The whole world was watching. And for the past 50 years, the whole world has dealt with the fallout from what happened a half-century ago in Chicago when the Democrats convened, demonstrators marched, police raged, Hubert Humphrey was nominated — and Richard Nixon reaped the benefits.
In a tumultuous end to a tumultuous month — with Soviet tanks roaring into Czechoslovakia and American troops mobilizing into Chicago — the Democrats split apart, overhauled their procedures to marginalize the political bosses who had determined the party’s nominees for decades, alienated the core of their governing coalition, set themselves on a course that would see them lose five of the next six presidential elections, prompted a furious conservative insurgency, set the stage for the ascendancy of Reagan Republicanism and prepared the ground for the defection of working-class voters to Donald J. Trump.
All that in a few days of tumult in the very city where Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed a New Deal for the American people and ushered in 28 years of Democratic control of the White House and more than a third of a century of big-government philosophy, starting with the New Deal and continuing through Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
All that was washed away in what Norman Mailer called the “siege of Chicago,” where teargas was in the air, where protesters’ chants were more memorable than the nominee’s acceptance speech, where Yippies nominated an Iowa hog for president and where radicals derided their police opponents as pigs.
“This was a clash that was a fundamental challenge to institutions and yet represented the hope that those institutions could still be used,” said Amy Dru Stanley, a University of Chicago historian. “It was a spectacle where people were trying to work within institutions while challenging institutions. And amid it all, violence erupted.”
Chicago was a Newtonian laboratory, where actions spawned equal and opposite reactions.
“In retrospect, Nixon was the big winner in Chicago,” said Todd Gitlin, a former president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society who now is a professor at Columbia University. “The Vietnam War was unpopular, but the anti-war movement was even more unpopular, and people’s reaction to the Chicago riots suggests that the police — who wanted a confrontation — scored better than the demonstrators. This was a collision that had the counter-effect of helping the law-and-order theme Nixon was pushing.”
The presumptive winner of the Chicago convention was actually the biggest loser of the Chicago convention. Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal crusader for civil rights and worker dignity who fought gamely against John F. Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, was destined to be remembered as the man who was nominated after Robert F. Kennedy was killed and Eugene McCarthy flamed out.
Diminished by his role as Johnson’s vice president and imprisoned politically by LBJ’s conduct of the Vietnam War, Humphrey won the 1968 nomination but was regarded as a tool of the political bosses and the labor barons, two groups themselves discredited by the new forces in the Democratic Party. He wasn’t able to break free of those burdens even after he broke with Johnson on the war in late September.
“He knew he couldn’t get his story out,” said Walter F. Mondale, a Humphrey protege who spent the convention with his Minnesota mentor as he prepared for a Senate campaign that would lead to his own vice presidency in 1977 and eventual presidential nomination in 1984. “The riots took all the attention away from him. This hurt him in the worst way.”
For a man who was alternatively beloved and ridiculed for being garrulous, there was little Humphrey could say to alter the course of the presidential campaign after the Chicago convention.
“However much he may have disagreed with the president, he didn’t have much liberty to take a different course,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington and head of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies. “It’s clear the activists who voted in the relatively small number of primaries in 1968 favored an anti-war candidate. But inside the hall, the preferences of primary voters didn’t add up to as much as the votes of party leaders, who saw in Humphrey a candidate more likely to win.”
There are many legacies of Chicago 1968. One was a Democratic nominating process that favored primaries over the dictates of established party leaders, a rubric that Republicans swiftly followed. One was the eclipse of SDS, which Lee Webb, the national secretary of the organization, said was transformed into “primarily an anti-war and anti-draft movement rather than the broader organization that wanted to reform the universities, identify with the labor movement and have a more rational foreign policy.” One was the rupture between white radicals and black radicals, who, as Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, a founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, put it in an interview, regarded Chicago as “a conflict between mother-country radicals and the established power structure.”
Sitting in a Conrad Hilton hotel room beneath Humphrey’s 25th-floor suite was Nixon operative Patrick Buchanan, himself destined to run for president twice by appealing to the very blue-collar voters whose alienation from the Democrats was sealed by the violence in Chicago.
It took decades for Chicago to cleanse its reputation as the home of police officers who, in Mailer’s characterization, moved “like a wind blowing dust, or the edge of waves riding foam on the shore.” Humphrey returned to the Senate and gradually assumed the senior-statesman approbation his career deserved. Nixon became president.
“The demonstrations in Chicago,” John Froines, a member of the Chicago Seven who were tried for inciting riots at the convention, said in an interview, “reflected the overall changes happening in the United States — changes in lifestyle, changes in politics, and, at the end of the demonstrations, you began to see changes coming out of the emergence of the women’s movement.” The whole world was watching. It watches, still.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.