1968 Democratic Convention - History

1968 Democratic Convention - History

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1964 Democratic Convention

Chicago, Ill

August 26 to 29, 1968

Nominated: Hubert Humphrey of Minn for President

Nominated: Edmund Muskie of Maine for Vice President

The democratic convention was marked by two major issues neither of which was who would be the Presidential nominee. When the convention opened Humphrey's lead in delegates was too large for there to be any outcome but Humphry's nomination. The first issue was the question of the convention plank on the Vietnam War. Two very different planks were entered, one supporting the Administrations position and the second calling for an end to bombing and a phased withdrawal of troops. The Administrations' plank was adopted 1527 to 1041 votes. The failure of the anti-war plank increased the level of demonstrations in the streets. The Chicago police reacted to the anti-war demonstrations with a brutality unseen, certainly on television in many years. As scenes of the violence on the streets were shown at the convention the delegates were appalled. Senator Ribicoff of Connecticut as he placed McGoverns name before the convention stated "Wtih George McGovern as president we would not have Gestabo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

1968 Presidential Race Democrats

Paul Newman, one of many notable Hollywood stars who became active on behalf of presidential candidates during 1968's primary & general elections. Life magazine, May 10, 1968.

Yet in the 1960s, the caldron of social issues and political unrest throughout the country, coupled in 1967-68 with an offering of hopeful candidates — especially on the Democratic side — brought both older and newer Hollywood celebrities into the political process like never before. “In no other election,” observed Time magazine in late May 1968, “have so many actors, singers, writers, poets, artists, professional athletes and assorted other celebrities signed up, given out and turned on for the candidates.”

A war was then raging in Vietnam and a military draft was taking the nation’s young to fight it. President Lyndon Johnson had raised U.S. troop strength in Vietnam to 486,000 by the end of 1967. Protests had erupted at a number of colleges and universities. In late October 1967, tens of thousands of demonstrators came to the Pentagon calling for an end to the war. In addition, a growing civil rights movement had pointed up injustice and racism throughout America. Three summers of urban unrest had occurred. Riots in 1967 alone had taken more than 80 lives. In the larger society, a counter culture in music, fashion and values — brought on by the young — was also pushing hard on convention. And all of this, from Vietnam battle scenes to federal troops patrolling U.S. cities, was seen on television as never before. Society seemed to be losing its moorings. And more was yet to come, as further events — some traumatic and others unexpected — would fire the nation to the boiling point. There was little standing on the sidelines people from all walks of life were taking sides.

From left, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte & Charlton Heston at 1963 Civil Rights march.

Hollywood and the arts community had a long history of political involvement and activism on behalf of presidential candidates, dating at least to the 1920s. Even in the dark days of the 1950s there had been a sizeable swath of Hollywood backing Democrat Adlai Stevenson for his Presidential bids of 1952 and 1956. And in the 1960 election of Jack Kennedy, there was notable support from Frank Sinatra and friends, as well as Kennedy family connections to Hollywood. Others, like singer Pete Seeger, had never stopped their activism, even in the face of political pressure.

By the early 1960s, with the civil rights movement in particular, a new wave actors and singers such as Joan Baez, Harry Belefonte, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and others were becoming involved in one way or another. Some lent their name or provided financial support others joined marches and demonstrations.

By the mid-1960s, however, the Vietnam War became a goading factor for many in Hollywood. And among the first to speak out and oppose the war was an actor named Robert Vaughn.

The Man from UNCLE

Robert Vaughn was the star of a popular primetime TV spy series called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which ran from September 1964 to mid-January 1968. Vaughn was among the first to criticize President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Vietnam war — and he did so very publicly in a January 1966 speech. In Indianapolis, at a dinner given to support Johnson’s re-election, Vaughn spoke out against the war and LBJ’s policy there. “Everyone at the front table had hands over their eyes,” Vaughn later explained when asked about the reaction. Vaughn became worried about the Vietnam War after immersing himself in all the documents, books and articles he could find on the subject. “I can talk for six hours about the mistakes we have made,” he told one reporter in 1966. “We have absolutely no reason to be in Vietnam-legal, political or moral.”

In late March 1966, Vaughn went to Washington to meet with politicians. He lunched with Senator Frank Church (D-ID) and also had a lengthy meeting with Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) to discuss the war. He told the press then “the Hollywood community is very much against” the Vietnam War. “[T]he Hollywood com- munity is very much against” the Vietnam War.
– Robert Vaughn, March 1966. But wasn’t it risky for a star to be so outspoken, he was asked? “I’ve had nothing but encouragement from my friends in the industry, from the studio, even the network,” he said. On his visit to Washington that weekend Vaughn was a house guest of Bobby Kennedy’s at Hickory Hill in nearby Virginia. He continued to be visible in the Vietnam debate, appearing as a guest on William F. Buckley’s TV talk show, Firing Line. He also engaged in impromptu debate with Vice President Hubert Humphrey on a live Minneapolis talk show. At the peak of Vaughn’s popularity, he was asked by the California Democratic Party to oppose fellow actor, Republican Ronald Reagan, then running for California governor in the 1966 election. Vaughn, however, supported Democrat Edmund G. Brown, who lost in a landslide to Reagan.

Vaughn would continue to oppose the war, leading a group called Dissenting Democrats. By early 1968, Vaughn supported the emerging anti-war presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), then running for his party’s nomination. (Vaughn had later planned to switch to Robert Kennedy, a close friend, if Kennedy won the June 1968 California primary).

McCarthy at 1968 campaign rally in Wisconsin.

Gene McCarthy had announced his candidacy for the White House on November 30, 1967. Opposing the war was the main issue for McCarthy, who had been prodded to run by anti-war activists. On the Republican side, former vice President Richard Nixon announced his candidacy in January 1968. And on February 8th, Alabama’s Democratic Governor George Wallace — the segregationist who in June 1963 had stood at the doors of the University of Alabama to block integration — entered the presidential race as an Independent.

McCarthy attracted some of the more liberal Democrats in Hollywood, including those who had been for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. “…[H]e’s the man who expresses discontent with dignity,” actor Eli Wallach would say of McCarthy in 1968. Wallach had won a Tony Award in 1951 for his role in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo and also became famous for his role as Tuco the “ugly” in the 1966 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach liked the fact that McCarthy had taken “a firm position on the war in Vietnam.” Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson, a stage actress, were among those who held fundraisers and poetry readings for McCarthy. Actress Myrna Loy was another McCarthy supporter. She had played opposite William Powell, Clark Gable, Melvyn Douglas, and Tryone Power in films of the 1930s and 1940s. Loy was a lifelong activist who had supported Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. In 1968, she became a stalwart for McCarthy, making personal campaign appearances for him and hosting fundraisers. But perhaps the most important Hollywood star to come out for McCarthy was Paul Newman.

Paul Newman Factor

Paul Newman at 1968 fundraiser.

Campaigning by Newman at a McCarthy rally in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, 1968.

Newman made campaign appearances in New Hampshire during February and March 1968, some with wife Joanne Woodward. Tony Randall and Rod Serling also made appearances for McCarthy in New Hampshire. But it was Newman who drew the crowds and notice by the press. In March 1968, Newman went to Claremont, New Hampshire to campaign for McCarthy. Tony Podesta, then a young MIT student, was Newman’s campaign contact. Podesta worried that day that only a few people might show up to hear Newman. Some credit Paul Newman with raising McCarthy’s visibility in New Hamp- shire, enabling his strong showing there. Instead, more than 2,000 people came out to mob Newman. “I didn’t come here to help Gene McCarthy,” Newman would say to his listeners that day. “I need McCarthy’s help.”

“Until that point,” said Podesta, “McCarthy was some sort of a quack not too many people knew about, but as soon as Paul Newman came to speak for him, he immediately became a national figure.” In New Hampshire, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper published a political cartoon showing Newman being followed by McCarthy with the caption: “Who’s the guy with Paul Newman?” Author Darcy Richardson would later write in A Nation Divided: The Presidential Election of 1968, that Newman’s visit to the state “caused a great stir and drew considerable attention to McCarthy’s candidacy.” New Republic columnist Richard Stout, attributing honesty and conviction to Newman’s New Hampshire campaigning, wrote that the actor “had the star power McCarthy lacked, and imperceptibly was transferring it to the candidate.” Barbara Handman, who ran The Arts & Letters Committee for McCarthy, would later put it more plainly: “Paul turned the tide for McCarthy. . . Paul put him on the map — he [ McCarthy] started getting national coverage by the press. He started being taken seriously.”

