March 8, 2023

Tales of the unexpected

For the television historian, one of the great pleasures in reading back issuse of TV Guide is coming across the unexpected. And in this case, I'm not referring to something that I didn't expect; no, I'm talking about something that the author of the story didn't expect, something that he had no reason to expect would happen; when you combine that with the need to write for a deadline—well, see for yourself.  

In reviewing some old issues the other day, I came across the issue of March 16, 1968. Now, I reviewed this issue before, but somehow or other I missed this little gem that led off the Doan Report, written as always by Richard K. Doan. Headed "Networks Yawn Over Primaries," the lede tells you all you need to know: "The primaries are going to get the most fleeting attention from TV in the medium's history unless they develop more heat than New Hampshire did." The operative word is did, because the New Hampshire primary was held on Tuesday, March 12—two or three days before this issue of TV Guide would have hit the newsstands. The focus of the primaries has been on the Republican side, and with the sudden and—here's that word again, unexpected—withdrawal of Michigan Governor George Romney, the GOP race has been left wide open for former vice president Richard Nixon. "The networks, convinced this left little doubt about the outcome in N.H., immediately canceled plans for prime-time primary-night specials in favor of bulletins and brief late-evening vote summaries." And, in fact, Nixon did win decisively, racking up 77.6% of the vote, compared to (then) non-candidate Nelson Rockefeller, with 10.8%. In fact, Doan says that TV time for the remaining primaries "depends on how strongly, if at all, Governor Rockefeller comes on against Nixon."

Now, there were, of course, two presidential primaries held in New Hampshire on March 12; one for the Republicans, and one for the Democrats, where President Lyndon Johnson was, like Nixon, expectec to win easily. And it's true that nobody paid much attention to Nixon's win—because of the shocking Democratic result, where maverick anti-war challenger Eugene McCarthy won 42% of the vote, compared to Johnson's 49%. Politics being one of those few areas in which a loss can be spun as a win, the media immediately proclaimed this a disastrous outcome for Johnson, as indeed it was. He may have won the primary, but to have done so poorly against a relatively unheralded candidate was nothing short of a catastrophe. Four days later, on March 16—the date of this issue—Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the nomination. With two such challengers, Johnson was now anything but a sure winner; polling in Wisconsin, site of the next primary on April 2, showed McCarthy beating Johnson badly. A little over two weeks later, on March 31, LBJ shocked everyone by announcing that he would not be a candidate for reelection. (He had, in fact, never formally announced his candidacy; it was something that people simply assumed.)* You'd better believe the networks were plenty interested in the Democratic primary by now. 

*Later in the week, Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. Talk about unexpected.   

Now, none of this is a reflection on Richard Doan; as was the case throughout much of the 1968 campaign, nobody could possibly have forseen what was to happen—or, thanks to the vagueries of  publishing deadlines, what had already happened. What this shows is how capricious history can be when she wants, and that year she wanted very much indeed. And that's one of the reasons why we study history, history of any kind; as Mark Twain once said, "History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme."

As for the remainder of the primary season, Nelson Rockefeller, after months of denials, announced on April 30 that he would, indeed, be a candidate. Ronald Reagan later announced his own candidacy, and a host of favorite-son candidates tried (unsuccessfully) to hold the balance of power in the delegate count. The GOP race doesn't quite have the drama of the Democratic battle; Vice President Hubert Humphrey throws his hat in the ring on April 27, and becomes the establishment candidate, counting on the support of unions and party regulars. He's too late to get into the primaries, but remember, there are only a dozen or so of them back in 1968; the rest of the delegates would be chosen either by caucus or at the party's state convention. And so the experts expected the battle would continue well past the final primary—June 4 in California, where the unexpected continues. TV  


  1. This reminds me of how open primaries used to be, with candidates still entering the race in March & April of the same year. I was watching a network news show from August 1968 at the Vanderbilt News Archive and was surprised to see that George McGovern was starting a campaign for the Democratic nomination at the convention. Today it seems that anyone getting into the race for 2024 after this year will be much too late. Political conventions are now more or less ads for the parties' chosen candidates & the parties themselves.

  2. I was 14 the week of this Guide. My family were Rockefeller Republicans for many years and my father was one of Rocky's local contacts in upstate NY. The night you describe in 1968 was when the NY GOP made the investment to push Rockefeller nationally as the more progressive alternative to Nixon. Moderate Republicans did not trust Nixon because he continually "re-invented" himself. After being elected, the "new" Nixon went to China, went to the Soviet Union but still relied on his lifetime political paranoia that led to Watergate...

  3. Jon-

    McGovern became one of the Dem candidates encouraged to take the place of the slain RFK. The Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party in 1968 wanted to find someone who would break from the LBJ-Humphrey administration that was prosecuting the Vietnam War. It came down to McGovern and McCarthy. Neither one could break into the democratic machine that nominated Humphrey.

    1. JD and Jon - remember Abe Ribicoff nominating McGovern? "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago."


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!