It seems it would be difficult to top this year in Alaska politics. The surprise of Sarah Palin’s emergence as a political media star competes with the trial and election defeat of Sen. Stevens as principal elements in what has been described as a great Alaskan political earthquake.
Without those twin tremors, passage of the gas line bill by the Legislature and the awarding of the incentive contract to Trans Canada, together with the extraordinary upheaval in oil prices, would rightly have been the primary focus public attention, along with the lesser importance of the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. Any attempt to evaluate the significance of these events, each itself dramatic enough, has been complicated by the deepening global recession, an evolving, distorting backdrop. Achieving perspective on any of them will take more time than an end of year pause.
In an eerie, if incomplete, symmetry, 2008 is reminiscent of another traumatic year in the history of the state, and the nation: 1968. That year began, proceeded, and ended with disorienting shocks of equal, perhaps even greater, impact than those of this year. In February 1968 the success of the Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese shook American complacency regarding assumptions of military superiority and political wisdom. Following Eugene McCarthy’s unprecedented March 12 win in the New Hampshire presidential primary election, President Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek and would not accept renomination underscored the suddenly rudderless nature of American leadership. These developments promised an energized election campaign and generated enormous growth of the anti-war opposition movement.
Though most Alaskans did not know it at the time, these events would soon become marginal, for on March 12, Richfield Oil Co. brought in the confirmation well at Prudhoe Bay that demonstrated the vast size of North America’s largest crude oil deposit. Release of official data in May confirmed the magnitude of the find.
In April, however, the nation had been thrown into trauma by the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis. Despite the pleas of Robert Kennedy, who had announced his own candidacy for president, rioting broke out in numerous American cities as the hope of the civil rights triumphs of the mid-sixties seemed challenged, and to some, dashed. There was little time for reflection, for in early June, Kennedy himself was assassinated on the night of his victory in the California primary.
Further riots followed throughout the summer in more than 100 cities as despair overtook many black communities and neighborhoods; at least 46 people died. America felt deeply riven, pro- and anti-war groups increasingly committed to forcing their convictions on the nation’s people and the government. The rift mirrored imperfectly what was called a “generation gap,” young people sensing their position on the cusp of broad cultural change, their elders skeptical and, often enough, frightened.
Then in August came the Democratic national convention in Chicago.
Determined that his city would not be taken hostage by youthful protesters, Mayor Richard Daley ordered his police to move aggressively and with initiative against planned rallies and marches. Thousands of young people were arrested, some beaten, many temporarily jailed in a media circus that both alarmed and mesmerized the nation. America seemed to be coming apart. The election of Richard Nixon in November felt like an anti-climax.
But there was no anti-climax in Alaska, where residents learned on the same day, Dec. 11, that the new president had selected their governor, Walter Hickel, to be Secretary of the Interior, and that Democrat “Bob” Bartlett, beloved senior U.S. senator and before that 16 years as Alaska’s Congressional Delegate, had died following complications from open-heart surgery. Before leaving for Washington, D.C., Hickel appointed Ted Stevens to fill Bartlett’s Senate seat. Still trying to understand the implications of the extraordinary find at Prudhoe Bay, now Alaskans grappled with the impact of Bartlett’s death, and his replacement.
1968 was a chaotic year, in America, and in Alaska.
Both nation and state survived, found a new equilibrium and prospered. As time permits, and perspective gained, Alaskans will view 2008 as an extraordinary year, as well, punctuated by the election of Barack Obama. Only with insight will we discern its place in the historical landscape.
Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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