New Hampshire Earthquake

On March 12, 1964, McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire to Lyndon Johnson’s 49 percent, a very strong showing for McCarthy and an embarrassment for Johnson. McCarthy’s campaign now had a new legitimacy and momentum that would have a cascading effect on decisions that both Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy would make. Paul Newman, meanwhile, continued to campaign for McCarthy beyond New Hampshire and throughout the election year.

March 22, 1968 edition of Time magazine, reporting on McCarthy’s surprising showing in New Hampshire & the emerging Democratic fight.
Bobby Kennedy, 1968.

Kennedy In, LBJ Out

On March 16th, four days after the New Hampshire primary showed Lyndon Johnson to be vulnerable and McCarthy viable, Bobby Kennedy jumped into the race, angering many McCarthy supporters. Kennedy had agonized over whether to enter the race for months, and in fact, McCarthy and supporters had gone to Kennedy in 1967 to urge him to run. McCarthy then decided to enter the race after it appeared Kennedy was not going to run. But once Kennedy entered the race, he and McCarthy engaged in an increasingly heated and sometimes bitter contest for the nomination.

In 1968, however, party leaders still had a great deal of influence in the nominating process and the selection of delegates. Primaries then were less important and fewer in number than they are today. Still, a strong showing in certain primaries could create a bandwagon effect and show the party establishment that a particular candidate was viable. In 1960, John Kennedy helped get the party’s attention when he defeated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary. Now in 1968, Gene McCarthy had the party’s attention.

Lyndon Johnson's surprise announcement of March 31, 1968 made headlines across the country.
King shot, April 4, 1968.

On April 4th, 1968, several days after LBJ’s bombshell, the nation was ripped apart by news that civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, TN. In the next few days, dozens of American cities erupted.

RFK making famous speech in Indianapolis the evening Martin Luther King died. AP Photo/Leroy Patton, Indianapolis News. Click for PBS DVD.

By the end of April, the nation was boiling on other fronts, too. Student protesters at Columbia University in New York City took over the administration building on April 23rd and shut down the campus. On the campaign trail, McCarthy won the April 23rd Pennsylvania primary, and a few days later, on April 27th, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, former Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, formally announced he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey enters the race for the Democratic nomination, April 1968.

Instead, Humphrey planned to use the “party machine” to gather his delegates and was the favored establishment candidate.

Lyndon Johnson would also help Humphrey, but mostly from behind the scenes since Johnson was regarded a liability for any candidate given his Vietnam record.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, a showdown of sorts was brewing between Kennedy and McCarthy as the May 7th Indiana primary approached.

Celebs for McCarthy

In April and early May of 1968, there was a lot of campaigning in Indiana, and star power was again at work with celebrities helping McCarthy. In April, Paul Newman was drawing large crowds in the state for McCarthy, where he made 15 appearances. At one of those stops, Newman explained from a tailgate of station wagon: “I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ Also making appearances for McCarthy in Indiana were Simon & Garfunkel, Dustin Hoffman, Myrna Loy, and Gary Moore. The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.” Newman continued campaigning for McCarthy through May 7 and was then still drawing crowds, with his own motorcade sometimes followed by cars of adoring fans.

Also making appearances for McCarthy in Indiana were actor Dustin Hoffman, singing duo Simon & Garfunkel, Myrna Loy, and TV host Gary Moore. Simon & Garfunkel sang at a McCarthy fundraiser at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in May 1968, where Dustin Hoffman introduced them. Hoffman’s popular film at the time, The Graduate — filled with a Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack — was then still in theaters. This celebrity support for McCarthy, as Newman had shown in New Hampshire, was important for McCarthy. “When you have a candidate who is not as well known, and there’s no money so that you can’t by television time,” explained Barbara Handman, head of the Arts and Letters Committee for McCarthy, “these people [celebs] become more and more effective for us. They’re well-known drawing cards…” Handman had previously headed up similar committees for Jack Kennedy in 1960, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Her husband, Wynn Handman, was co-founder of the American Palace Theater. Both were well connected in Hollywood.

Celebs for Kennedy

Andy Williams, Robert Kennedy, Perry Como, Ted Kennedy, Eddie Fisher at unspecified 1968 fundraising telethon, Lisner Auditorium, G.W. University, Wash., D.C. (photo, GW University).

Bobby Kennedy campaigning in Indianapolis, May 1968. Behind Kennedy to the right, are NFL football stars Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones. Photo by Bill Eppridge from his book, 'A Time It Was'. Click for book.

Lesley Gore, a pop singer who by then had several Top 40 hits — including “It’s My Party” (1963), “You Don’t Own Me” (1964), “Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows” (1965), and “California Nights” (1967) — also became a Kennedy supporter. At 21 years old, and about to graduate from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, Gore became head of Kennedy’s effort to get young voters, called “First Voters for Kennedy.” She volunteered after she heard that Kennedy needed someone to attract young voters. “I understand there are 13 million first-time voters this year,” she told a New York Times reporter in early April 1968. “After my graduation next month I intend to give more of my time to visiting colleges and universities around the country.” In this effort, Gore would be traveling with actresses Candice Bergen and Patty Duke, and also the rock group, Jefferson Airplane.

Andy Williams, a friend and skiing companion to Kennedy, was also a key supporter. “I’m doing it because I think it important,” Williams told a New York Times reporter. “I am worried about the image of America. People don’t think Nixon is swell, and they don’t think Humphrey is swell. Bobby has star quality.” Williams would refurbish his guest house for use by the Kennedy family when Bobby campaigned in California.

Sinatra for Humphrey

Frank Sinatra & Hubert Humphrey, Washington, D.C., May 1968.

During his campaign, Humphrey would gather additional Hollywood and celebrity supporters beyond Sinatra. Among these were some of the older and more established Hollywood names, sports stars, and other leading names, including actress Tallulah Bankhead, opera star Roberta Peters, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, writer and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, and fashion designer Mollie Parnis.

Indiana & Beyond

A Gene McCarthy campaign celebration, 1968.

Both candidates campaigned vigorously throughout California, a winner-take-all contest with a large pot of delegates. McCarthy stumped the state’s colleges and universities, where he was recognized for being the first candidate to oppose the war. Kennedy campaigned in the ghettos and barrios of the state’s larger cities, where he was mobbed by enthusiastic supporters. A few days before the election, Kennedy and McCarthy also engaged in a televised debate — considered a draw.

On the east coast, meanwhile, and in New York city in particular, there was a star-studded celebrity fundraising rally for McCarthy in New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1968. One Canadian blogger, who as a teenager happened to be in New York city that weekend with a friend, recently wrote the following “forty-years-ago” remembrance of the event:

. . .Rob and I did many crazy things that weekend. . . .We learned that McCarthy was having a rally at Madison Square Garden on the Sunday night so along we went figuring we’d meet some more chicks. That event was awe inspiring.

All sorts of famous people spoke or performed that night. Paul Newman, Phil Ochs, Mary Tyler Moore to name a few. A new, young actor said a few words to the crowd on behalf of the candidate. We recognized him as the star of the ‘adult’ movie we had seen the night before. The movie was The Graduate and he was a very young Dustin Hoffman.

Celebrities walked thru the arena imploring people to donate to the campaign. Tony Randall came up our aisle and we gave him a couple of bucks. Stewart Mott (General Motors rich kid) stood up and donated $125,000 right there on the spot. The crowd was delirious. Sen. McCarthy spoke to the crowd and promised to take his fight against Sen. Kennedy all the way to the Chicago convention in August. It was pretty heady stuff for a 17 year-old from Toronto….

RFK campaigning in California.
Robert Kennedy campaigning.

RFK Assassinated!

Four hours after the polls closed in California, Kennedy claimed victory as he addressed his campaign supporters just past midnight in the Ambassador Hotel. On his way through the kitchen to exit the hotel, he was mortally wounded by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. His death became yet another of 1968’s convulsing events. Seen as an emerging beacon of hope in a dismal time, many had pinned their hopes on Kennedy and took his loss very personally. The Democratic party went into a tailspin as a stunned nation grieved. Thousands lined the tracks as Kennedy’s funeral train moved from New York City to Washington D.C. Millions watched his funeral on television. At the request of Bobby’s wife, Ethel, Andy Williams sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral.

New York Times headlines, June 5, 1968.

