Some 2,600 official delegates crowded inside the convention hall in August 1968, as 100,000 protesters roamed, and then rioted, outside. At least 11,900 police officers, 7,500 Army troops airlifted from Fort Hood, and 5,500 National Guardsmen were mobilized to keep the peace, but compounded the violence. A 7-foot fence surrounded Chicago’s International Amphitheater, but the barriers to entry for women and minorities — and fresh ideas about American politics — were even more formidable.
Inside the steamy hall, the Democratic Party nominated for the White House a party stalwart with the classic credentials of a big-city mayor, senator, and vice president.
Outside, the outlandish vanguard of the antiwar left, calling themselves Yippies, nominated Pigasus, a 145-pound pig, and demanded that he be treated as a legitimate candidate, complete with Secret Service protection and foreign policy briefings. Like many in that company, Pigasus wound up in a police van.
A kind of madness had descended on the Windy City; the nation, and especially its politics, would never be the same.
A half-century ago this weekend, in a convention city ruled by bosses, anarchy eclipsed democratic process and made it feel, in the moment, irrelevant: 650 people arrested, 100 protesters treated in hospitals, 49 police officers treated for injuries. Those wounds for the most part healed, but their memory would reshape the Democratic Party, elevate a new generation of liberal leaders — and set in motion a countermovement that would catapult Richard Nixon to the presidency five months later, provide oxygen to a conservative movement that seemed moribund after the Barry Goldwater debacle only four years earlier, draw the blue-collar core of the Franklin Roosevelt coalition into the Republican Party and propel Ronald Reagan, and eventually Donald Trump, into the White House.
Divided bitterly by the Vietnam War but still clinging to its New Deal heritage, the Democrats limped into Chicago for their quadrennial presidential nominating convention in a year of dissent and despair. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were dead and the insurgent presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy was in tatters. The Russian invaders were in Czechoslovakia and the scene in the streets of Chicago, 4,500 miles from embattled Prague, broadcast to the world images of an American calamity.
Nothing the martinets of the political establishment who gathered in the convention hall knew or assumed would survive the week. For by the time the Democratic National Convention was over, the old order had crumbled, crashing to the ground as, in the phrase the protesters chanted, the whole world was watching.
And though we live now in a time of deep divisions, the United States has not for 50 years seen anything like the fissures laid bare that week in 1968, when many of the political realities we live with today were given birth. It was only fitting, moreover, that this conflict would take place in Chicago, a vital seat of commerce and politics and the last redoubt of a desiccated Democratic machine that stood as a symbol of a politics of a time long past.
In this atmosphere, in a city where Theodore Dreiser set a half-dozen of his searing novels, these scenes from an American tragedy played out:
■ Hubert H. Humphrey, who became a liberal hero for his Democratic National Convention demand exactly 20 years earlier that his party “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,’’ was preparing to become his party’s presidential nominee when he was forced to take refuge in his hotel-room shower to escape the tear gas that seeped through the windows of Suite 2525A of the Conrad Hilton hotel. Lyndon Johnson’s vice president left Chicago knowing his decades-long White House hopes were doomed.
■ Todd Gitlin, a former president of the Students for Democratic Society who had urged his fellow radicals to skip the battle of Chicago, would himself be tear-gassed. The spectacle of police warring with students led him to conclude that the Democratic Party of his youth, with its New Deal heritage and its labor-movement allies, was being destroyed.
■ Patrick J. Buchanan, a 29-year-old conservative pugilist in Richard Nixon’s inner circle who had taken a 19th-floor room in the Conrad Hilton, also was tear-gassed. But he was clearheaded enough to urge the GOP nominee to go to Chicago, salute the Silent Majority that had watched the violence at home on television, and “use the demonstrators, the worst of them . . . as a foil for RN’s arguments.’’
■ Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor and the man who used all his wiles to help John F. Kennedy win the critical state of Illinois in the close 1960 presidential race against Nixon, would be tarnished forever by what Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut would describe from the convention podium as “Nazi tactics in the streets of Chicago.’’ Five decades later, his son, William Daley, a onetime White House chief of staff, would say in an interview that his father’s ‘’number-one priority’’ was to assure ‘’there was no violence in the neighborhoods.’’
And yet violence rocked Boss Daley’s city.
‘America at its crossroads’
‘The new party organization put activists at the center of the party, and they have remained there ever since.’— Stephen J. Farnsworth, political scientist
Emerging from all of this — from the tears and the tear gas, the rage and the repercussions, in the dissent in the streets and the ascendancy of Richard Nixon — were fundamental changes in American civic life and culture.
‘‘The convention captured America at its crossroads,’’ said Representative Bobby Rush of Chicago, a Democrat who founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers that year. “It was a clash of cultures between what America was and what it was becoming. You had the America of the World War II generation and then you had the America that came of age after the war, and the convention was the epicenter of that conflict.’’
