Historical events have shaped culture and the law, and learning about them can make you a stronger and much more aware attorney. In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast from the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, host Rocky Dhir talks to Doug Brinkley and Talmage Boston about what made 1968 a tumultuous year in American history and what lawyers can learn from this time period. They discuss the Vietnam war, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the unexpectedly uniting aspects of the space race.
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University, the CNN Presidential Historian, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Audubon.
Talmage Boston has practiced law as a commercial trial and appellate litigator in Dallas, Texas, since 1978.
State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2018: How 1968 Impacted Today’s Legal Landscape
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast brought to you in partnership with the Legal Talk Network. This is your host Rocky Dhir and we are here at the 2018 Annual Meeting for the State Bar of Texas.
This is 2018, subtract 50 from 2018, do the math; it becomes 1968, that was a tumultuous year in American history. We’re not necessarily celebrating that. What we are doing is commemorating that and talking about some of the amazing things that happened that year, it changed US history forever.
Now, don’t take my word for it. You can take the word of these two gentlemen I have sitting with me; two very special guests. Now, you should be no stranger to these two guys, but I’m going to introduce them anyway. They really need no introduction.
So, first, we have Professor Doug Brinkley, who is a Professor of History at Rice University and you’ve probably seen him on CNN. So, if the name sounds familiar or if you look him up and his face looks familiar, that’s why.
And next to him, we’ve got Texas’ own, Talmage Boston. He’s a great baseball fan, I know that. I’m going to ask Talmage in just a few minutes, who his favorite baseball team is. We’re going to find out. I want to say it’s the Boston Red Sox. I don’t know why I thought that about you, Talmage, but we’ll find out in a second.
And then, Tammy has also written his own book about presidential history. So, you’ve got a presidential historian with Professor Brinkley and then you’ve got our lawyer presidential historian with Talmage Boston. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about the year 1968; and Doug, you’re a keynote speaker here at the Annual Meeting today.
Doug Brinkley: Well, that’s right. I’m really proud to be here. I try to stay involved with the organization as much as I can.
Rocky Dhir: We are glad to have you. Thank you for being here.
Doug Brinkley: 1968, it’s like a Day-Glo year in American history. It started off very strange because of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam on the fact that —
Rocky Dhir: That was that year, wasn’t it?
Doug Brinkley: Yeah, that was new year and late January early February, we were shocked to find out that there was no light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam that we are mired in it and famously Walter Cronkite by March would go on television for an hour TV special Vietnam, who, what, where, when, and why.
And Cronkite who was the most trusted man in America, the famous CBS News anchor —
Rocky Dhir: With his cigar.
Doug Brinkley: Yes. He said we probably timed to say we were soldiers of democracy. We tried to do good. We failed someone and time to send the boys home basically, and it started just a tumultuous year, and shortly thereafter, Lyndon Johnson in March of 1968 shocked the nation by saying he was not going to run for the re-election of the presidency that year, shocked everybody because in 1964 he defeated Barry Goldwater in the biggest landslide in American history.
Rocky Dhir: He quite handled it, yeah, right.
Doug Brinkley: Now he’s not running in ’68 and it’s because of Vietnam had been so corrosive on the Johnson presidency, and you have Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York both getting into the mix to try to get the Democratic nomination, and Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President is going to try to run, but he saddled with Lyndon Johnson’s failed Vietnam policy.
Well, a mist of those atmospherics and political intrigue in the spring of 1968, we had the horrible tragedy that occurred in April of ’68 in Memphis, Tennessee when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down, killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and then weeks later in June of ’68, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered after winning the California primary in Los Angeles.
So, the dual deaths of those two figures 50 years ago put America in almost a traumatic state. There’s still some people who will say, that’s when the American dream died in 1968 and you then had a year of just riots, protests, disruption at political conventions.
Yet by the end of the year, Richard Nixon the epitome of the status quo is president and America is trying to pull itself together through NASA space programs. The eventual going to the moon.
Rocky Dhir: And that was actually Kennedy’s program, President Kennedy’s —
Doug Brinkley: John F. Kennedy, I’m writing a book right now called ‘American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race’ and it’s President Kennedy that after the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the Soviets had put up Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, but the first human in space.
Kennedy on May 25, 1961 went to a joint session of Congress and said, we are going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and then he flipped on all the funding gears and eventually it ended up costing our country $25 billion.
Rocky Dhir: Any idea what that would be like today, $25 billion.
Doug Brinkley: You’d be dealing with getting close to a trillion dollars if we had to do it today.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, okay.
