The Democrats convened in Chicago in late August 1968 to select their candidate for the presidency of the United States. It did not go well.
The Vietnam War had cleaved the party. President Lyndon B. Johnson, ostensibly the party’s leader, had told the country in March that he would not seek another term so that he could focus on the increasingly bloody conflict in Southeast Asia. He had become so controversial that he would be an invisible man in Chicago, his name rarely spoken, his image nowhere in the amphitheater.
His anointed heir and the presumptive nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, found himself manacled to the administration’s grim war. Humphrey did not compete in the primaries. Instead, he owed his front-runner status entirely to the patronage of party bosses who controlled vast numbers of delegates.
The antiwar activists arriving in Chicago saw the convention as a farce. The fix was in. “Dump the Hump!” would be one of their milder chants. The protesters included peaceniks, black militants, revolutionaries, anarchists, communists and what the stodgy news media referred to as flower children.
Or, as Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Youth International Party, or Yippies, put it: “We were dirty, smelly, grimy, foul, loud, dope-crazed, hellbent and leather-jacketed. We were a public display of filth and shabbiness, living in-the-flesh rejects of middle-class standards.” (Eventually, he wound up working on Wall Street.)
The protesters practiced street-fighting tactics. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale later wrote, “We’re not here to be sitting around a jive table vacillating and bull-jiving ourselves.”
They were on a collision course with the epitome of a Democratic Party boss, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. He vowed to keep order. Earlier in the year, when riots erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daley had notoriously ordered police to shoot to kill arsonists and “shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.”
Now, with the Democrats arriving, Daley prepared for an invasion of hundreds of thousands of protesters — a vast horde that never materialized. He deployed 12,000 police officers, many undercover, backed by 5,600 members of the Illinois National Guard, and another 5,000 regular Army soldiers from Fort Hood, Tex., and other bases held in reserve.
What ensued was easily the most disastrous political convention of the last century. Its polarizing reverberations are still being felt in American politics. Chicago 1968 forever changed the way Democrats and Republicans nominate presidential candidates, opening the process to outsiders and populists — and eventually to a reality TV star.
‘We were so divided’
The Democrats came to Chicago as a party that, in the words of Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, “didn’t know who it was.”
The big-tent party of labor unions and Northern liberals and conservative Southerners — the coalition that elected John F. Kennedy and Johnson — was coming apart at the seams. The historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought a wave of African Americans into the Democratic Party. But in 1968, the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, had bolted the party to run as a third-party candidate.
The man who might have united the party was now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Less than three months earlier, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had just won the California primary when an assassin approached with a gun at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
John Lewis, the civil rights leader and future congressman, then just 28 years old, served as a delegate from Georgia, but he was still reeling from Bobby Kennedy’s murder. He’d been with Kennedy in Los Angeles the night of the assassination and cried, he said, the entire flight home.
“The country was so divided. As Democrats we were so divided. It was a very sad and dark period,” Lewis recalls.
“The whole convention was shrouded in gloom,” remembers veteran political reporter Jules Witcover, who covered it for the Newhouse newspaper chain.
The Democrats controlled the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. They had pushed through the Great Society programs. Just four years earlier, Johnson had defeated his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, in a landslide. But now the party was in shambles, and Johnson was not wanted in Chicago.
“I’ve never felt lower in my life,” Johnson said after leaving the presidency. “How do you think it feels to be completely rejected by the party you’ve spent your life with, knowing that your name cannot be mentioned without choruses of boos and obscenities?”
The only man arriving in Chicago who had stumped his way across America was Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had carried the antiwar banner all year. But McCarthy was a strange man: cerebral, aloof, not a glad-hander, strangely uncompetitive.
“He seemed at times to have disdain for the people who supported him,” Witcover says.
The party had to grapple with its history of racism. In the past, African Americans had often been excluded from state delegations. Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, joined forces with newspaper publisher Hodding Carter III to try to seat a biracial slate of delegates from Mississippi.
“Let’s kill the hate,” Evers told the party’s leaders. “If you close the door in our face this day, God help us.”
The biracial slate carried the day. But the old guard still had the bulk of the power. No one wielded it more unflinchingly than Daley. He sat directly in front of the rostrum every night of the convention. This was Daley’s show.
‘The whole world is watching!’
Outside, on the street, the Yippies served as the theatrical wing of the antiwar movement.
They received national attention by vowing to put LSD in the city water supply. And then, several days before the official start of the convention, the Yippies gathered in downtown Chicago and nominated a pig for president.
They had purchased the 200-pound pig from a local farm. They named him Pigasus and demanded that he receive Secret Service protection and the kind of national security briefing offered other candidates.
The Yippie stunt made the evening news on CBS (“Police hustled the pig and 10 of the Yippies off to jail and booked them for exhibiting livestock … a misdemeanor,” intoned Walter Cronkite, not terribly amused) and on ABC (where confused anchor Frank Reynolds referred to the “Yippies, or Yappies”).
In the antiwar movement there were divisions within the splinter groups within the factions, and even the Yippies suffered internecine battles. They were divided over what to do with the pig. One proposal: Eat him. That incited objections from the non-carnivores.
“Vegetarianism almost destroyed us,” Rubin later wrote.
The convention opened three days later with Aretha Franklin singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Outside, tensions mounted between protesters and the police. A police transmission, published later in a sweeping report on the street violence, captured the mood of officers communicating on their radios:
“We’ve got an injured hippie”
“That’s no emergency.”
“Kick the f—–.”
“Knock his teeth out.”
