On the eve of Halloween, the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia hosted an advance screening of Ball of Confusion: The 1968 Presidential Election. The documentary is slated to run on public television stations starting this month. It’s the latest project of Larry J. Sabato, a professor of American politics at the University of Virginia. He is also the longtime director of the UVa Center for Politics and he has won two Emmy Awards for previous documentaries.
Prior to turning down the lights, the politics professor interviewed Edward Nixon, who shares a strong resemblance to his late brother and the former U.S. President, Richard. As he took his seat, the 85-year-old raised his hands and gestured with the familiar victory signs. His field is in international commercial trade, a venture that has taken him to China on many occasions. Mr. Nixon spoke to the audience about the difficulties of growing up during the Great Depression. His family endured because their business was a grocery store; they helped their community by letting people do small jobs at the store in exchange for food.
Mr. Nixon, a geologist, confessed his “aversion to politics,” despite Richard’s efforts to persuade him to consider public office. He also admitted, “I regretted later not having an influence on [Richard] when he was in the White House.” Another Nixon family member who did not share such influence was Edward’s daughter, Beth. The eight-year-old girl sent her uncle a congratulatory letter, asking when she could move into the White House with him.
During the discussion, Professor Sabato described Ball of Confusion as a documentary that serves as a fitting “prelude to [the] 2016” elections. Indeed, the similarities are not hard to spot in the archival footage from ‘68: rioting in the streets, discontent over foreign policy, political infighting, and uncertainty. Turn your television to any major news network in 2015 and you’ll see those same topics in the headlines. Ball of Confusion also includes interviews with individuals such as Mary Frances Berry, George Wallace Jr., Pat Buchanan, Skip Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and others.
The presidential election contest was won by Richard M. Nixon, whose name has become synonymous with Watergate and Vietnam. Viewers are likely to be astounded as they watch and remember or learn about campaigns by Nixon’s opponents: segregation supporter George Wallace Sr. and Hubert Humphrey. Most surprising are perhaps the machinations of Lyndon B. Johnson, looming in the background with a “shadow” campaign despite his pledge not to run.
Because Ball of Confusion offers an honest perspective and focuses within a single year, there’s an opportunity to better understand the political divisions and social unrest of the time. It was a horrible year beset by tragedies like the assassinations of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. As we approach 2016, maybe we can learn from the events of 1968 so that we might avoid (or pull ourselves out of) our own “ball of confusion.”