Doug Brinkley: Because back then, what made us able to go the moon as the microchip was invented in 1958. So, Kennedy is doing the moon challenge in ’61 and —
Rocky Dhir: So it’s still pretty nascent technology.
Doug Brinkley: Yeah, in fact in 1960 when John F. Kennedy became president, there were no Computer Science classes in college, none. And by 1963, universities all over were teaching Computer Science. The new frontier of John F. Kennedy was one of technology, and here in Texas, a lot of the bacon was brought home.
I mean, we have in Houston, the Johnson man Space Center and NASA headquarters and then money came into Huntsville, Alabama, money came into Cape Canaveral, Florida, into Brevard, North Carolina, into Hampton, Virginia. So it became a big governor expenditures particularly in the south because Kennedy had to win the south in 1964. And because of civil rights, James Meredith integrating Ole Miss for example, he was worried he wouldn’t be able to hold the style of South. So, he was trying to spend hundreds of millions of dollars all over to kind of keep Democratic senators in line with his presidency.
Rocky Dhir: Now, Talmage, take us back to that time period as you remember it, 1968, the 1960 starting with maybe the Kennedy era and then taking us up to this tumultuous few months, really in the beginning of 1968 when you’ve got – we’ve got the Tet Offensive, you have the death of Dr. King and then the murder of Robert Kennedy.
Do you remember what that was like? Was there tension in the air? Was this kind of a gradual build-up? Was it a shock? Tell us your memories of that time.
Talmage Boston: I was born in 1953 and so one of the most vivid memories of my life was November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Rocky Dhir: You were 10-years-old.
Talmage Boston: 10-years-old, and then of course, by the time you get to ’68, the country is filled with discord over the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King got shot and then six weeks later or eight weeks later, Bobby Kennedy got shot.
I remember the morning I woke up, my grandfather who I was staying at the time said, well, as expected, Robert Kennedy got shot.
Rocky Dhir: As expected?
Talmage Boston: As expected. There was such a sense after his brother’s assassination, after King’s assassination with all of the emotional uproar going on in the country. I think a lot of people, in fact, Jackie Kennedy famously said — when Robert Kennedy announced he was going to run for president, she said, what they did to Jack, they’ll do to Bobby. He should not do this.
So, there was almost a sense of inevitability, particularly in the aftermath of the King assassination that this was likely to happen and in fact it did.
Rocky Dhir: How did day-to-day life change or get affected by all these events? and the reason I ask that is sometimes when you have momentous events, it feels like as ordinary Americans, we’re still going about our lives, trying to pay our bills and buy groceries and do all those things that we do on a day-to-day basis.
Did daily life change for those who were in the middle of all this and how did it change?
Talmage Boston: Well, as Doug pointed out by 1968, the country had definitely changed to where dissent was almost the majority opinion, and so whereas you grew up, where Eisenhower’s presidency, a time of peace and prosperity, Kennedy gets elected, everybody has high hopes for this young charismatic leader.
And then with his assassination, everything seems to change and with each year, it seems like the decibels get louder and louder and louder that this great country that we’ve all felt so great about is heading toward tumult. And of course, Doug has done all the research.
He wrote a fantastic biography of Walter Cronkite. In fact, I’ll turn it over to Doug but famously, Cronkite after he said we need to get out of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson said, well, if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.
And so, Doug, you might talk about how that all came out.
Doug Brinkley: Well, that’s right. Talmage said it very well. I mean, I think dissent was in the air by 1968. When you’re losing — Mr. Middle America, Walter Cronkite, he was from St. Joseph, Missouri but was raised in Houston, Texas and what had been known as the Air Dean during World War II would write about our bomber boys down bombing Nazi Germany. He was just a deeply respected figure. When John F. Kennedy died, he famously took his glasses off and looked at the clock and —
Rocky Dhir: He was weeping if I remember.
Talmage Boston: Weeping, and we all say, I remember, when JFK was shot or people will say, we remember Cronkite telling us he was shot.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Talmage Boston: So when he turned on Vietnam, was just yet another indicator, another straw on the camel’s back that the war had ripped the country to part into dove and hawk camps, but there is something else going on and that was a culture of mistrust, people didn’t trust Lyndon Johnson because he lied, they didn’t trust Robert McNamara, and by ’69 they started not trusting Nixon or Kissinger.
There is a feeling that government is lying to you, and really, up until that period there was a big belief that the Federal Government was your friend, they provided Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security, and had projects like going to the moon with NASA, or the Manhattan Project to win World War II, and suddenly in Vietnam that we were seen as the bad guys, that our country, our leaders were killing innocent civilians and it took a toll on the nation and then when Dr. King was killed, there never was anybody to take over the leadership role.