That conflict reflected a gap between young and old, between those with college degrees and those without them, between the heritage of the old Democratic Party that was expiring and the challenges of a new Democratic Party being born. It brought Nixon back from the politically dead and pronounced the death knell of the Solid Democratic South that had prevailed for a century and helped preserve racial segregation. Its lineal descendants, along with a generation of liberal warriors, were the young people who comprised the conservative surge that provided distant foreshadowing glimpses of the new Republican Party that Donald Trump is creating.
“Chicago 1968 is the political equivalent of Woodstock or Stonewall — a discrete moment that embodies the questions and forces of an entire age,’’ said Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of three American presidents. “It’s also a reminder that life is almost always more complicated than we tend to remember, given that the Democratic Party, often thought to tend to the radical in the postwar era, was in many ways the target of the protests.’’
Indeed, all the complexities of the time were on vivid display at the Chicago convention, visible beyond the chain-link fence topped by barbed wire that the Daley forces installed around the convention hall. On one side were the police, occupying their own terrain in the parks and streets they shared with the demonstrators but living in a world apart from the protesters. On the other side were the demonstrators themselves, college kids mostly, many from the most selective colleges, in another era the establishment-in-waiting but in this angry age of resistance and rebellion, of invective and impatience, refusing to wait for change.
The paths to Chicago
Michael Kazin was the cochair of SDS at Harvard and he and others went to Chicago to try to persuade the youthful McCarthy supporters to give up on the Democratic Party and join their radical movement.
“In the end, we didn’t connect with many of them,’’ he said. “I wandered around the Loop doing things I’m not proud of with rocks in hand but then was arrested for doing nothing. I had long hair and an SDS button on my shirt. And when I got out, cops busted into the movement apartment we were using and put us in the center of the room and said they could either kill us right there or beat us up and throw us to the middle of the streets where their friends would kill us.’’
Kazin today is a historian at Georgetown University and the author of books on populism, the role of the left in American society, the antiwar movement of the World War I years, and a biography of William Jennings Bryan.
Tom Brokaw was a television correspondent sent to Chicago to cover the clash between the Kennedy mourners and the McCarthy pilgrims in the divided California delegation. After the convention he stopped in his South Dakota hometown and had a raging argument with his father, whom he described as ‘’a Depression-era dirt-road Democrat.’’ The older Brokaw was furious about the behavior of the protesters. ‘’I realized my dad, known by all as Red for his vivid red hair and muscular physique, represented an important part of the party and he felt betrayed,’’ said Brokaw, who later would be the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News” for almost two decades.
Lee Webb joined SDS while a Boston University student and worked with top radicals Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, both of whom would be defendants in the Chicago Seven trial 13 months later, which they helped transform into an anti-establishment spectacle. He was working in Chicago for Gore Vidal, who was joining his ideological opposite, the conservative William F. Buckley, for a landmark series of ABC News debates during the convention, and on the side was organizing the demonstrators when he was tear-gassed in Grant Park.
“We didn’t really have a plan,’’ said Webb, now retired in Camden, Maine. “The police started to chase us, and what surprised me was how friendly and supportive the people we passed were. They hid us in their apartments and bars and misled the police.’’ He later would teach at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., and would join the staff of Governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York.
It was Pat Buchanan’s idea that he go to Chicago to be Nixon’s eyes and ears there; he sensed history was going to be made and he didn’t want to miss it. He, too, was tear-gassed, and when he fled to the men’s room to clean out his eyes he found himself standing beside Tom Wicker, the legendary reporter and future liberal columnist of The New York Times, at the wash basins. After midnight he got a call from Nixon, who wanted to know what was happening.
“You want to know what’s going on, sir?’’ he asked. “Listen.’’ And he held up the telephone in front of his open hotel window and let the man who would be the 37th president hear the “Dump the Hump!’’ cheers that were filling the streets.
Buchanan would follow Nixon into the White House, become an important conservative commentator, and mount two presidential campaigns, appealing to the very blue-collar voters who once were fervent Democrats and whose movement away from the party was accelerated by the Chicago convention.
Walter F. Mondale, then a candidate for the Senate from Minnesota, was with his political mentor and patron, Humphrey, throughout the upheaval of Chicago. “Humphrey was profoundly depressed,’’ he said. “You know Hubert, he was always ebullient. He couldn’t stand what was happening. The convention was going to hell. The news every night was a disaster. The last half-day or so things started coming together for Hubert. He gave a good speech but it masked a deep sense of tragedy.’’
