summer, right behind the LeTourneau campus where I now work. I got a part-time job selling newspapers, launching me into what would become my career for a half century.

There have been a lot of miles traveled since March 1968.