“The whole world is watching.”
Chant of protesters during riots at Democratic National Convention in Chicago
Editor’s Note: Rick Robinson is a local author who is writing a book based on life in Northern Kentucky in 1968 and what we can learn now. LINK is publishing his book chapter by chapter in a recurring series. This is chapter 8. Click here to read chapter 7, Rick Robinson’s 1968: July
Corlis Highlander loved getting letters from her son, Army Private First-Class Micky Highlander. In August of 1968 she received a letter expressing his desire to leave Vietnam and return to Dayton, Kentucky. “I have only a few months to go,” he wrote. “I can just dream how it will be. I’ll get off the plane and you and Dad will be there, and we can go home … home is where I want to be right now.”
Mrs. Highlander told The Kentucky Post and Times Star she had a good cry over the letter and then straightened out. “About that time, I heard the front gate rattle.” She saw the Army officer approach her door. “And I knew what he was here for.” Micky Ray Highlander had been killed when his vehicle hit a land mine in An Khe. “That letter,” Mrs. Highlander said. “It was almost as if he knew. The poor child never had a chance to live.”
The arrival of a military officer at a residence was a primal fear of any parent with a child in Vietnam.
The father of Corporal John Becker of Cold Spring, who was killed near Quang Nam Province when the helicopter in which he was a gunner was shot down, described the horrific experience to a reporter. “We got home yesterday about 2:30 and when we pulled in, we saw the car up near the house. When the doors swung open and the men stepped out, they didn’t have to tell us what happened. We knew our son was dead.”
Each time the experience played out on the front page of the newspaper; one set of parents grieved while all the others sent up a silent prayer of relief for having no officers visit their home – at least for the day. The agony of waiting was nearly unbearable and became the foundation – both pro and con – for their position on Vietnam. Some believed it was a just cause. Others felt the United States had no business in Southeast Asia. All painfully waited for letters home or the arrival of bad news at their front door.
Later in the year, The Kentucky Post and Times Star editorialized the experience of having soldiers arrive at the doorstep of a fallen son.
The first feeling is dread. Are they bound here? Next the terrible fear they are indeed. Then the crushing knowledge that is like a bullet to the heart – only less merciful.
Far less merciful, for it leaves the victim alive and conscious and mentally and emotionally aware of the personal tragedy of losing a son.
Finally, there is overwhelming, almost unbearable anguish, the heartbreak that some authors of platitudes say must diminish with the healing years.
Sometimes it never diminishes.
During August of 1968, not all the news coming out of Vietnam was about death. Thirty-seven-year-old Air Force Captain, Joe Victor Carpenter of Maysville was one of three pilots released from a Vietnam prisoner of war camp. Six months earlier, Carpenter was shot down over enemy territory while flying his 100th and final mission. With Carpenter’s parents deceased, his aunt, Gault Haughaboo, watched television as Captain Carpenter was interviewed about his captivity. “I just love him dearly,” said Mrs. Haughaboo. “I haven’t heard anything about him while he was a prisoner. It about drove me crazy.”
Captain Joe Victor Carpenter would be awarded the Silver Star. The citation stated: “Captain Carpenter made repeated attacks against an armed convoy of forty trucks carrying men and supplies toward the Demilitarized Zone. Despite adverse weather conditions which necessitated extremely low-level passes in the face of intense, accurate anti-aircraft fire, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Captain Carpenter damaged several trucks, setting four on fire, and succeeded in stopping the entire convoy. The courage and outstanding airmanship demonstrated by Captain Carpenter in stopping the convoy significantly degraded the North Vietnamese logistics capabilities.” Carpenter died in 1982.
Nationally, politics took center stage in August. Republicans and Democrats alike prepared for their national nominating conventions. Republicans were headed to Miami Beach. Democrats were going to Chicago.
And as local politicos prepared for their respective party conventions, former Louisville-Courier Journal reporter Hank Messick dropped a bombshell in Northern Kentucky with the release of his book on organized crime in Newport entitled Syndicate Wife (The McMillan Company, 1968). The Kentucky Post and Times Star wrote a week-long series of articles reviewing Messick’s tale of gambling, prostitution, and death in Newport. The book was called “a kind of nightmarish Who’s-Who and Who-WAS-Who of Newport. In the opening story of the series, the reporter, Sigman Byrd, opined Messick’s tale would “raise the blood pressure of many living persons, some of them still in Newport, for a number of real-life characters are presented in a highly unflattering light.”
Syndicate Wife is the story of Ann Drahmann, a Cincinnati woman who worked at the Lookout House in Park Hills and who twice married into the Mob. However, organized crime and political corruption in Newport was a substantial part of Messick’s narrative. In particular, the book gave lurid details about the way hometown sports hero and reform candidate for Campbell County Sheriff, George Ratterman, was framed by an unholy collusion between public officials elected to enforce the law and the gangster who had been in de facto control of the city.