Historians and journalists have disagreed about Kennedy’s chances for the nomination had he not been assassinated. Michael Beschloss believes it unlikely that Kennedy could have secured the nomination since most of the delegates were then uncommitted and yet to be chosen at the Democratic convention. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and author Jules Witcover have argued that Kennedy’s broad appeal and charisma would have given him the nomination at the convention. And still others add that Kennedy’s experience in his brother’s presidential campaign, plus a potential alliance with Chicago mayor Richard Daley at the Democratic Convention, might have helped him secure the nomination.

Dems Realign

Leading up to Democratic convention in Chicago, former Kennedy supporters tried to sort out what had happened and whether and how they would line up with other candidates. George Plimpton, a well known New Yorker and journalist who authored the 1963 book Paper Lion, had been a Kennedy supporter. He was with Kennedy the night he was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen, walking in front of him. In New York, on August 14, 1968, Plimpton sponsored a party at the Cheetah nightclub on behalf of McCarthy supporters, along with co-sponsor William Styron, author of the The Confessions of Nat Turner. Henry Fonda was scheduled to host a McCarthy rally in Houston. “I started out with Senator Kennedy,” explained Fonda to a New York Times reporter, “Now I think McCarthy is the best choice on the horizon.” McCarthy supporters had other rallies and fundraisers scheduled in 24 other cities for mid-August ahead of the Chicago convention, including one at New York’s Madison Square Garden that included conductor Leonard Bernstein and singer Harry Belafonte. Hubert Humphrey’s campaign also had fundraisers, including one in early August at Detroit’s Cobo Hall with performances by Frank Sinatra, Trini Lopez, and comedian Pat Henry.

Humphrey campaign poster.

By mid-August 1968, “Entertainers for Humphrey” included Hollywood names such as Bill Dana, Victor Borge, Alan King, and George Jessel. There were also more than 80 other luminaries in a somewhat less well-known “arts & letters” group including: classical pianist Eugene Istomin, author and scholar Ralph Ellison, violin virtuoso Isaac Stern, manager/impresario Sol Hurok, playwright Sidney Kingsley, opera singer Robert Merrill, authors John Steinbeck, James T. Farrel, and Herman Wouk, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade. Humphrey had also picked up some former supporters of Republican Nelson Rockefeller, including architect Philip Johnson and dancer Maria Tallchief. But Humphrey’s biggest challenges were directly ahead at the Democratic National Convention.

1968: National Guardsmen at the Conrad Hilton Hotel at DNC in Chicago.

Turmoil in Chicago

As the 1968 Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago on August 26, 1968, there was a fractured party and little agreement on the main platform issue, the Vietnam War. In addition to the formal business of the presidential nomination inside the convention hall, there was a huge focus on the convention location as a protest venue for the Vietnam War. Thousands of young activists had come to Chicago. But Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley — also the political boss running the convention — had prepared for anything, and had the Chicago police and the National Guard ready for action. Tensions soon came to a head.

Convention floor, 1968.

At the convention itself, Chicago mayor Richard Daley was blamed for the police clubbings in the streets. Daley at one point was seen on television angrily cursing Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who had made a speech denouncing the excesses of the Chicago police (this scene shown later below on book cover in Sources). Inside the hall, CBS News reporter Dan Rather was attacked on the floor of the convention while covering the proceedings.

Haynes Johnson, a veteran political reporter who covered the convention for the Washington Post, would write some year later in Smithsonian magazine:

“The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart. In its psychic impact, and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions. No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”

1968: Paul Newman & Arthur Miller on the convention floor.

ABC News of August 28, 1968, for example, included short interviews with Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Gore Vidal, and Shirley MacLaine. Sonny Bono — of the famed “Sonny & Cher” rock star duo — had come to Chicago to propose a plank in the Democratic platform for a commission to look into the generation gap, or as he saw it, the potential problem of “duel society.” Bono, then 28, would become a Republican Congressman in the 1990s. Dinah Shore made a brief convention appearance for McCarthy, singing her famous “See The USA in Your Chevrolet” anthem, adapting it as, “Save The USA, the McCarthy Way, America is the Greatest Land of All,” throwing her trademarked big kiss at the end.

The Nomination

Humphrey supporters, 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Humphrey, for his part, attempted to reach out to Hollywood celebrities, as California would be a crucial state in the general election. Humphrey met with a number of celebrities during and after the convention, one of whom was Warren Beatty. Beatty in 1967 had directed and starred in the movie Bonnie & Clyde, a huge box office hit. Beatty had appeared in a number of earlier films as well, from Splendor in the Grass (1961) to Kaleidoscope (1966). Beatty reportedly offered to make a campaign film for Humphrey if he would agree to denounce the war in Vietnam, which Humphrey would not do. During September and October 1968, a number of Hollywood’s stars and celebrities came around to support Humphrey, with gala events and/or rallies such as one at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York in late September, and another at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in late October.

Hollywood actor E.G. Marshall narrated a political ad for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 that pointedly raised doubts about opponents Nixon and Wallace. Click to view video.
New York Times, 7 Nov 1968.

On November 5th in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Nixon beat Humphrey by a slim margin. Although Nixon took 302 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, the popular vote was extremely close: Nixon at 31,375,000 to 31,125,000 for Humphrey, or 43.4 percent to 43.1 percent.

Third party candidate George Wallace was a key factor in the race, taking more votes from Humphrey than Nixon, especially in the south and among union and working class voters in the north. Nearly 10 million votes were cast for Wallace, some 13.5 percent of the popular vote. He won five southern states and took 45 electoral votes. Democrats did retain control of the House and Senate, but the country was now headed in a more conservative direction.

In the wake of their loss, the Democrats also reformed their presidential nominating process. As Kennedy and McCarthy supporters gained more power within the party, changes were adopted for the 1972 convention making the nominating process more democratic and raising the role of primary elections. Hubert Humphrey would become the last nominee of either major party to win the nomination without having to compete directly in primary elections.

Warren Beatty, who worked for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, continued his activism & political film making, flirting with White House bid himself in 1999. Click for DVD.

Celebrity Postscript

Many of the celebrities who worked for Democratic candidates in 1968 did not throw in the towel after that election. They came back in subsequent presidential election cycles to work for and support other Democrats ranging from George McGovern and Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

And some of 1968’s activists, and their successors, also continued to use Hollywood film-making to probe American politics as film subject. Among some of the post-1968 films that explored politics, for example, were: The Candidate (1972, with Robert Redford, screenplay by Jeremy Larner, a Gene McCarthy speechwriter) All the President’s Men (1976, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) Wag The Dog, (1997, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro), Bullworth (1998, produced & directed by Warren Beatty who also plays the central character), and others.

And certainly by 1968, if not before, it had become clear that Hollywood and politics were intersecting in an increasing number of ways, especially in the packaging of candidates. Hollywood experience, in fact, was becoming a political asset for those who decided to run for office. By the mid-1960s, Hollywood actors and TV personalities like Ronald Reagan and George Murphy were winning elections — Murphy taking a U.S. Senate seat as a California Republican in 1964, and Reagan elected in 1966 as California’s Republican Governor. Certainly by 1968, if not before, it had become clear that Hollywood and politics were intersecting in an increasing number of ways. Reagan, of course, would become president in 1980, and others from Hollywood, such as Warren Beatty, would also consider running for the White House in later years.

Today, celebrities and Hollywood stars remain sought-after participants in elections and political causes of all kinds. Their money and endorsements are key factors as well. Yet polling experts and political pundits continue to debate the impact of celebrities on election outcomes, and many doubt their ability to sway voters. Still, in 1968, celebrity involvement was a factor and did affect the course of events, as every political candidate at that time sought the help of Hollywood stars and other famous names to advance their respective campaigns.

See also at this website the related story on the Republicans and Richard Nixon in 1968, and also other politics stories, including: “Barack & Bruce” (Bruce Springsteen & others campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008 & 2012) “The Jack Pack” (Frank Sinatra & his Rat Pack in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign) “I’m A Dole Man”( popular music in Bob Dole’s 1996 Presidential campaign) and generally, the “Politics & Culture” category page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 14 August 2008
Last Update: 16 March 2020
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Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, � Presidential Race, Democrats,”, August 14, 2008.

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Charles River, eds. “The 1968 Democratic Convention: The History of America’s Most Controversial Political Convention” (Mayor Daley shown shouting). Click for book.

Frank Kusch’s book, “Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention.” Click for copy.

“The Passage of Power,” best-selling book from Robert Caro’s multi-volume series on the life and career of Lyndon B. Johnson. Click for copy.

“The D.O.V.E. from U.N.C.L.E.,” Time, Friday, April 1, 1966.

