“You know the New Hampshire primaries are unique in politics,” Lyndon Johnson told a Veterans of Foreign Wars gathering on March 12, 1968. “They are the only races where anybody can run”he pauses”and everybody can win.”
LBJ did in fact win the New Hampshire Democratic primary that day, but his was not a joyous victory. In fact, it marked the beginning of the end of his political career, as an antiwar insurgent named Eugene McCarthy claimed 42 percent of the vote, exposing the incumbent’s soft underbelly. A few days later, Robert Kennedy threw his hat in the ring; two weeks after that, LBJ dropped out.
The twentieth century offered few elections as tumultuous and consequential as that 1968 contest, as the horror of Vietnam and racial unrest rent the country’s social fabric. LBJ was humiliated, RFK was assassinated, and the soul of the Democratic Party was torn asunder in a Chicago convention marked by protests and riots. In the end, party bosses handed Hubert Humphrey the nomination, and Richard Nixon kicked his ass in November.
The McCarthy campaign is lovingly captured in Emile de Antonio’s America Is Hard to See, which is included in Full Frame‘s Thematic Program, “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics.” It’s a collection of twelve docsplus one work of fiction, 1969’s Medium Cool, which climaxes at that Chicago convention. The program, curated by the great documentarian R.J. Cutler, focuses largely on the grind of presidential politics from the ground level, through the eyes of wide-eyed idealists and battle-hardened operatives.
Cutler includes two of his own films, which opt for the latter entry point: the Oscar-nominated The War Room (which he coproduced) documents Bill Clinton’s rise amid scandal and intrigue in 1992, and A Perfect Candidate (which Culter codirected) goes deep into Oliver North’s failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 1994. Another nineties doc, Taking on the Kennedys, tells the story of a political neophyte who unsuccessfully challenged Patrick Kennedy for Congress in 1994.
But those filmseven the political junkie’s crack that is The War Roomdon’t carry the weight of their forebears, documentaries about the cultural upheavals of the sixties and seventies and the people who tried to upend the system. Four that track the evolution of American politics during this period are of special note.
In Primary, a young senator named John F. Kennedy seeks to snatch the nomination from the favorite, Hubert Humphrey. Campaign Manager tells the story of the twenty-eight-year-old executive director of the Republican National Committee who engineered Barry Goldwater’s hostile takeover of the GOP in 1964, beginning a rightward trajectory that continues apace to this day.
Then there’s the aforementioned America Is Hard to See, about the ’68 campaign. And, finally, the important Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed tells the tale of the underfunded, disorganized, and thoroughly unlikely presidential bid of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and a trailblazer by any definition.
Those elections have a sense of gravity, marking the beginnings of epochal change even when, as in ’64 and ’72, the status quo prevailed. (There’s an argument to be made that the same is true with Bernie Sanders’s campaign this year.) They are important and vital to understanding modern American democracy.
But for sheer entertainment value, you can’t do better than Caucus, an aggravating but thoroughly enjoyable (because you know the outcome and can thus laugh) face-palm that explores the 2012 Iowa caucuses, which, you’ll recall, made fleeting stars of such luminaries as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. Indeed, what is politics in the Age of Trump if not another source of entertainment?
This article appeared in print with the headline “Raucous Caucus.”