Syndicate Wife did more than tell a story. Messick named names. It had been seven years since Ratterman’s election, but nerves were still on edge. All sorts of elected officials, lawyers, judges, and police officers were mentioned by name in the book. Of the book, reporter Byrd surmised, “Dallas will live down the assassination of John F. Kennedy before Newport can overcome its sordid past.”
Dodging the issue of corruption in Newport was on full display. The judge in the Ratterman case said he knew Messick, “but any conversation I had with him during the George Ratterman trial was just a matter of ‘no comment’ on my part.” Newport’s mayor threatened legal action. “I’ll sue him if there is anything derogatory in the book about me, and I can get a footing on it.” The Campbell County Judge Executive, who had represented local Mobsters in court, was conveniently unavailable for comment.
A local Newport police officer, labeled by Messick as being in the pocket of local gangsters had the most colorful response. “Messick’s nothing but a big, fat, sloppy pighead. Everything he said about me is an (expletive) lie. I’m not through with that tick yet. I’m talking to a lawyer about him.”
Hank Messick eventually wrote a second book about Newport entitled Razzle Dazzle (For the Love of Books Publishing, 1995) – the name of a popular dice game no gambler ever won. Yet, it was his first book, the story of Ann Drahmann, which is forever woven into the fabric of Northern Kentucky.
Prior to the publication of Syndicate Wife, Ann Drahmann committed suicide while living in protective custody at a hotel in Rome, Italy. In her suicide note, she pleaded with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to “not lose the courage of (his) convictions. Don’t allow gambling in Newport or Covington, Kentucky,” she wrote, as her lethal dose of pills and Scotch began to take effect. “Mr. Kennedy, why are city officials of Newport allowed to take money from gangsters to permit such horrible things to take place in Newport? I suggest, do not only wipe out the gangsters but please wipe out the city officials. Please Mr. Kennedy, stop this. Don’t give up.”
While most, if not all, of the people mentioned in Syndicate Wife are deceased, Northern Kentuckians still discuss Newport’s past as if it were front-page news.
Nationally, the Republican Convention was the first to be held. Art Schmidt and Otis Readnour were the only two delegates from Northern Kentucky. In spite of several state officials supporting Nelson Rockefeller or Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon easily won the nomination.
The Kentucky Republican delegation voted 22 for Nixon and 2 for Rockefeller.
There was some floor support for Louie Nunn to be Nixon’s running mate. Nunn was a floor whip for Nixon, counting votes among six state delegations. He scoffed at the idea of getting a VP nod from Nixon, but apparently came well prepared, just in case. The Kentucky delegation carried handmade signs saying, “Nunn for Veep” and “We Love Louie.”
Fourth District Congressman Gene Snyder wanted Reagan on the ticket and Senator Marlo Cook was pushing for Senator Howard Baker from Tennessee. In the end, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate.
A few weeks later, the Democrats gathered in Chicago and, despite spirited opposition, nominated Hubert Humphrey as their candidate for President. After considering many for the number two spot on the ticket (including Republican Nelson Rockafeller) Senator Edmund Muskie (D) from Maine was added to the Humphrey ticket.
Carlton Anderson, a thirty-three-year-old teacher from Hebron, was an alternate delegate to the Democratic Party Convention. His expenses for the week give context to the times — $42 for a flight to Chicago and $14 per day for a hotel room. Anderson had been involved in local politics for years. “It’s become a kind of hobby for me,” Anderson said. “I think that every good citizen should be interested in politics.”
What wasn’t mentioned in the local newspaper accounts of the Democratic National Convention was what was happening outside in the streets of Chicago. Anti-war protesters gathered in a park near the convention center. Peaceful demonstrations quickly escalated into violence as police and protesters clashed. Television stations covered the convention, as well as the bloody protests. Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D) of New York called the actions of the Chicago police “Gestapo tactics.” To which, from the podium of the convention, Mayor Richard Daley bellowed an antisemitic response. Reporter Dan Rather was roughed up on the floor of the convention while trying to interview a delegate from Georgia.
Hubert Humphrey supporter Phil Taliaferro was there. “It was a mess,” he said. Taliaferro was not sympathetic to the protesters. “I was just out of the service and absolutely hated the thought of people tossing rocks at veterans trying to get from their hotel to the convention center,” he said.
The chaos in Chicago was yet another illustration of the growing divide in America regarding the war. It also likely sealed the fate of the Humphrey/Muskie ticket.
Both parties had their nominees for President, but there was one fly in the ointment – George Wallace was gaining support in Northern Kentucky.
When George Wallace was sworn in as the 45th Governor of Alabama, he boldly declared, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace did more than utter words written by his Klu Klux Klan member speechwriter, he acted and stood in the doorways of schools attempting to integrate.
In the spring of 1967, Wallace met with several prominent white supremacists and anti-Semites to discuss a third party run for the President as a member of the American Independent Party. His appeal to voters hiding racists attitudes behind the label of “populism,” worried leaders from both parties.
