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DNC/Chicago, 40 years later

Yesterday a panel at the AEJMC meeting I’m attending in Chicago brought together several of the most prominent participants in the Chicago melee surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where Mayor Daley’s police provoked repeated violent confrontations with the thousands of anti-war protesters who had come to town to demand a more definitively anti-war position from both the platform and the nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.  The session was exceptionally interesting, and recalling that 1968 event from the vantage point of forty years were Sam Brown (now an Obama finance committee member but then a student leader of Eugene McCarthy’s campaign), Jeff Greenfield (who was then a speechwriter and staffer for Senator Kennedy, who had just been murdered), Tom Hayden (one of the Chicago Seven, or eight depending on how one counts it, prosecuted for their protests), Bill Kurtis (then a local TV reporter who watched the dramatic Wednesday rioting unfold while standing on top of someone’s car on Michigan Avenue), and Paul McGrath (who was writing the whole thing up for the Chicago Tribune, whose headquarters also physically loomed over much of the scene).

By the late August convention, Humphrey’s nomination was secure.  With Kennedy’s death his quixotic campaign for the presidency was disastrously and tragically ended, and his followers obviously derailed and in mourning.  McCarthy’s campaign had been stalled out since the early spring; one of the odder recollections was offered by Brown, who as a top staffer when trying to contact the candidate in July (though the nomination was lost, his supporters hoped a vigorous summer would give some leverage to advocacy for a peace plank in the platform) was told by McCarthy’s brother that the Senator wouldn’t come to the phone because he had taken a summer “vow of silence.”  Can one imagine similar behavior from any of today’s political figures?  Hayden, asked what he thought he would achieve in Chicago, simply said that though he was by then profoundly skeptical about the prospects for progressive anti-war commitments from the national party, he felt that the unfolding dynamic might make it productive to plan an as-if demonstration that could be activated to exert pressure inside the hall if it might be helpful.

Beyond the strikingly young ages of these activists at the time of the convention, what was so tantalizing in today’s recollections was the sense of possibilities lost, and the resulting impossible what if’s of history and that summer.  Greenfield:  If Kennedy had survived California, he might have won New York’s open primary the week later.  That would have left him considerably delegate short (the party then allocated few delegate seats to primary contest outcomes), but one not-implausible scenario might have been a Daley endorsement of Kennedy.  A close Kennedy/Humphrey convention fight with a supportive Daley might have changed everything regardless of who won – much less likely protests, less likely escalation, much better TV coverage, and a potential victory over Nixon in the fall.  Hayden:  What if Daley had simply agreed right before the convention to provide demonstration permits that would have allowed anti-war advocates a place to rally and sleep?  Daley’s refusal to issue permits meant that violence was inevitable, as any acts of even innocent trespass were elevated to criminal behavior that had to be shut down, and this was what revved up the charged climate, producing open conflicts on Michigan Avenue at the Hilton Hotel.  Brown:  Staffers from the McCarthy campaign were scheduled to have breakfast with Senator Kennedy the morning after the California primary to strategize.  Obviously such talks never happened.  What might have happened had McCarthy explicitly shifted his support to RFK at that point?  Greenfield again:  What might have happened had the announcement of Kennedy’s early (and later reversed) decision not to run for president been delayed for a mere four days?  (Four days after he first ruled out a bid, the Tet offensive began, arguably setting in motion the nation’s slow motion tectonic shift to a view that the war was unwinnable.)  It was Kennedy’s refusal to run, later reversed, which left such a bad taste with so many Democrats (in part because it seemed cynically motivated, reinforcing the Ruthless Bobby image).  Had he waited his decision might have been to run from the beginning.

The events of that time have interesting affinities with the politics of this summer, and the panelists were all asked to speculate on them.  One consensus view is that, ironically, the aftermath of the 1968 campaign has had some decisively structuring influence on today’s political scene.  After the 1968 election 18-year-olds were granted the vote, and that fact today provides Senator Obama with one of his most decisive electoral advantages.  After 1968 the draft was ended; were the draft still in force today opposition to the Iraq war would undoubtedly be more militant and politically polarizing even than it is at present, under circumstances where soldiers are there because they volunteered, where the financial costs are hidden (since taxes have not been raised to pay for Iraq or Afghanistan and the whole enterprise is off-budget), and the flag-covered coffins not available to photojournalism.

Journalism was also changed that summer.  Bill Kurtis (recently of shows like American Justice) noted how the networks all adopted new rules for covering protests after the DNC met in Chicago (including the rule that network trucks try to avoid turning their outside lights on, since that only attracts and inflames protesters); the technological limits on live coverage at the time meant that Walter Cronkite, uninformed as to the details of the Hilton scene because he was reporting from a remote location, was basically winging it as he gave voice-over narration to the raw footage rushed to the studio and put right onto air.  His reporting, which included the now famous observation that it looked like a “police state out there,” exaggerated a situation that was already bad enough.  Many of the complexities of today’s media age were then enacted by protesters specifically interested in pushing The System as far as it could go (on the theory that doing so would reveal its innate violence, and for “all the world to see” thanks to national network television), and in the context of reporters untrained to absorb what they were seeing (and this despite McGrath’s sense that by then reporters were pretty used to covering riots given the upheavals of 1967 and earlier 1968) the corrosive cynicism of the 1970’s was given earlier sustenance.

Of course remembering the events of Chicago forty years on, as Hayden noted, is to live in the past.  Sam Brown mentioned in concluding the panel discussion how notable it is that in Barack Obama the nation now has its first modern presidential candidate born late enough to be mainly free of the passions and polarizations of Chicago 1968.  The prospects of moving beyond the old debates seemed as welcome to the panelists as their obvious eagerness to recollect that troubled summer.


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