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Satan’s Little Helper ipod Warren Weaver, “M’Carthy Gets About 40%, Johnson and Nixon on Top in New Hampshire Voting Rockefeller Lags,” The New York Times, Wednesday, March 13, 1968, p. 1.

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Louis Calta, “Entertainers Join Cast of Political Hopefuls They Get Into Act to Back 3 Candidates for the Presidency,” New York Times, Saturday, April 6, 1968, p. 42.

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Darcy G. Richardson, A Nation Divided: The 1968 Presidential Campaign, iUniverse, Inc., 2002, 532pp.

Tom Brokaw, Boom! Voice of the 1960s: Personal Reflections on the ‘60s and Today, New York: Random House, 2007, 662 pp.

Ron Brownstein, The Power and The Glitter, New York: Knopf Publishing Group, December 1990 448 pp.

Joseph A. Palermo, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, New York: Columbia, 2001.

Associated Press, AP Photos @ www.daylife .com.

Ray E. Boomhower, “When Indiana Mattered – Book Examines Robert Kennedy’s Historic 1968 Primary Victory,” The Journal-Gazette, March 30, 2008.

“Forty Years Ago This Weekend – May, 1968….,”, Sunday, May 18, 2008.

Haynes Johnson, � Democratic Convention: The Bosses Strike Back,” Smithsonian magazine and, August 2008.

See also, “The 1968 Exhibit,” a traveling and online exhibit organized by the Minnesota History Center partnership with the Atlanta History Center, the Chicago History Museum and the Oakland Museum of California.

1968 Democratic National Convention

The 1968 Democratic National Convention of the U.S. Democratic Party was held at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois, from August 26 to August 29, 1968. Because President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced he would not seek reelection, the reason of the convention was to select a new presidential nominee to run as the Democratic Party's candidate for the office. [1] The keynote speaker was Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). [2]

Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, were nominated for president and vice president.

The convention was held during a year of violence, political turbulence, and civil unrest, particularly riots in more than 100 cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. [3] The convention also followed the assassination of Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who had been murdered on June 5. Both Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had been running against the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Another candidate was Senator of South Dakota George McGovern. [4]

Chicago's mayor, Richard J. Daley, intended to showcase his and the city's achievements to national Democrats and the news media. Instead, the proceedings became notorious for the large number of demonstrators and the use of force by the Chicago police during what was supposed to be, in the words of the Yippie activist organizers, “A Festival of Life.” Rioting and protesting took place between demonstrators and the Chicago Police Department, who were assisted by the Illinois National Guard. The disturbances were well publicized by the mass media, with some journalists and reporters being caught up in the violence. Network newsmen Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were both roughed up by the Chicago police while inside the halls of the Democratic Convention.

Brief History Of Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention

The 1968 Democratic Convention, held on August 26-29th, stands as an important event in the nation's political and cultural history. The divisive politics of the convention, brought about by the Vietnam war policies of President Johnson, prompted the Democratic party to completely overhaul its rules for selecting presidential delegates -- opening up the political process to millions. The violence between police and anti-Vietnam war protesters in the streets and parks of Chicago gave the city a black-eye from which it has yet to completely recover. The following is a brief history of the events leading up to the convention, the convention itself and the riots surrounding it.

Events Leading up the 1968 Convention Riots

The primary cause of the demonstrations and the subsequent riots during the 1968 Chicago convention was opposition to the Vietnam War. Young peace activists had met at a camp in Lake Villa, Illinois on March 23 to plan a protest march at the convention. Anti-war leaders including David Dellinger (editor of Liberation magazine and chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End War in Vietnam) Rennie Davis, head of the Center for Radical Research and a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Vernon Grizzard, a draft resistance leader, and Tom Hayden (also a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society) coordinated efforts with over 100 anti-war groups.

Groups related to this effort also planned events. Jerry Rubin (a former associate of Dellinger) and Abbie Hoffman (both leaders of the Youth International Party (YIPPIES) planned a Youth Festival with the goal of bringing 100,000 young adults to Chicago. They tried to get a permit from Chicago to hold a YIPPIE convention. The permit was denied, but the YIPPIES still came.

On March 31, President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. Johnson's favorability ratings were in the mid-30% range and polls showed even less support for his Vietnam War policies (about 23%.) The announcement created uncertainty in the anti-war groups' convention plans. Many anti-war activists also became involved in the presidential campaigns of war opponents such as Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY), Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-WI) and Sen. George McGovern (D-SD).

However, by early April there was much talk of Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's Vice President, running for the presidency. Humphrey officially entered the race on April 27th. Because of his close identity with the Johnson administration, the plans for demonstrations were not cancelled.

Other events preceding the 1968 Democratic convention contributed to the tense national mood. On April 4, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated and riots broke out throughout the country. (This included Chicago, where Mayor Daley reportedly gave a "shoot to kill" instruction to police.) On June 3, artist and cultural icon Andy Warhol was shot. Finally, on June 5th, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy (President John Kennedy's brother) was shot in the head after winning the California primary. He died the next day. There also were countless protests against the Vietnam war at this time. Student protesters effectively shut down Columbia University in April.

Attempts to Move the Convention from Chicago

Many Democrats were eager to move their national convention from Chicago to Miami, where the Republicans were to hold their nominating event. Democrats were concerned not only about the possibility of unruly protests, an ongoing telephone strike in Chicago threatened to cause logistical nightmares. The television networks also lobbied to move the event to Miami -- TV and phone lines already were installed at the Republican convention site. In addition, because of the phone strike in Chicago, television cameras would be limited to the hotels and the convention center -- new phone lines were needed to cover outside events. Any footage taken outside this area would have to be shot on film, which would require processing before it was broadcast.

Mayor Richard J. Daley would not let the convention leave Chicago. He promised to enforce the peace and allow no outrageous demonstrations. He also threatened to withdraw support for Humphrey, the apparent nominee, if the convention was moved. President Johnson also wanted to keep the convention in Chicago and is rumored to have said "Miami is not an American city."

The Convention

Humphrey came to Chicago with the nomination virtually sewn up -- he had between 100 and 200 more delegates than he needed, as well as the support of blacks, labor groups and Southern Democrats. However, he still felt his nomination was in jeopardy.

Humphrey was clearly seen as Johnson's man. President Johnson still had a grip over the convention, even going as far as to ensure states supportive of him received the best seats at the convention hall. But Johnson did not show up for the event.

Mayor Daley, who wanted Ted Kennedy to run for President, caucused his delegation of 118 the weekend before the convention and decided to remain "uncommitted." Humphrey also was at risk from the growing anti-war wing of the Democratic party. After vascillating between the pro-war policies of the Johnson administration and the anti-war policies of his opponents, Humphrey made it clear on CBS's Face The Nation the weekend before the convention he supported President Johnson's Vietnam policies.

Humphrey faced a major credentials fights. Delegations from 15 states tried to unseat Humphrey's delegates and seat anti-Vietnman delegates. Humphrey's forces won every fight. There also was manuevering behind the scenes at the Conrad Hilton (where the press and the Democratic party were staying) to try and get Sen. Ted Kennedy to run.

Sen. Dan Inouye (D-HI) gave the keynote address, but it was decidedly downbeat, with 10 of 13 pages devoted to what's wrong with the country. (Keynote speeches are usually upbeat affirmations of the party.)

The most contentious issue was Vietnam, and the debate on the minority "peace plank." The convention managers scheduled the debate for late (past prime-time) Tuesday night, but the peace delegates staged a protest and it was rescheduled for the next afternoon.

Debate was limited to one hour for each side and structured to prevent hostile exchanges. Rep. Phil Burton (D-CA) was the featured speaker in support of the peace plank, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME) was the featured speaker in support of the Johnson-Humphrey language. After the Humphrey language was approved, the New York and California delegations began to sing "We Shall Overcome" and more delegations marched around the convention floor in protest. Television made it impossible for the convention planners to hide the protests of delegates favoring the peace plank. Even if planners tried to hide rebel delegations (such as New York and California) by placing them in the back of the convention hall and turning down their microphones, a camera and sound-man covering the floor could easily broadcast their protests across the nation.

During the debate on the peace plank, the worst day of rioting occurred outside the Amphitheater, in the so-called "Battle of Michigan Avenue."

Humphrey was nominated by Mayor Joseph Alioto of San Francisco. (His daughter is now running for Congress in California.) Sen. George McGovern was nominated by Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-MA), who shocked the convention by saying, "With George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn't have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Mayor Daley erupted in anger and shook his fist at Ribicoff. Most reports of the event also say Daley yelled an off-color epithet beginning with an "F," but accoriding to CNN executive producer Jack Smith, others close to Daley inist he shouted "Faker," meaning Ribicoff was not a man of his word, the lowest name one can be called in Chicago's Irish politics.

