Debunking the myths of the '68 convention


September 03, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

The radio talk show host said he wanted to do a show about the 25th anniversary of the legendary 1968 Democratic convention.

"The way I see it," he said, "we could talk about the true long-range significance of that convention."

Uh-huh. And that significance -- what was it?

"How it led to a new era in American politics -- the coming of age politically of the Baby Boomers, the rock generation. People such as myself.

"And it brought together young blacks and whites in the cause of reforming American politics. In that case, it was their united opposition to the Vietnam War.

"We could talk about that. And how it led to the collapse of the Daley Machine and brought on a reform movement."

Because we were talking by phone, he couldn't see the expression on my face, which looked like I had taken a big bite of a lemon.

So I thanked him for his invitation, but I had a commitment that evening and had to decline.

Had I been truthful, I would have said he was a self-important jackass who didn't have a clue about the significance of the 1968 convention.

But he isn't alone. In recent days, there's been much strange babbling about that wild week in Chicago. So let's get a few things straight.

First, what that Democratic convention did was bring about the election of Republican Richard Nixon. And with his election came the Watergate scandal, his resignation, the interim presidency of dTC the unknown Gerald Ford, which led to the opportunity of the equally unknown Jimmy Carter. And that, in turn, opened the White House door for Ronald Reagan, George Bush and now Bill Clinton.

So, yes, it was a heck of a significant convention. It altered the course of presidential history for the next 25 years.

If the convention had been orderly and boring, as modern conventions had already become, it's likely that Hubert Humphrey, not Nixon, would have been president.

Would that have been good or bad? I don't know. I think it would have been good, given the antics of Nixon-Agnew. Others will disagree.

Nixon won because millions of voters saw cops bashing heads, protesters gagging on tear gas, hippies chanting obscenities and Democratic delegates shrieking about being prisoners in Richard J. Daley's police state.

And these voters asked themselves: Do I want to trust the White House to people who let a convention become a weeklong riot? That's leadership? The answer of many was, hell no.

What makes the whole thing so nutty is how easily it could have been avoided.

People forget that the entire city was not under siege from hundreds of thousands of dangerous hippies, yippies and dippies.

When the convention was gathering, only a few thousand war protesters were in town. They really weren't sure what they were going to do except make ridiculous threats.

They gathered in Lincoln Park, about eight miles from the convention hall on the South Side, three miles from the headquarters' hotel.

East of the protesters was Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. If they went that way, they'd be run over by cars or drowned.

Just west waited an army of cops in riot gear. If they got past the cops, which was unlikely, they'd be in the Old Town entertainment area. Fine place for a drink, but not much to demonstrate against.

If they broke through, they'd still be many dangerous miles from the Amphitheatre. Depending on the route they took, many might have been mugging victims.

So they sat in the park, wondering what to do. I later asked one of the leaders what would have happened if the police had just let them sit all night. Maybe bellowing threats into their bullhorns every hour to keep them awake and afraid.

He told me: "We would have sat there waiting for the cops to move in. Then in the morning . . ." He shrugged. "I guess we would have been exhausted and would have gone home to get some sleep. That might have been the end of it."

Instead, police moved in after the park curfew. And the brawl was on. Network TV broadcast that first violence, and it served as a recruiting call. Other angry young war protesters came pouring into Chicago, and the game was on.

By week's end, the story of the Democratic convention was not the nomination of Humphrey, a decent man and well-qualified candidate.

The story was cops battling longhairs on Michigan Avenue. Protesters in trees screaming obscenities. Cops cracking the heads of reporters.

And, of course, the late Richard J. Daley saying he had defended his city against the invasion of revolutionaries, anarchists, terrorists, maybe assassins. It wasn't true, but what can you say when your police force runs amok?

Now we have the myths:

Myth: The protests led to the end of the Vietnam War. Baloney. The war went on five more years until 1973. It might have ended sooner with Humphrey's election.

Myth: It wrecked Daley's reputation and his Machine. Nonsense. Daley was even more popular after the convention because the majority of Chicagoans thought that bashing hippie heads was great sport. The Machine came apart years later but for other reasons.

Myth: The protest heightened the political conscience of the Baby Boomers. Oh, yeah? Then why were they such strong supporters of Ronald Reagan?

Myth: It brought together young blacks and whites in a common cause. Nope. Few blacks took part in the protests. They figured that if young white suburbanites wanted their heads bashed, that was their choice. The blacks had enough troubles of their own.

But if the now-aging protesters want to boast about something, they can. They helped elect Nixon and shaped the next 25 years of American government.

.` You want to brag? Be my guest.

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