Chicago lives down the past and welcomes the Democrats

August 26, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

CHICAGO -- It's been a long time between drinks -- 28 years -- for the city that has been, by far, the favorite site for the major political parties' national conventions. Having at last overcome its reputation for bedlam created by the riot-torn 1968 Democratic convention, Chicago is back with its 25th national party gathering this week.

Among American cities that have hosted political conventions, Baltimore is a distant second, with five Democratic meetings and five Republican. Chicago had its first major-party convention in 1860 in a two-story hall known as The Wigwam, where the new Republican Party nominated a lightly regarded former Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

Four years later, as noted in a new book, ''Inside the Wigwam,'' the Democrats came to Chicago and nominated Gen. George B. McClellan at the Chicago Amphitheater. He was easily defeated by Lincoln, running for re-election. And in 1868, the National Union Republican Party nominated Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the city's Crosby Opera House.

Chicago as a national convention city was obvious and ideal. It was centrally and conveniently located and the hub of the best transportation system in the Midwest. It had hotels and restaurants galore and a variety of suitable meeting halls. The city in all has had 14 Republican conventions and 11 Democratic, at a variety of sites.

This week's Democratic convention will be held at the new United Center, famous as the home court of the four-time professional basketball champion Chicago Bulls and just down West Madison Street from the old Chicago Stadium, the largest indoor arena in the world when Republican President Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt were nominated there in 1932.

FDR was also nominated at the same hall in 1940 and 1944, before the parties moved their conventions in 1952 to the International Amphitheater at the Chicago Stockyards, famed for sweltering summer heat and overpowering cattle aromas. The Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson there in 1952 and 1956; the Republicans chose Richard Nixon there in 1960. Then, in 1968, the Democrats picked Hubert Humphrey there in the raucous affair that so divided the party over the Vietnam war, leading to swinging billy clubs against anti-war protesters in the city's central Loop district.

City non grata

After that scandalous event, defended by Mayor Richard J. Daley, a staunch Humphrey man, Chicago became city non grata as a convention site for both the Democratic and Republican Parties -- until this week. Instrumental in bringing the Democrats back here has been the eldest son of the old Chicago boss, Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Since 1968, Chicago has become even more ideal as a convention city, with more well-located hotels, restaurants and night life. For years, many Democrats warned that any attempt to hold another national convention here would be sure to trigger television reruns of the street mayhem of 1968, and some of that has happened.

Young Democrats who were part of it, like State Sen. Tom Hayden of California, will be back to recall the bad old days. Other major players that summer won't. Humphrey and the senior Daley have died and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Humphrey's chief convention foe, says he hasn't been invited.

But many other Democrats have only a dim memory of the 1968 chaos, or none at all. In 1932, 1940 and 1944, the strains of the old New Deal theme song, ''Happy Days Are Here Again,'' filled the old Chicago Stadium at the nomination of FDR.

In 1968, the dominant song heard in and out of the hall was the civil-rights anthem, ''We Shall Overcome,'' to the swaying of McCarthyites and other anti-war protesters.

Although President Clinton declares himself ''a new Democrat'' who says ''the era of big government is over,'' don't be surprised to hear that celebration of FDR and the New Deal again this week, as the Democrats put the Chicago of 1968 behind them at last.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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