Humphrey easily won the nomination by more than a 1,000 votes, with the delegation from Pennsylvania putting him over the top.

On the last day, Thursday, the convention opened with a film tribute to Bobby Kennedy. Also, Mayor Daley printed up hundreds of "We Love You Daley" signs and orchestrated a pro-Daley demonstration in the convention to contrast with the negative image the city had gained during the course of the convention.

Humphrey chose Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME) to be his running mate. Julian Bond, the African-American civil rights activist, was nominated for Vice President, but withdrew because he was 28 years old, under the constitutional age (35) to hold the office.

The Riots

Outside the official convention proceedings, anti-war demonstrators clashed with 11,900 Chicago police, 7500 Army troops, 7500 Illinois National Guardsmen and 1000 Secret Service agents over 5 days.

The violence centered on two things: the Chicago police forcing protesters out of areas where they were not permitted to be and protesters clashing with police, and their reinforcements, as they tried to march to the convention site.

The violence began Sunday August 25th. Anti-war leaders had tried to get permits from the city to sleep in Lincoln park and to demonstrate outside of the convention site. Those permit requests were denied, although the city did offer them a permit to protest miles away from the Amphitheater But the protesters were undeterred. When the park was officially closed, Chicago police bombed protesters with tear gas and moved in with billy-clubs to forcibly remove them from the park. Along with the many injuries to anti-war protesters, 17 reporters were attacked by police (including Hal Bruno, who was then a reporter for Newsweek and is now political director for ABC.) Throughout the convention, police would see the press as the enemy. Subsequent battles between police and protesters occurred nightly in Lincoln Park and Grant Park.

Also present that first night and throughout the convention were the famous Beat artists Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and French poet Jean Genet. Most events and protests featured speeches from Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

The worst day of protesting was Wednesday, and was dubbed the "Battle of Michigan Avenue." Protesters were stopped in their march to the convention site and the media recorded graphic violence on the part of the Chicago police. Many innocent bystanders, reporters and doctors offering medical help were severely beaten by the police. Many hotels where the delegates were staying were affected by the riots. Fumes from the tear gas used by the police and "stink bombs" thrown by the protesters drifted into the buildings. (One of those affected was the Conrad Hilton, the headquarters for the Democratic party and the press.)

Another major clash occurred on the final day of the convention, when protesters tried once again to reach the convention center. They were twice turned away. A barricade was put up around the convention center to prevent anyone without credentials from entering the facility.

When the convention was finally over, the Chicago police reported 589 arrests had been made and 119 police and 100 protesters were injured. The riots, which were widely covered by the media, led to a government funded study to determine the cause of the violence. The study was led by Daniel Walker, a Democratic businessman from Illinois who would ran successfully for governor in Illinois in 1972. The study placed most of the blame on the Chicago police. Mayor Daley disagreed with the report and issued the Chicago police a pay raise.

The Aftermath

On March 20, 1969, a Chicago grand jury indicted eight police officers and eight civilians in connection with the disorders during the Democratic convention. The eight civilians, dubbed the "Chicago 8," were the first persons to be charged under provisions of the 1968 Civil Rights act, which made it a federal crime to cross state lines to incite a riot. David Dellinger was chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden were members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were leaders of the Youth International Party (YIPPIES). Lee Weiner was a research assistant at Northwestern University. John Froines was a professor at the University at the University of Oregon. Bobby Seale was a founder of the Black Panthers.

The trial of the "Chicago 8" opened before Judge Julius Hoffman in Chicago on September 24, 1969. It was a circus. The defendents disrupted the trial and talked back to the judge. The defense attorneys repeatedly accused the judge of bias against them. Because of Seale's repeated courtroom outbursts, Hoffman had ordered him gagged and chained to his chair on October 29. When the restraints were removed on November 3, Seale resumed his outburts, calling Hoffman a "racist," a "facist" and a "pig." Seale's trial was severed from the other seven on November 5, 1969 when Hoffman declared a mistrial on the conspiracy charges and sentenced him to four years in prison for contempt.

The long "Chicago 7" case finally went to the jury on February 14, 1970. The next day Judge Hoffman convicted all 7 defendents, plus defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, of contempt of court. (Kunstler had told the judge the trial was a "legal lynching" for which Judge Hoffman was "wholly responsible.") The jury returned its verdicts on February 18, 1970. Froines and Weiner were aquitted. Dellinger, Davis, Hayden, Hoffman and Ruben were convicted of crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot and giving inflammatory speeches to further their purpose. They were fined $5,000 each, plus court costs, and given five years in prison.

56f. 1968: Year of Unraveling

Just as Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for the White House was gaining steam he was assassinated after delivering his California primary victory speech. Fresh on the heels of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination just months before, the nation once again mourned the loss of a leader committed to civil rights. The card seen above was distributed at Kennedy's funeral.

The turbulent 1960s reached a boiling point in 1968.

When the year began, President Johnson hoped to win the war in Vietnam and then cruise to a second term to finish building his Great Society. But events began to spiral out of his control.

In February, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam brought a shift in American public opinion toward the war and low approval ratings for the President. Sensing vulnerability, Eugene McCarthy challenged Johnson for his own party's nomination. When the Democratic primary votes were tallied in New Hampshire, McCarthy scored a remarkable 42 percent of the vote against an incumbent President. Johnson knew that in addition to fighting a bitter campaign against the Republicans he would have to fight to win support of the Democrats as well. His hopes darkened when Robert Kennedy entered the race in mid-March.

On March 31, 1968, Johnson surprised the nation by announcing he would not seek a second term. His Vice-President Hubert Humphrey entered the election to carry out Johnson's programs.

Feverish political turmoil bloomed in the spring of '68. Humphrey was popular among party elites who chose delegates in many states. But Kennedy was mounting an impressive campaign among the people. His effort touched an emotional nerve in America &mdash the desire to return to the Camelot days of his brother. Kennedy received much support from the poorer classes and from African Americans who believed Kennedy would continue the struggle for civil rights. Both Kennedy and McCarthy were critical of Humphrey's hawkish stance on Vietnam.

The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy virtually assured Vice-President Hubert Humphrey the Democratic nomination in 1968. When the party met for their convention in Chicago, thousands of anti-war protesters converged on the city and clashed with police who had been ordered by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to take a tough stance with the demonstrators.

On April 4, Martin Luther King's assassination led to another wave of grief. Then waves of rioting swept America. Two months later, shortly after Robert Kennedy spoke to a crowd cheering his sweep in the California primary, an assassin named Sirhan Sirhan ended Kennedy's life. The nation was numb.

All eyes were focused on the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. With Kennedy out of the race, the nomination of Hubert Humphrey was all but certain. Antiwar protesters flocked to Chicago to prevent the inevitable Humphrey nomination, or at least to pressure the party into softening its stance on Vietnam.

Mayor Richard Daley ordered the Chicago police to take a tough stance with the demonstrators. As the crowds chanted "The whole world is watching," the police bloodied the activists with clubs and released tear gas into the streets. The party nominated Humphrey, but the nation began to sensed that the Democrats were a party of disorder.

Lyndon B. Johnson's popularity had plummeted because of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In addition, members of his own party were challenging him for the nomination. In March 1968, he made the stunning announcement that he would not seek another term in office.

The Republicans had a comparatively smooth campaign, nominating Richard Nixon as their candidate. Nixon spoke for the "Silent Majority" of Americans who supported the effort in Vietnam and demanded law and order. Alabama Governor George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ticket. Campaigning for "segregation now, segregation forever" Wallace appealed to many white voters in the South. His running mate, Curtis LeMay , suggested that the United States bomb Vietnam "back to the Stone Age."

When the votes were tallied in November, Nixon cruised to an electoral vote landslide while winning only 43.4 percent of the popular vote.

Robert F. Kennedy Legacy
The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation hosts this superior biography and collection of RFK speeches, quotes, and pictures. Learn about the life, career, and philosophy of a leader who was bound for the presidency until he was assassinated after winning the California primary in 1968.

". Responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom's privileges."
-Robert F. Kennedy

  • Conventions whose nominees won the subsequent presidential election are tinted in light blue.
  • Four other conventions — in 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 — which nominated candidates who won the popular vote, but not the Electoral College, are tinted in pale yellow.