We often talk as historians will call the modern civil rights movement 1954, the Brown v. Topeka decision and it ends in 1968 when Dr. King’s killed, Reverend Ralph Abernathy tried to pick up the torch and you have some of the young king acolytes like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson try, but they were no Dr. King. Students asked me, why wasn’t there somebody to take over from King?
Rocky Dhir: It’s an interesting question, yeah.
Talmage Boston: I told them, you don’t make a Dr. King up in a laboratory, he was a rare, rare mixture of people.
Rocky Dhir: Did you ever meet him or had you ever?
Talmage Boston: I have not, but I was born in Atlanta where his father had his ministry and my father had met Martin Luther King a number of times, but what Dr. King was 5’8”, he was little, but we think of him big because of that voice of his and he was a multiple threat. He was incredible orator as we all know, but he was a great writer. He had done his doctorate in Theology at Boston University.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Talmage Boston: So he was an intellectual and he just wrote that famous letter from the Birmingham City Jail when he was arrested, he hand-wrote that on the sides of a ‘New York Times’ newspaper and smuggled it out. That’s just a draft coming from Dr. King original hand. That’s how good King was, but more importantly King had a rare ability to go highbrow and lowbrow.
By that, I mean, he could be with European royalty, billionaires, be at their cocktail parties and be perfectly fit in. And then he could go to the worst Bar where people were brawling, a juke joint in the south and he could blend right in with working-class or the unemployed. That’s harder than you think to be comfortable in both of those worlds and Dr. King pulled that off. So his death in ’68 just left a void we still haven’t been able to fill.
Rocky Dhir: So, Doug, you’re going to be speaking on the second day of the Annual Convention, at the Annual Meeting. You’re going to be our keynote speaker at lunch. So, here you are at the State Bar of Texas, you’re not a lawyer, you’re a historian, and you’re here talking to us about the year 1968. What should we as lawyers be learning from this? What’s the lesson we need to take away?
Doug Brinkley: That the rule of law is very tenuous, that laws can be broken and you can have mass protest and mass uprisings. I mean, we had in ’68 and beyond in that period. Newark burning, Detroit burning, people being arrested for marijuana and putting life in jail, just for a little bit of drugs.
Suddenly a drug like LSD was legal because nobody even knew what it was and then it becomes illegal and you can arrest people and put them away that the currents of change like the Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, change happens and it’s lawyers have to be on the front edge of defending people whose freedoms are being impugned because of the changing times.
Meaning, today marijuana smoked in Colorado or Washington, in many states freely. People are doing a medical marijuana, but back in ’68 if you had pot on you, you could face serious jail time. Well, it’s the same substance but now you get away with it and back then you got busted with it.
So, lawyers have to I think be able to make sure they are keeping up with how speedy our culture is, things are very fast right now. Things changing by a nanosecond and you want to make sure you’re always defending your constitutional rights, because Constitution is gets challenged a lot like Second Amendment now with guns. What did the founders mean by the right to bear arms, did they mean that in a 21st Century context.
And so, I think, and you might look at guns that killed King, should Sirhan have been able to have weapons, should James Earl Ray who killed King been able to have weapons when they had criminal records in the past.
So, these are just — it’s endless amount of questions but we are a legalistic society, and lawyers are our frontline warriors.
Rocky Dhir: So, it’s the same questions we wrangled with today that we were still wrangling with 50 years ago, I guess.
Now Talmage, you are a lawyer and you’re a historian.
Talmage Boston: Yeah, and I wanted to weigh you know what Doug said, and that is, during John F, Kennedy’s presidency, his Attorney General was his brother Robert Kennedy.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Talmage Boston: And most historians have concluded that if it wasn’t for Robert as Attorney General, John F. Kennedy would not have become such an advocate for civil rights legislation as he did when he finally spoke up in the spring of 1963.
Rocky Dhir: So, Bobby kind of influenced him in that direction?
Talmage Boston: Bobby was a driving force, and I think a lot of people think that if Bobby had not been there we’re not sure that John F. Kennedy would have done anything on civil rights.
Rocky Dhir: And then Lyndon Johnson I guess by extension would not have done anything you think?
Talmage Boston: Well, certainly the people who are historians of Lyndon Johnson think that he was waiting for the most opportune time to become the champion of civil rights, and it wasn’t until he became president that he represented the whole country.
While he’s a senator from Texas, of course, he has been elected by Texans and to be an advocate for civil rights and a senator from Texas would probably have led to his not being elected. So he had to have a national constituency which he didn’t have until he was President, before he was in a position to be a grand champion for civil rights.