One reason local Democrats were very concerned about the Wallace candidacy was because he engaged in serious discussions with former Kentucky Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler about joining his ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate. Chandler had already angered party officials by backing Louie Nunn for Governor of Kentucky. Then prior to the Democratic National Convention, Chandler withdrew his support for Katherine Peden, the party’s nominee for United States Senate. The party responded by removing the popular former governor as a delegate to the national convention and inserting a “loyalty pledge” into the party’s platform. The Governor struck back at what he called the “Chandler Clause,” pointing out that neither Governors Ruby Laffoon nor Lawrence Wetherby had supported his bid for governor.
Then Chandler took his conflict with the Democratic party a step further and announced he expected to soon be named as the Vice-Presidential running-mate of George Wallace. Some thought Chandler was joking. One reporter said, “If you went up to Happy and asked him about reports he would be the next Pope, he wouldn’t deny it.”
For days, newspapers were filled with stories about Chandler joining the Wallace ticket. And Chandler was all too happy to spread the rumor even further. “I’m strong, healthy, and mentally alert,” Chandler told a reporter for The Kentucky Post and Times Star. He also used the opportunity to take a swipe at his opponents. “The Democrats undertook to read me out of the party because I supported Governor Nunn,” he said. “They left me off the convention list.”
While tweaking the collective noses of party leaders, he also spoke very favorably of the former Alabama Governor. “George Wallace is one of the most dynamic young men in America today. He’s got the two parties on the run. All they can offer is more of the same. Wallace offers something better, and people are flocking to him in overwhelming numbers.” Chandler predicted Wallace would win Kentucky and the Presidency.
Following a long meeting with George Wallace, Happy Chandler initially told the press he intended to be on the ticket. Then in an interesting reversal, both men suddenly distanced themselves from each other. The writing was on the wall; Chandler was not going to be on the ticket with Wallace. Apparently after meeting with Wallace staffers, Chandler was dumped. Wallace’s advisors believed Chandler’s support for civil rights – and particularly his role as Commissioner of Baseball in allowing Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball – would cost Wallace votes. Chandler’s national campaign was over before it ever began.
The popularity of on-again/off-again VP candidate A.B. “Happy” Chandler aside, support for George Wallace in Northern Kentucky from both political parties was clearly apparent. When trying to determine the political leaning of party jumpers, each pointed to the other.
The Chairman of Republican Party of Kentucky declared there were five issues in the race: the Vietnam War, racial disorder and civil rights, crime and civil disorder, cost of living and public welfare. But he added, “George Wallace has us all worried. We are deeply concerned.” Democrats were pondering the fact that Hubert Humphrey was polling third in Northern Kentucky and the state. The Chairman of Kentucky’s Democrat Party believed support for George Wallace had peaked.
The Kentucky Post and Times Star fueled the debate with a series of articles where reporters “straw-polled” local events. The series confirmed what both parties already knew – George Wallace had traction in Northern Kentucky. A shop owner declared, “Humphrey will throw it to Johnson. It’s all so crooked, it’s hard to say. Politics is like a bowl of spaghetti … all mangled.” At a bus stop in Covington, a woman said, “I’m a registered Democrat, but I’m certainly not going to vote that way. Put me down for Nixon.” An African American commuter said, “All the candidate together ain’t worth two cents.” A stroll through truck stop found each driver supporting Wallace.
Many being interviewed thought Wallace had enough electoral support to throw the election into the United States House of Representatives.
The campaign for President promised to be lively.
Finally, in August 1968, The Kentucky Post and Times Star reported on an issue that is still at the forefront of debate over 50 years later – traffic safety on the Cut in the Hill and the Brent Spence Bridge. Listing eleven deaths occurring on the portion of Interstate 75 leading into Cincinnati, local officials gave their ideas on how to address the issue.
Most officials focused on lowering speed limits and better regulating the flow of traffic. Police chiefs from Ft. Mitchell and Florence thought the speed limit from Buttermilk Pike to the river should be lowered from 50 to 40 miles per hour. Erlanger’s chief criticized the grading of the highway and traveler’s lack of knowledge about the “deviltry of the hill.” The Covington traffic bureau suggested more guardrails, placement of flashing accident warning signs and lengthening the exit and entrance ramps.
Perhaps the best idea on Cut in the Hill safety came from an engineer at the state highway department who noted, “it would be helpful if drivers remained sober.”
Rick Robinson’s award-winning books can be found at area bookstores and are available on Amazon. In a new book to be released later this year, he will be viewing Northern Kentucky through the lens of 1968. If you wish to contact Robinson with a story or thoughts about 1968, you may do so at [email protected]. Photo credits compliments of Kenton County Library Faces and Places. Unless otherwise noted, all stories and quotes from 1968 are from articles that appeared in The Kentucky Post and Times-Star.