1 [1832] A resolution endorsing "the repeated nominations which he [Jackson] has received in various parts of the Union" was passed by the convention.
2 [1840] A resolution stating "that the convention deem it expedient at the present time not to choose between the individuals in nomination, but to leave the decision to their Republican fellow-citizens in the several states" was passed by the convention. Most Van Buren electors voted for Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky for the vice presidency others voted for Littleton Waller Tazewell of Virginia and James K. Polk of Tennessee in the election of 1840.
3 [1844] Silas Wright of New York was first nominated and he declined the nomination.
4 [1860 June] Caleb Cushing resigned as permanent chair.
5 [1860 June] Douglas and Johnson were chosen as the candidates of the Front Street Theater convention after most of the Southern delegations walked out. The convention bolters soon formed their own convention, located at the Maryland Institute, also in Baltimore, on June 28, 1860. At their convention Caleb Cushing again served as permanent chair and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was nominated for the presidency and Joseph Lane of Oregon was nominated for the vice presidency. (1860 Southern Democratic platform)
6 [1860 June] Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama was first nominated but he declined the nomination.
7 [1872] Greeley and B. Gratz Brown had already been endorsed by the Liberal Republican Party, meeting on May 1 in Cincinnati. A dissident group of Straight-Out Democrats, meeting in Louisville, Kentucky on September 3, nominated Charles O'Conor of New York for President and John Quincy Adams II of Massachusetts for Vice President, but both men declined the nomination. [3]
8 [1896] "Gold" Democrats opposed to the Free Silver plank of the 1896 platform and to Wm J. Bryan's candidacy convened as the National Democratic Party in Indianapolis on September 2, and nominated John M. Palmer of Illinois for President and former Governor Simon Bolivar Buckner of Kentucky for Vice President.
9 [1896] Bryan was later nominated for President in St. Louis, together with Thomas E. Watson of Georgia for Vice President, by the National Silver Republican Party meeting on July 22, and by the People's Party (Populists) meeting on July 25. [4]
10 [1948] Breakaway delegations left the Philadelphia Convention for conventions of the Progressive and States Rights Democratic Parties. The Progressives, meeting on July 23, also in Philadelphia, nominated former Vice President Henry A. Wallace of Iowa for President and Senator Glen H. Taylor of Idaho for Vice President. (1948 Progressive Party platform)
The States' Rights Democrats (or "Dixiecrats"), meeting in Birmingham, Alabama on July 17, nominated Governors Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for President and Fielding Wright of Mississippi for Vice President. (1948 States' Rights Democratic platform) [5]
11 [1972] Eagleton withdrew his candidacy after the convention and was replaced by Sargent Shriver of Maryland.
12 [2016] Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida was intended to be the Temporary Chair, but was substituted for Stephanie Rawliings-Blake by the Democratic National Committee in the wake of the Wasserman/DNC email leak scandal. Wasserman resigned as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee effective after the close of the convention. [6]
13 [2020] Originally scheduled for July 13–16, and originally planned for the Fiserv Forum, but postponed and moved due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
14 [2020] Centered in Milwaukee, but many speeches and roll call responses are being given remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [7]

The Whole World Was Watching: Public Opinion in 1968

As a divided Republican Party prepares to meet in Cleveland to confirm Donald Trump as its 2016 nominee, it is appropriate to look back at public reaction to one of the most divided US political gatherings in recent history, the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968.

As fractious and strident as the current political scene has been, the recent months have still not been as tumultuous as those leading up to late August 1968. Amid mounting protest against the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson announced in March that he would not run for re-election, throwing the race wide open. In April came the assassination of Martin Luther King, leading to a spring and summer of rioting and unrest in cities across the country. That month Gallup found preference for the Democratic nomination split at 33% for anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy, 28% for Senator Robert Kennedy, and 25% for Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

By late May Humphrey, though competing only in caucuses but not primaries, was still ahead, at 34% in a Gallup poll to Kennedy's 28% and McCarthy's 26%. Then tragedy changed everything when Kennedy was assassinated in early June following his win in the California primary. By month's end, McCarthy led Humphrey 48%-40% according to Gallup, and by mid-August his lead had expanded to 48%-36%. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was intent using the event to provide a positive image of his city to Democrats and the country at large, but that was not how things played out.

The party and convention were split between McCarthy, the peace candidate, and Humphrey, who represented a continuation of LBJ's policies. The peace plank in the party platform was defeated and Humphrey nominated, leading to numerous disturbances and protests inside and outside the hall. Reporters and protestors both were assaulted by the Chicago police. Several leaders of the antiwar protesters, a group that became known as the "Chicago Seven", were arrested the following March and charged with various offenses including crossing state lines to incite a riot. A report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence called the situation a "police riot," though the scenes of chaos in the streets are also widely considered to have convinced many Americans that it was safer to vote for Nixon.

The country certainly appeared to sympathize with the police more than the protestors. In a Gallup poll, 56% approved of the police response to anti-war protestors and 31% did not. In a Harris survey, 66% agreed that Daley was right in the way he used police against the demonstrators, against only 20% who disagreed. Just 14% in the same poll agreed that protestors had had their rights to protest taken away 66% who did not. Only 34% said that the way they ran the convention proved Democrats couldn't govern America", whereas 49% disagreed, but some damage had apparently already been done. The last act of the convention's drama was the long, fractious, and controversial trial of the Chicago Seven", which began in September 1969 and ended in February 1970 with all seven acquitted of conspiracy charges. Five were convicted of inciting a riot, but these convictions were overturned on appeal in 1972. In the end none were convicted of anything more than contempt of court, and none received further jail time.

In the immediate aftermath of the trial, however, before the five convictions were overturned, most Americans were still not on the demonstrators' side. A Harris poll in March 1970 found half of the country had followed the trial. Of those, 71% thought the defendants had gotten a fair trial, and 63% said the judge had done an excellent or pretty good job. Only 31% thought he had "lost his head" and acted improperly, while 59% did not. Seventy-one percent agreed that "his patience was worn thin and he was justified in cracking down on the defendants and their lawyer", and 75% agreed that he could not have completed the trial unless he had done what he did to keep order in the courtroom" (which included having defendant Bobby Seale gagged and chained to his chair for refusing to be quiet). 79% of those who had followed the trial agreed the defendants were trying "to make a mockery of the legal process," and 80% that the defendants were "more interested in putting on a side show than in letting justice work." The latter was admittedly true, as, in the words of defendant Jerry Rubin: "Our strategy was to give Judge Hoffman a heart attack. We gave the court system a heart attack, which is even better."

The Chicago Seven's courtroom shenanigans were meant to underscore their belief that they could not receive a fair trial. Only 11% of Americans watching agreed with them however, while 81% rejected the contention that "the trial was rigged against the defendants and they didn't have a chance from the beginning." Twenty-three percent even agreed that "protesters such as the Chicago 7 are revolutionaries who want to destroy the system and shouldn't even be given the right to a trial," though 71% would not go that far. These numbers clearly indicate that the majority of Americans polled reacted negatively to the unrest and chaos of the scenes they saw on their televisions from inside and outside the hall in Chicago, and they were more concerned with order than the rights of the protestors and the relative worth of their cause.

While opposition to the Vietnam War was growing, a Gallup survey taken immediately following the convention found 47% thought Nixon would do a better job of dealing with the war. Only 28% thought Humphrey would. Another XX poll two weeks later found 57%-60% would not favor either candidate more if they took "a stronger peace position on Vietnam". By the time of the Chicago Seven trial's end in 1970, 69% told Harris that they agreed with Vice-President Agnew "wanting to see anti-Vietnam and student demonstrators cracked down on." A Gallup poll in March of that year found 53% approval for Nixon's handling of the situation in Vietnam even as the war was threatening to spread into neighboring Laos.

Public opinion about American involvement in Southeast Asia would change greatly over the next five years, and the national dialogue about student protest and official response to it would be forever altered that May at Kent State. To those who lived through the late sixties, some recent events may feel ominous, potential portents of the coming of even greater discord and trouble. The country as a whole can only hope that this years' conventions are far less difficult and divisive than Detroit was in 1968.

How 'Fake News' Was Born at the 1968 DNC

The madness of the 1968 Democratic National Convention pushed conservatives’ distrust of ‘the establishment’ into overdrive.

Heather Hendershot is a professor of film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is the author of Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line.