The protesters wanted to camp in Lincoln Park, but the city refused permits. Every night the police moved in and cleared the protesters. Yippie co-founder Abbie Hoffman was detained for writing the f-word on his forehead.
The chaos peaked on Wednesday. The antiwar forces held a rally in Grant Park that drew more than 10,000 people, many of them locals.
The movement leaders gave speeches, their rhetoric more revolutionary than ever. (Rubin, Hoffman, Seale and other activists would eventually face federal conspiracy charges and go to trial in a case that made them national figures.)
But the violence that Wednesday was triggered by a teenager who climbed a flagpole and attempted to lower the American flag to half-staff. The police, who had been called “pigs” for days, moved in. They grabbed him and beat him with billy clubs. Protesters then pelted the police with rocks, fragments of concrete, and bags of urine. Both sides hurled obscenities.
After the police retreated, protesters (an undercover cop among them) took down the flag and replaced it with a piece of red cloth, an echo of the Viet Cong flag. About 30 officers rushed forward and beat protesters, knocking some unconscious.
The protesters wanted to march Michigan Avenue to the convention, but the police declared such a march illegal. A group of protesters attempting to march were stopped by National Guardsmen wielding two tripod-mounted .30-caliber machine guns. Soon a large crowd of protesters became pinched by two groups of police officers in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, which served as the headquarters of Humphrey, McCarthy and much of the Democratic leadership. Tear gas reached Humphrey in his hotel suite.
In the crush of bodies, people crashed through the front window of the hotel’s Haymarket Lounge. Police did not discriminate in busting heads. They clobbered men and women, protesters and innocent bystanders, reporters and photographers. They confiscated film from cameras. They pushed one woman over a railing onto a garage ramp — a photographer snapped an image of her landing upside down. Another woman who was enduring a beating looked up into the faces of the officers and noted that they’d removed their badges.
The TV networks — which reached an astonishing audience of 89 million Americans on this historic night — cut away from the convention speakers to show tape-delayed images of the violence. The footage was shadowy, with police surging to and fro, dragging protesters, shoving them into a paddy wagon, clubbing them. A chant could be heard in the background: “The whole world is watching!”
Things were out of control inside the convention as well. Security personnel kept roughing up reporters. Dan Rather was punched in the stomach. Mike Wallace was wrestled to the floor.
To the modern viewer the TV coverage of Chicago looks raw, unedited, improvisational. Correspondents roamed the convention floor while wearing headsets with insectile antennae. Cameras mounted far away struggled to find the correspondents, who were somewhere in the fray. It was like “Where’s Waldo?”
On the convention floor, Rather asked Daley about reports that the police were abusing protesters.
“Our police department is the greatest police department in the United States. They are all family men, decent men, and they do not respond with any undue violence,” Daley said.
Rather pressed him. Daley finally snapped: “Totally propaganda by you and your station and a lot of Eastern interests. You never wanted this convention in Chicago.”
On the podium, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut nominated Sen. George McGovern for president, and then glared at Daley.
“With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” Ribicoff said.
The TV networks showed Daley shouting obscenities at Ribicoff.
The senator kept looking at Daley, and said, “How hard it is. How hard it is to accept the truth.”
Daley responded with what appeared to be several f-bombs.
Now came booing, jeering, shouts. The convention became completely unglued.
On NBC, David Brinkley said, “Wherever our reporters go on the floor they are followed by unidentified faceless men who attempt to listen to everything they say. … We don’t know who they are.”
We don’t know who they are.
Humphrey won on the first ballot, his victory coming after midnight. In his hotel room he kissed the television as it displayed an image of his wife, Muriel.
Eugene McCarthy was asked by reporter Marie Ridder if he was bitter about Humphrey’s victory, according to Charles Kaiser’s book “1968 in America.” McCarthy responded: “No use being bitter about Hubert. He is too dumb to understand bitterness.”
The emotional highlight came Thursday night with a video tribute to the slain Sen. Kennedy. When it was over, pro-Kennedy delegates sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They would not stop singing. Ten, 15, 20 minutes passed and they kept at it, a filibuster of song. Then pro-Humphrey delegates began booing. Fights broke out.
Humphrey gave a victory speech that no one remembers.
Hodding Carter said he left Chicago knowing that it was a debacle, because the average American would look at the Democrats and conclude that “this was a party that had lost its mind.”
A win for Nixon
The one person who emerged fully victorious from Chicago was Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee.
“So many Americans were so anxious about the stability and orderliness of their society, they found the protests too nerve-racking, too dangerous, too destabilizing,” said David Farber, a University of Kansas historian who wrote a book on the convention. “I think those protests ironically and perversely helped the candidacy of the ‘law and order’ president, Richard Nixon.”
On Election Day, Nixon narrowly won the popular vote but earned a large Electoral College majority. He carried Illinois.
After Chicago, George McGovern — who would lose to Nixon in a landslide in 1972 — led a commission that reformed the presidential nominating process, elevating the primaries and making the system more small-d democratic. No longer would party bosses like Daley have an iron grip on delegates. Outsiders now had a chance to break through the establishment’s wall.
“Chicago was an interruption of the political process,” said Lewis, who has represented Georgia in the House of Representatives since 1987. “And what we’re going through now is another interruption.”
Among political operatives planning a convention, “Chicago” is a code word for total disaster. What happened on the shores of Lake Michigan provided the blueprint for what not to do.
Today, conventions are excruciatingly scripted festivals of unity.
They’re boring. There’s no reason for the whole world to be watching.
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