Power of the activists
The election chronicler Theodore H. White looked down on the spectacle in the streets from a third-floor window, listening to the chants and seeing “the swaying mass: the red flags of revolution; the black flags of the anarchists; Viet Cong flags; red-and-blue banners; Omega banners; no American flags.’’
Inside the convention hall, he watched as the party that had swooned in important 1968 presidential primaries to the antiwar entreaties of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy but in the end nominated Humphrey, who would take another month to break from Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policies. That party would, in the aftermath, use the tumult of Chicago to recast its entire nominating process, leading to the idiosyncratic selection of Jimmy Carter eight years later and to the failed presidential campaigns of George McGovern, Walter F. Mondale, and Michael S. Dukakis.
“Sometimes the new way worked well, sometimes it didn’t,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., “but the new party organization put activists at the center of the party, and they have remained there ever since.’’
The demonstrators whose protests in Lincoln Park and Grant Park drew international attention and police resistance would change their tactics too, moving toward the sort of organized demonstrations that took form in the Vietnam moratorium marches that began a year later in Washington. Developments such as the 1970 invasion of Cambodia would, to be sure, spark spontaneous, scattered, searing protests like the one that left four dead at Kent State University, but nothing on the scale of Chicago.
A new nomination process
The Democratic Party’s new rules opened the nomination process to women and minorities, drastically reduced the influence of party leaders and elected officials, ended the secret selection of convention delegates, and prompted an explosive growth of presidential primaries. (There were 15 primaries in 1968. In recent contests there have been about 40.)
“We caused the bosses to open up Democratic conventions to people who weren’t in the party establishment,’’ said Ken Bode, who was the commission’s research director before becoming a prominent television political correspondent. “If you were a county official in Michigan, you no longer were guaranteed a delegate seat. It made it impossible for party leaders to close down the nomination by themselves. There had to be meaningful primaries.’’
The result was a convention four years after the Chicago conclave that had a distinctly different composition than its predecessor; the writer Hunter S. Thompson described it as being “like a scene from the final hours of the Roman Empire.’’
Mayor Daley was ejected from the Illinois delegation because the convention credentials committee ruled that the original slate did not reflect the diversity that had become a prerequisite after Chicago ’68. An alternative set of delegates, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was seated instead. Overall, a quarter of the 1972 delegates were under 30, as compared with fewer than 3 percent in Chicago. Nearly two in five were women, as compared with only 13 percent in Chicago.
In the end, the raucous 1972 convention, filled with activists and new Democrats mobilized by Chicago 1968, nominated Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, a hero of World War II who had become an antiwar zealot. “I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party,’’ he would say later, “and 20 million people walked out.’’ Many of those 20 million who walked out — Southerners and blue-collar workers who had long been spine of the party — had begun to pull away after the Chicago firestorm four years earlier.
Of all the tragic figures of Chicago 1968, Humphrey may be the biggest. A liberal lion in the role Edward M. Kennedy would occupy a generation later, Humphrey was a transformative mayor of Minneapolis and a legitimate senatorial rival to John Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic nomination before becoming Lyndon Johnson’s running mate in 1964.
Muzzled, and mortified by Johnson, he was a diminished figure when LBJ left the 1968 race in a dramatic late-March television broadcast, so much so that a man who once was a vanguard of the left was instead regarded as a toady to a tyrant. In a year when the bosses were discredited, he was the personification of boss rule. In a year when antiwar sentiment went mainstream, he was, until late September, loyal to the reviled president who gave him little in return, and a reluctant but sturdy symbol of support for the Vietnam War.
“Humphrey tried to heal the various wounds in the party but there were great limits to what he could do,’’ said Michael Brenes, the senior archivist for American diplomacy at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming book on Humphrey.
The convention was a forum for Humphrey to declare his independence from Johnson, and some of his staff members actually drafted a resignation statement to be inserted into his acceptance speech. Humphrey declined to deliver it. He spoke of the “politics of joy’’ but he campaigned in despair. He left the convention like a wounded animal, worried that Nixon had the high ground on Vietnam and that former governor George C. Wallace of Alabama, a Democrat running on the American Independent Party line, might siphon off traditional party members, especially in the South.
The losers of Chicago were, thus, many, and include the city itself, portrayed in the press of the day as a corrupt duchy in the thrall of a low-brow autocrat.
There was only one winner in Chicago. His name was Richard Nixon, and he was sitting comfortably amid the mellow breezes of Key Biscayne, Fla., throughout the proceedings. By mid-January of the next year he would take the oath of office as president. “What kind of a nation we will be, what kind of a world we will live in, whether we shape the future in the image of our hopes,’’ he would say in his inaugural address, “is ours to determine by our actions and our choices.’’ Indeed, the very actions and choices made in Chicago five months earlier enabled Nixon and those who came after to shape the world we live in today.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.