In the weeks leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley turned his town into a fortress. He sealed the manhole covers with tar, so protesters couldn’t hide in the sewers. He installed a fence topped with barbed wire around the Chicago International Amphitheater. He put the entire police force of 12,000 men on 12-hour shifts and called in over 5,000 National Guardsmen. About 1,000 Secret Service and FBI agents were also on duty, as the city braced for the 10,000 protesters who would soon arrive, wound up by a year of political assassinations, urban riots and the raging Vietnam War.

What could possibly go wrong?

With the whole world watching, the three major news networks brought the answer to that question into millions of Americans’ living rooms. They spared barely a second of the ensuing mayhem in their coverage—and in the course of doing so sparked a national debate about objectivity and journalistic integrity. The liberal-minded tuned in and saw textbook police brutality and “Gestapo tactics,” in the words of Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff. But millions of Middle Americans, the citizens Richard M. Nixon would later immortalize as the “silent majority,” saw an entirely different display of excess—on the part not of the police, but of the TV networks.

The Archie Bunkers of America, impassive to the hippies’ and yippies’ plight, saw them playing the newsmen like a fiddle, getting free publicity for their cause and, ultimately, getting what they deserved from the police. The protesters hurled profanities at the cops. They engaged in street theater, nominating a pig as the Democratic presidential candidate. They attempted to sleep in the parks (defying the 11 p.m. curfew) and to hold marches even though permits had been denied by the city. Allen Ginsberg even led the kids in chanting “Om.” The “establishment” response was swift and violent. As right-wing pundit Robert Novak later observed, “The demonstrators came looking for trouble and got what they wanted.” Viewed from that perspective, the 1968 Democratic convention was an inflection point for conservatives who would protest that the mainstream media was, in words that now echo from the White House, “the enemy of the people.”

The violence in Chicago was all-encompassing, and longhairs weren’t the only targets of what the federal government’s Walker Report later described as a “police riot” in the streets outside the convention. Delegates from the convention themselves—accountants in Brooks Brothers shirts, librarians with prim leatherette handbags—who wandered onto Michigan Avenue found themselves flying ass-over-tea-kettle through plate glass windows. Journalists with clearly displayed credentials were attacked, including, most notoriously, CBS’ Dan Rather.

Today, it’s taken for granted that much of our news coverage is slanted left or right, but in the network era there was still a deeply held belief that news could (and should) be completely neutral. The tumult of the 1960s tore apart that notion, even as many viewers struggled to hang onto it. We tend to think of the pre-Watergate era as an Edenic vista of trust and fidelity toward our institutions, especially the media—but the skepticism and stubborn partisan distrust that many feel today was present then, too. The real-time controversy and spin surrounding the shocking images that came from Chicago, many of them revisited here for the first time since August 1968, laid the foundation for the cries of “liberal bias” that hound and undermine the mainstream news media to this day.

With all due respect to NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, CBS’ Walter Cronkite was the pre-eminent emcee of the whole affair. Cronkite’s obvious animus toward right-wingers Robert Taft in 1948 and Barry Goldwater in 1964 had caused some political friction, but he was generally seen by most TV viewers as a moderate, establishment type of guy. He was perplexed by hippies, including his own daughters, with their “indescribable” outfits that looked like they came from a “remnant sale.” He recognized that the young generation no doubt saw him as “an old fuddy-duddy.”

It was this very middle-of-the-road squareness that had made his 1968 Report from Vietnam so impactful. The networks had dutifully reported JFK’s and LBJ’s pronouncements on imminent victory in Vietnam for some time, and Cronkite himself had been suckered as well by the carefully managed news conferences and briefings he had attended in Saigon in 1965. At that point, he was, as biographer Douglas Brinkley put it, “a cautious hawk.” When the Tet Offensive erupted in early 1968, Cronkite returned to Vietnam for a less varnished picture, and upon his return he reluctantly reported that America was facing a stalemate in Southeast Asia, at best. President Lyndon B. Johnson was agog, proclaiming (perhaps apocryphally) that “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Heading into Chicago, then, Cronkite had already pointed out the elephant in the room with regard to Vietnam. This may have been controversial to hawks, but CBS wasn’t deluged with angry viewer mail. To the majority of viewers, Cronkite’s Vietnam broadcast was more of a wake-up call than a partisan assault. “Uncle Walter” was regularly rated in surveys as the most trusted man in America.

But Chicago was different. Not just because Cronkite was sympathetic to the youngsters in the streets, but because he lost his cool. After his correspondent, Dan Rather, was punched in the solar plexus by a Chicago plainclothes security man on the delegate floor, Cronkite let loose, saying, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.” Asked once why Cronkite was so trusted, his wife had responded, “he looks like everyone’s dentist.” But in calling out Daley’s thugs, he had given his conservative viewers a surprise root canal.

Cronkite thanked Rather “for staying in there, pitching despite every handicap that they can possibly put in our way from free flow of information at this Democratic National Convention.” The atmosphere of control sometimes manifested itself in crudely obvious ways: Every day that the convention started late or was delayed by unruly delegates who happened to disappear when a vote was needed, the house band would fill up time with excruciatingly upbeat show tunes. They even took cues from Daley, who would signal whether voices or songs of protest from delegates needed drowning out.

Cronkite clearly suspected that Daley had purposely avoided resolving the electrical workers’ strike in order to hinder network coverage. When resolution of the strike was announced just an hour after Humphrey’s Vietnam plank was confirmed (which, by extension, confirmed his pending nomination), Cronkite announced on-air that it was “one of those amazing, almost unbelievable coincidences that have marked this whole convention in the restrictions on the press. . little things here and there that just so amazingly seem to come together to force the press into a mold that the convention managers wanted us to fit into here.

The formal union vote would take place in just a few days, which would end not only the strike but also “the total news blackout”—an exaggeration illustrating the anchorman’s extreme frustration. But, “of course, it won’t matter then,” he added, because the networks would be long gone.

The snark might have seemed like unfair editorializing to some viewers, but Cronkite simply understood how Daley operated. The consummate professional, Cronkite also tried to express his frustration in a more neutral, even folksy way: “Dick Daley’s a fine fellow, but when his strong hand is turned agin’ you, as the press has felt it was on this occasion, he’s a tough adversary.”

It pained Cronkite in particular that he could not show breaking news live as it unfurled. When CBS cut away from the amphitheater to footage of police violence, Cronkite carefully noted over and over again that it was recorded, not live, because of the electrical workers’ strike. The videotapes—and some hastily developed 16mm film—had to be transported 50 blocks by car or motorcycle. And the mayor didn’t even allow that the networks might break the speed limit.

Daley prepared for the convention like a general going into battle. When rioting had erupted in Chicago four months earlier following The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the police had been unable to seize control. Venting his disappointment, Daley had said that his police superintendent should have ordered his force to “shoot to maim” looters and “shoot to kill” arsonists. He vowed not to be caught short again.

The mayor was a masterful machine politician, but he lacked nuance in his understanding of mass media. He refused permits for protesters, as if that would keep them from protesting and, therefore, prevent journalists from covering them. He had crude “We Love Mayor Daley” signs made, and had city workers to hold them up in front of the cameras. He stuck decals of himself on the phones in every delegate’s hotel room, which was a particularly dunderheaded move given that the city was in the middle of an electrical workers’ strike that made the phones all but useless.

To his advantage, however, was the fact that he had microphone access whenever he wanted it. But at a key moment, he pointedly chose not to take the mic. When Ribicoff made his crack about “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago” from the dais, Daley stood up and shouted from the floor “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home!” The forceful exclamation, shown on live TV, was later deciphered by lip readers. Friends said Daley called Ribicoff not a “fucker,” but a “faker.” Enemies suggested he had called him not a “Jew” but a “kike.” The CBS newsman who was closest simply reported that Daley had gone bright red with anger.

At age 66, Daley was not a man of the TV era. He was certainly not plugged into the fact that the Democratic convention had become not only a political event, but also a TV show. The conventions had been telecast since 1948, when so few Americans had sets that the coverage made little difference in how the parties presented themselves. Delegates were barely visible through clouds of tobacco smoke, and the floors were knee-deep in discarded newspapers. By 1960, the year that, as per Theodore White’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, television had won the election for John F. Kennedy, convention organizers were fully aware that they were putting on a production. It’s incredible, but true, that eight years later, Mayor Daley didn’t know—or didn’t care—that hurling obscenities at Ribicoff on national TV might backfire on him.

