Chaos, violence led up to '68 convention in Chicago Democrats hope to erase memories of earlier fiasco

Democratic Convention

August 25, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- Twenty-eight years after another Democratic National Convention in Chicago ended in a disastrous police riot, tarnishing the Democratic Party and the city itself, Chicago is getting another chance, again under a Mayor Richard Daley.

This time it's Richard M. Daley, son of the late Richard J., one of the last of the old-time Democratic city bosses.

The son is bent on erasing memories of that 1968 fiasco that blemished his father's image, contributed to the defeat of Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey and ushered in an era conservatism under Republican President Richard M. Nixon.

The Democratic convention of 1968 capped a spring and summer of chaos and violence that saw President Lyndon B. Johnson driven from his expected bid for re-election by challenges from Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, and then produced the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy.

The turmoil played out against an increasingly bitter and vocal street protest of American involvement in the Vietnam War that divided the country and, particularly, the Democratic Party. Johnson cited it as the reason for bowing out as a candidate, saying he needed to focus all his energies on ending the war.

In all, 541,000 Americans were then stationed in Vietnam as Johnson brought the war to the enemy in North Vietnam.

What the protesters called "Johnson's war" inspired them to fill the streets outside the Democratic headquarters hotel shouting to the absent president: "Hey, Hey! LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?" And to Humphrey: "Dump the Hump!" and worse.

Young, rebellious Americans moved into downtown parks, watched by nervous police, more than 5,500 Illinois National Guardsmen and even more Army troops on standby.

On the night of Aug. 22, a 17-year-old Native American in hippie garb was shot and killed near Lincoln Park by police who said he had fired on them. Jeeps with barbed wire on their bumpers, called "Daley Dozers" by the demonstrators, brought armed troops to expected trouble spots.

At the convention, defeat of an anti-war platform plank raised tensions, and police responded, first with tear gas, then with wildly swinging nightsticks. They clubbed protesters to the ground and dragged them into waiting patrol wagons -- as television cameras recorded the scene for a stunned nationwide audience. At least 100 people were injured and 175 arrested on one night alone.

In the end, Humphrey was nominated on the first ballot over McCarthy and a token candidacy by Sen. George S. McGovern, as a stand-in for the fallen Robert Kennedy. Through it all, Johnson sat in Texas watching the convention on television -- and hoping in vain that it might yet turn to him.

The violence in Chicago later was labeled a "police riot" by a blue-ribbon review commission.

While many Americans deplored what had happened, many others, later studies indicated, sided with the police against what they saw as a ragtag band of young radicals bent on destroying the political system.

While it was true that some such elements had been part of the protest, the majority consisted of middle-class students ignited by their hatred of the war.

The events of 1968 in Chicago proved to be pivotal to an effort by the Republican Party to demonize the Democratic Party as too accommodating to destructive and divisive forces in American society.

Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley observed that while most perspectives of 1968 have come from veterans of the anti-war movement who view the year "in terms of what it meant to the left," events were more significant in terms of "how they mobilized and engaged the right."

Noting that the Democratic vote had dropped from 61 percent for LBJ in 1964 to only 42.7 percent for Humphrey in 1968, Brinkley called the result an emphatic statement "against the anti-war movement, against the counterculture, against violence and for law and order."

The shocks to the nation's system sustained in 1968, Brinkley said, "far from radicalizing America, created a real political reaction, which the right was able to begin to exploit."

These views underscore how the convention provided the spark for a resurrection of a conservative Republican movement that only four years earlier, with the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, had been pronounced dead.

This year, the Democrats hope their return to Chicago will restore the city to its status as an ideal place to hold a convention.

Beyond that, they hope Chicago also will kick off a winning

Democratic campaign that will cool off the conservative revolution fanned here amid the ashes of Democratic disaster in 1968.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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