So the historians who’ve studied his life say that in his heart it was always something that he had wanted to do since he had taught the Latino schoolchildren but long before he entered politics, but the time wasn’t right, being from Texas until he became the President. But he was moving on civil rights on the airplane coming from Dallas back to DC with Kennedy’s dead body on-board and that was his number one priority as soon as he entered The White House.
So, a majority of Congress has always been lawyers, lawyers create the laws, lawyers were behind the Civil Rights Act and how it ultimately was worded, also the Voting Rights Act a year later in ’65, also the Fair Housing Act in 1968. So, lawyers are involved in creating laws and also involved as Attorney Generals or US Attorneys or District Attorneys in making sure the laws are enforced.
Rocky Dhir: Favorite presidents. You guys have talked a lot about the 1960s and, Talmage, I am guessing Kennedy was on your list of favorite presidents?
Talmage Boston: No.
Rocky Dhir: No?
Talmage Boston: Kennedy’s I think has appropriately been described as an incomplete presidency, because he only served three and-a-half years before he was killed, and obviously, he had some successes, he also had some failures. My favorite president is Abraham Lincoln.
Rocky Dhir: And how about you, Doug?
Doug Brinkley: Theodore Roosevelt, who I’ve gotten to write about, I wrote a book about him and spent a lot of time on TR. My book is a big fat Theodore Roosevelt book called ‘The Wilderness Warrior’, but what I loved about TR was that he was a writer of history. He once was the head of the American Historical Association.
Rocky Dhir: I think he did kind of everything in his life.
Doug Brinkley: He did, and he wrote like 35 books and a 150,000 letters and he only lived to be 60-years-old, it sets a lot of primary source material for biographers. He wrote and commented about everything. It’d be like somebody alive today who does a daily blog that’s what you get with TR, you’re getting almost daily. You can reconstruct his life, where FDR, a president I’ve written about never kept any diaries, wrote books like that, so that his leavings are very sparse FDR, although he was a more important president, Franklin Roosevelt than Theodore. Theodore being the cowboy, the conservationist, the war hero, the Rough Rider, the New York Police Commissioner, one could go on. It was just an exemplary life, very adventuresome and exciting, ending with trips to Africa and the Brazil wilderness.
Rocky Dhir: So, it sounds like, did you like Theodore Roosevelt as a person or did you like his presidency?
Doug Brinkley: Both.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Doug Brinkley: I think he was a very good president. I would put him in the top five, but he is as I figure, I’m most attracted to his vision and his ability to write.
Nobody beats what Talmage said, Abraham Lincoln, it’s kind of in a league of his own.
Rocky Dhir: That’s what I didn’t have to ask Talmage anything, he said Abraham Lincoln. I was like enough said, right? It’s kind of hard to be.
Doug Brinkley: Yeah, I always tell people no matter every president’s favorite president — I’m excluding Donald Trump, I can’t judge, but most presidents’ favorite president is Lincoln because no matter how bad they have it, Lincoln had it worse. So Barack Obama’s favorite president was Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush’s favorite president is Abraham Lincoln. He transcends party affiliation at this point.
Rocky Dhir: I think Ronald Reagan’s was actually FDR, if I recall, right?
Doug Brinkley: He loved FDR. He voted for FDR four times, Ronald Reagan. He also had a soft spot for Calvin Coolidge.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting.
Doug Brinkley: Because of Coolidge’s pro-business, anti-too much federal government growth posture and there were zero scandals under Calvin Coolidge. So, Reagan curiously brought out Calvin Coolidge’s portrait, dusted it off from the back bends and put it front and center in his White House.
Rocky Dhir: Now, Talmage, you’ve written a lot about baseball and I know you’ve written about, I guess baseball on the law and all kind of — you’ve lectured about what lawyers can learn from baseball, you’ve got a lot of baseball history and trivia up in your head. I’ve always wanted to ask you this; favorite baseball team?
Talmage Boston: Well, my favorite team for most of my life was the Boston Red Sox since my last name was Boston; but since I’ve lived in North Texas for the last 40 years —
Rocky Dhir: And so Rangers?
Talmage Boston: — and I have been a regular fan attending Texas Rangers’ games now for 40 years, in time the loyalty changed such that my number one favorite team is the Texas Rangers, number two are the Boston Red Sox, and as a child, growing up in Houston, I was here when the Colt 45s came to town and when the Astrodome opened. And so, particularly now with the rise of the Astros world champions, and just the amazing team they have now, I love their ballpark, Minute Maid ballpark. The Houston Astros, all of a sudden are in the top three, let’s put it that way.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, so Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, that’s kind of in?
