1968 chaos in Chicago not likely to be repeated



WASHINGTON -- Some Democrats with long memories are a little antsy about holding their 1996 convention in Chicago.

Not to worry. There are no issues in American politics these days that have the emotional content to cause the kind of chaos that made the 1968 Democratic convention a political disaster that a subsequent investigation described as a "police riot."

In fact, it has been 20 years since any issue had the potential for dividing the nation and evoking passion as did, first, the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s and then the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Nobody is willing to walk through fire for health care or welfare reform. The arguments these days are conducted at the margins and focus on differences in methods, not fundamental conflicts on basic national policy.

The only issue with much emotional content is abortion rights. But this is a question that is volatile only among those at the extremes on one side or the other, most often those who oppose abortion rights. The national policy, meanwhile, has been determined by the Supreme Court's decision in the Pennsylvania case allowing some restrictions on abortion but none that would constitute an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions.

By contrast, the national debate over civil rights served as a litmus test for a generation of American politicians before Congress finally approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The scalding controversy over the war in Vietnam destroyed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, who stepped aside in March 1968 when faced by the likelihood of repudiation by his own party had he sought the nomination for a second term. This was a time when the president could not leave the White House without being confronted with mobs shouting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

The volatility of the issue increased after the assassination in June of Robert F. Kennedy, who had supplanted then Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota as the leader of the movement against the war. That set the stage for the Chicago convention at which, after thousands of young demonstrators were set upon by police, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey became the Democratic nominee to succeed Johnson.

The pictures of those wild scenes in Chicago -- police pushing street protesters through the plate-glass windows of a bar at the Conrad Hilton, for example -- compromised the Democrats from the outset. Whatever Americans thought about the policy on Vietnam, they were frightened and repelled by the violence it evoked.

Among the Democrats who made up his party's activist base, Humphrey was dogged by his identification with the Johnson policy until he finally repudiated it in a speech in Salt Lake City in October. The Democratic candidate then began to close the gap rapidly in the final three weeks of the campaign but still fell short -- by a single percentage point -- of catching Republican Richard M. Nixon.

The issues before the country these days are far more prosaic. The president and Democratic congressional leaders are trying to depict health care reform as a decision akin to that made in establishing the Social Security system 60 years ago. In fact, however, the argument is relatively narrow. The national goal of health care available for everyone is accepted by everyone from President Clinton to such prominent Republican naysayers as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and Sen. Phil Gramm. The conflict lies in how that goal should be reached.

Moreover, as is the case in dealing with most issues now, the debate is being conducted before an electorate that is unwilling to pay higher taxes for essentially anything and that is riddled with suspicion toward the politicians making the decisions. Money was never a factor in debating either civil rights or the war in Vietnam, and politicians were viewed far more benignly than is the case today.

That 1968 convention at Chicago is remembered vividly by those who were there. The spectacle of Mayor Richard J. Daley shouting imprecations at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut is unforgettable. So is the picture of galleries packed with Chicago city employees screaming at the press and the liberals they saw as sympathetic to the demonstrators.

But that was then and this is now.

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