Chicago '68 Chicago '96

Contrast vivid: From bloodshed to unity as Democrats return to a storied scene.

Democratic Convention

August 27, 1996

AS BILL CLINTON continues to upstage his own hand-picked national convention with a Truman-style train ride through the Rust Belt, his destination city of Chicago is awash in traumatic recollections of 1968, the last time Democrats assembled by the shores of Lake Michigan.

It was the only time in American history when real blood was shed during the process of nominating a presidential candidate. Clashes between Chicago cops and anti-war protesters became part of the nation's collective memory of Vietnam, much to the exclusion of all else then going on in a troubled world.

Yet Chicago was but part of a generational uprising against authority that created remarkably similar scenes in Paris and, PTC most especially, in Prague. Students in all three cities massed around and atop landmark statues to demonstrate against an old order personified by Lyndon Johnson, Charles de Gaulle and Czechoslovakia's Communist dictatorship.

In the week before the '68 convention opened in Chicago, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Big black headlines obliterated the usual buildup to a national convention. But once the delegates assembled, America again indulged its obsessive fixation on domestic matters.

And not for the first time. Two days after France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, Republicans convened in Philadelphia. As the galleries rocked to cries of "We Want Willkie," conventioneers could briefly put out of mind the awful things happening in Europe.

The world on the threshold of the 21st century is far removed from the global conflict of the 1940s or the Cold War tensions that led to Vietnam and Czechoslovakia. Yes, there are 20,000 troops in Bosnia who will have to stay longer than the year promised. NATO's destiny is problematical. China is unruly. The nuclear genie is still at large. Oil supplies from the Persian Gulf remain a casus belli.

But compared to the foreign perils of 1940 and 1968, the world scene confronting the president to be elected in November does permit domestic issues to predominate. Any demonstrations in the Chicago of 1996 will focus on a Republican-inspired welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed to the consternation of liberal Democrats.

The Vietnam protests will be remembered this week not in

foreign policy terms but as part of a domestic upheaval that saw cities burn, old mores discarded and the Baby Boom generation start its long march to power.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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