Talmage Boston: Yeah, there’s a lot to enjoy about both teams, of course, the Rangers went to the World Series in 2010-2011 and now here the Astros win the World Championship in 2017, amazingly the common denominator is Nolan Ryan who was the president of the Rangers in 2010 and ’11, is now a consultant for the Astros.
And Doug and I actually got to be friends because I learned that he was such a serious baseball fan and so we share that and that’s really what got our friendship going in the first place.
Rocky Dhir: Well, then Doug, your turn. What’s your favorite team?
Doug Brinkley: Well, mine by far is the Detroit Tigers. I grew up –
Rocky Dhir: That’s an unexpected – wow, okay.
Doug Brinkley: Yeah, I grew in Toledo, Ohio, which is the border of Michigan and the Toledo Mud Hens is the AAA team for Detroit. But it was only about an hour drive to Tiger Stadium so my dad used to take me a lot. I now have three children and I’m taking them, we’re hitting, going to every major league ballpark.
So, I just got back from Fenway Park to see the Tigers play the Red Sox and on July 3 I will be in Chicago going to Wrigley Field —
Rocky Dhir: The Wrigley Field is a great stadium.
Doug Brinkley: — seeing Cubs Tigers. And then in August, I’m going to the Oakland Athletics park to see Tigers Athletics. So, it gives you an idea of what a big Detroit Tiger fan I am, but to echo Talmage, my number two team is the Houston Astros because I teach at Rice University.
Rocky Dhir: You have to be.
Doug Brinkley: I love the stadium and love the franchise. So, I pull for the Astros a lot also.
Rocky Dhir: And if I recall, a little bit of presidential trivia, correct me if I’m wrong, because this is y’all’s field, and this is a Texas podcast so I got to say, y’all, this is great, yall’s.
So, I understand that when Richard Nixon, he was going to be meeting with some senators and members of Congress that were opposed to him, the one thing that would kind of bind them where he could actually talk on common ground was baseball.
Didn’t baseball play a pretty big role in his — from what I understand about Nixon, he was kind of socially awkward but baseball was the one thing he could kind of talk about with people.
Doug Brinkley: Baseball and football. Nixon was a gigantic sports fanatic and so he knew all the players, all the statistics. And I think you said it quite eloquently, he was a nerd who didn’t know how to do easy –.
Rocky Dhir: I wouldn’t know anything about being nerd.
Doug Brinkley: And so, Nixon would be awkward, figure out a group like this of lawyers but he would immediately be able to start sports talk and not just hold his own but maybe be better than everybody. If you mentioned of Verlander, he would say, yes he’s got a 1.93 earned run average and that would bond him with different people around the country, his sports knowledge.
Rocky Dhir: That is perfect.
Talmage Boston: One of my favorite stories, after he had resigned from the president, Nixon tried to rebuild himself and restore something of a reputation and so he started going on talk shows and he was getting ready to go on a talk show, he was in a greenroom waiting to go on.
And the guest who was going to follow him on the show, entered the greenroom at the same time, there were only two of them there in the greenroom. The guy who walked into the room was William Kunstler, he was the lawyer for the Chicago 8. He was a flaming liberal, he hated Nixon, Nixon hated Kunstler, and yet they had never met before. So, there they are in this room, just the two of them.
Rocky Dhir: Hatred has no bounds, yeah.
Talmage Boston: That’s right. There they are in this room, just the two of them and looking at each other warily and one of them had the good sense they had read about each other, they knew they were both baseball fans. So, to break the ice, they started talking baseball and had a perfectly wonderful conversation before it was time for Nixon to go on.
So, to me that shows how baseball can bring people together who otherwise are far apart politically.
Rocky Dhir: Did they become friends after that?
Talmage Boston: I would not say so. I think they just had a good time in the greenroom.
Rocky Dhir: One can be helpful, right? One can absolutely be helpful. Presidential issue is one of my favorite topics. I could sit here all day with you guys. I want to thank you both for being here.
Doug Brinkley: I enjoyed it. This was absolutely, absolutely fascinating. So, Doug, Talmage, thank you both for coming out, sharing this. We’re looking forward to your to your keynote address, Doug. So, thank you both for sharing your knowledge with all of us.
And look, it’s guests like these that make the State Bar of Texas Podcast a very, very special place and I want to thank you for tuning in and listening.
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Guys, we’ve just taken a stroll back through time and it’s been a fascinating stroll going back 50 years, and in some cases more. I want to thank you for joining us on this little journey, because after all, life is a journey. We want to thank you for tuning in.
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