1968 music, 1996 crowd 28 years: Efforts to revive the passions of the 1968 Democratic convention have largely fallen flat as today's Democrats gather in the Age of Clinton.

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 26, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- At a pre-convention concert here yesterday, cast members from a current production of "Hair" -- beaded, bell-bottomed and barefoot -- performed "The Age of Aquarius" before a tie-dyed, time-warped audience. A parade of celebrated anti-war protesters from the 1968 Democratic convention raised their voices again for power to the people. Stephen Stills and Graham Nash sang "Chicago."

But hard as some have tried to rekindle the fires and passions and spirit of 28 years ago, there was no mistaking that this was the Democratic convention circa 1996.

A TV cameraman covering yesterday's event, born in 1960, failed to photograph the two giant peace signs on either side of the stage because he thought they were Mercedes Benz symbols.

Indeed, the political gathering that begins here today -- with gleeful, confident delegates, corporate-sponsored soirees and, most of all, relative peace within the party -- has about as much of the flavor of the turbulent '60s as a caffe latte.

Like its Republican predecessor two weeks ago, this Democratic convention looks to be heavy on the froth -- in this case, celebrity-studded parties and even a starry program that tonight features actor Christopher Reeve -- and short on any conflict or tension.

The only roar that's been heard so far has been from the Blue Angels and other aeronautic acrobats who soared through the clear blue skies of Chicago all weekend at the city's annual air and water show.

But as Democrats return to the Windy City for the first time since that infamous week, the ghosts of '68 still abound. They can be spotted in the poster store where a vintage "McCarthy Peace" poster hangs in the window, in the tie-dyed T-shirt that convention volunteer Denise Weeks, 47, decided to wear in a nod to the '60s, and in events like yesterday's "Return to Chicago 1968-1996" that Tom Hayden, the anti-war protester turned California state senator, and others are sponsoring this week.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose father, Richard J. Daley, was mayor during the '68 convention and spurred on his heavy-handed police force, spoke at yesterday's political concert -- an act of reconciliation and peace-making in itself.

"I wanted to be here because I wanted you to know that however unwelcome you may have felt 28 years ago, in the middle of a very troubled time in this country, you are welcome today," Daley told the audience of several hundred. "We cannot change the past. And we may not even agree completely on our interpretations of the past. But I have hope we have learned from it and we can find common ground now and in the future."

The mayor has gone to great lengths to try to ensure that there is not even a glimmer of the kind of violence that ripped through the convention, and the nation, in 1968.

Aside from sprucing up the city, having trees and flowers planted, buildings and bridges painted and red, white and blue banners hung all along the streets, Daley asked the 8,000 volunteers to please "be nice" to the city's visitors.

And he had 2,500 local police officers sit through a sort of sensitivity training in preparation for this week's convention. The officers were shown documentary footage of the bloody riots that most of them are too young to remember.

When a band of young hippie wannabes marched down Michigan Avenue Saturday, calling for the legalization of marijuana and chanting the words made famous in 1968, "The whole world is watching," the police stopped traffic to let them go by and even gave them an official escort. "We're just winging it," said Officer Wade Crosson, amused at the scene.

To be sure, there are serious protests planned for the week, and two areas designated for demonstrations. But even the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who has criticized President Clinton for signing the welfare reform bill and says he intends to be at most of this week's protests, is treating the talk of possible clashes here with more humor than anxiety.

Jackson, who will be speaking tomorrow at 8 p.m., before the network cameras start rolling, was asked if he was angry that he wasn't given a prime-time slot. "Eight o'clock East Coast time is prime time by one definition," he said at a news conference Saturday, assuming a measure of lighthearted bravado. "Another is that it is whenever I speak."

With Clinton ahead in the polls, there is much good humor around as the roughly 4,300 delegates buy up souvenirs and scramble for invites to the week's hottest tickets -- tomorrow night's party thrown by George magazine and editor John F. Kennedy Jr., expected to boast a high celebrity quotient, and a "Party of Champions" the next night at Michael Jordan's Restaurant where some of Chicago's Bulls and Bears are on the guest list.

Inside the hall, Democrats are promising unscripted, uncensored speeches to contrast with the Republicans' highly packaged and managed program. But their affair -- with video tributes and remarks by "real people" -- shows no signs of being any less slick or choreographed than the GOP gathering.

The Democrats, after all, are hoping for a bigger TV audience than the Republicans got earlier this month when many viewers opted for "Seinfeld" re-runs instead of politics.

They are hoping that, nearly three decades after their last trip to Chicago, someone, if not the whole world, will be watching.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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