Daley had erred not only in his megalomaniacal self-promotion and encouragement of police brutality, but also in putting extra effort into controlling the TV networks. They did not get enough floor passes. They could not park their news vans where they needed them. They could broadcast live only from within the amphitheater. When a UPI messenger was roughly tossed out for no reason, in a typical “episode of strong arm tactics,” Cronkite observed that “about the worst thing you can say to these people here is that you’re from the press, apparently. They don’t recognize that as any sort of a pass.” Obviously, he objected specifically to physical assaults on reporters, but he was more generally disturbed by the contempt and lack of professionalism on the part of Daley’s goons.

What was the evidence of media bias in Chicago? The anchors called those bloodied in the streets “protesters,” “anti-Vietnam activists,” “young people” and “hippies,” while Daley insisted they were all “terrorists.” Further, Daley complained that no violent provocation on the part of said “terrorists” was shown. But the networks had kept a keen eye out, and insisted that they had not witnessed any. The footage played incessantly over the past 50 years has certainly not exculpated the police and National Guardsmen.

Notably, however, additional disturbing footage that hasn’t been replayed since 1968 adds nuance to our understanding of the networks’ coverage. Two CBS sequences in particular stand out:

In one contentious late-night interview, Dan Rather pressed a jolly, red Thermos cup-swigging Mayor Daley about the smothering presence of troops downtown, a presence confirmed by images CBS flashed on the screen at precisely this moment. Daley characterized the report about the troops as “propaganda by you and your station and a lot of Eastern interests.” Complaint letters from all over America would attack CBS for being unfair to Daley, and no doubt many were disgruntled by the fact that CBS had intercut the Daley interview with footage of the guardsmen. But the network was simply making a perceptive editorial choice. Daley would neither confirm nor deny a fact for which there was clear visual evidence. If CBS hadn’t cut to the footage, it would have been Rather’s word against Daley’s. By cutting away, CBS showed that simply calling something “propaganda” did not make it so.

A second, more visceral example of supposed editorial “bias” took place 15 minutes after the delegates left the hall, at the end of the convention’s harrowing third day. Cronkite suggested that some footage shot earlier “perhaps describes most symbolically the situation in the city tonight.” Explicitly declining to add a voice-over, he said “It seems to us that these pictures speak for themselves.”

The film showed a respectable-looking, middle-aged woman who had stopped her two-door sedan in the street to scoop up as many tear-gassed demonstrators as she could. They are clearly strangers to her. She immediately finds that the National Guardsmen have surrounded her car and will not let her pass. The faceless, gas-masked guardsmen point their bayonets at her tires, as if to slash them. Then, one of them points a large weapon into her car, just a few inches from her head. Cronkite had eschewed narration, but here interjects a quick explanation that this is, in fact, a grenade launcher. The Good Samaritan protests: “I just want to get them out of here so they won’t cause you any trouble.” More tear gas is suddenly released, without warning, and she rolls up her windows. A young businessman in coat and tie rushes past the camera, in agony. It’s a four-minute scene that seems to last an eternity.

Cronkite responded with passionate neutrality. “Ultimately the woman was permitted, as you saw, to turn around the car, drive away from the area. You saw the whole episode from the beginning to the end. … We do not know whether the young people were wanted for anything. . We saw the episode, at any rate.” His point was that such drama simply needed to be seen to be understood. The scene spoke directly to Cronkite’s own demographic: the white, middle-class professional. This woman was not a troublemaker or a hippie. What the hell was going on?

Over the horrific nighttime scenes shown earlier, Cronkite had said, “The interesting thing about this is that almost universally the bystanders have been horror stricken apparently by this action of the police. . We’ve had a lot of telephone calls and complaints from people who saw scenes and wanted to report some of them, people of substance in the community.” Including the grenade launcher footage was a choice that even Cronkite himself could not have seen as completely neutral: It purposely made a point about the intensity of the violence. But to him, and his network, this was not bias—just good reporting.

The next day, Cronkite interviewed Daley in an exchange that Douglas Brinkley would later describe as “the low-water mark” of Cronkite’s career. During the “interview,” Cronkite mostly just sat and listened while the mayor defended his actions. Having been accused of bias by telegrams and phone calls streaming in since CBS had gone off-air the night before, a wounded Cronkite attempted to cloak himself in professional neutrality. He closed out by suggesting that he and the mayor had not come to “a complete meeting of the minds” as to how the Michigan Avenue situation could have been handled differently, and Daley responded, “we never will, but that shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t be friends.” They shook hands, and Daley departed. They were not friends, of course, and would not be. Any implication to the contrary was as phony as a $3 bill. The feeble exchange had laid bare the limits of “journalistic balance” and pre-cable news “cordiality.”

After the convention, Daley demanded airtime to respond to what he considered unfair coverage. CBS got out of it precisely because the network had already given him the softball interview with Cronkite. NBC offered the mayor time on their panel discussion shows, which he declined. Finally, he commissioned an hourlong film that aired nationwide on TV and radio and focused on inflammatory comments made by activists before the convention and defensive comments made by police afterward. It wasn’t very convincing, but Daley had had his say, and the Federal Communications Commission’s notions of fairness had been satisfied.

By early October of 1968, CBS received 8,670 letters about Chicago, and 60 Minutes’ Harry Reasoner reported that the mail ran 11-to-1 against the network. A viewer in Ohio wrote, “I’ve never seen such a disgusting display of one-sided reporting in all of the years I’ve watched television.” From South Carolina, a letter writer griped, “Your coverage was … slanted in favor of the hoodlums and beatniks and slurred the police trying to preserve order.” A North Carolina viewer complained that, “When a great network refers to trouble makers as THESE YOUNG PEOPLE and in such a … tender tone, that is bias.” A New Yorker even suggested that the police had engaged in righteous violence: “Our Lord whipped the money lenders out of the temple. Are you going to accuse Him of brutality?”

The notion that simply showing police violence was evidence of liberal bias didn’t begin with Chicago. It traces back rather directly to TV coverage of civil rights, when white Southerners complained that the networks ignored their perspective and were manipulated by publicity seekers within the movement. By the late 1950s, many of the same people who would later object to the network’s coverage in Chicago had already taken to calling CBS the “Communist” or “Coon” or “Colored Broadcasting Company.” The same bigoted wordplay made NBC the “Nigger Broadcasting Company.” Alabama’s Bull Connor summed up the situation with an aphorism that wouldn’t seem out of place in some conservative circles today: “The trouble with this country is communism, socialism and journalism.”

If the idea of network coverage being driven by liberal bias wasn’t new to the 1968 convention, the heat and undeniable violence of the convention was a perfect opportunity for white, conservative, middle Americans to coalesce in their resentment—and not just in the South, but across the nation. America was falling apart at the seams, and the network news was seen as complicit by virtue of recording what was happening.

Over time, the Chicago convention has been reduced from the complicated four-day event that it was to the horrific scenes of street violence that took place there. Indeed, the pantheon of traumatic, iconic images of the 1960s could be boiled down to Cronkite reporting JFK’s death urban riots, in Watts, Newark and beyond Bobby Kennedy’s assassination coverage of King’s assassination the victims of the My Lai Massacre, a Vietcong being shot in the head by a South Vietnamese officer, and a naked, child running, covered in napalm and the Chicago convention “police riot,” with its helmeted shock troops.

Narrative, of course, is how we make sense of history. But this sort of pastiche can make it all too easy for us to ignore what’s jarring or contradictory, and it flattens our understanding of a period as rich with contradiction and factionalism as our own. The reactionary voices of the 1960s don’t ring as loudly in our historical memory as the more progressive ones, and that leaves us unduly caught off-guard when they reappear at the front of our national consciousness—as any shell-shocked liberal would have attested on November 9, 2016.

Journalists face very different challenges than they did in Chicago in 1968, but as the president vilifies the media as “the enemy of the people,” and reporters have occasion to attend his rallies with a security detail in tow, it’s clear that the specter of violence still looms large. There is also ferocious disagreement over the meaning of what we view on social media or television, a disagreement that clearly is not native to our own time. What is obvious to some is not to others, who would contend, for example, that “truth is not truth.”

The violent images of Chicago that have dominated our cultural narrative of the event leave out so much more than they show. By re-examining media coverage of that event, we can understand better not only America’s past, but also the forces that define so much of our present and are unlikely to be absent from our future.

Fifty years later, the Chicago 7 story remains relevant.

In the five decades since those violent days at the Democratic Convention, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and David Dillinger have all passed away, while Bobby Seale, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner are still alive. Last August, Weiner published a memoir about his experience.

Last year, with the ongoing protests against police brutality and the public outcry about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others&mdashnot to mention concerns about the upcoming presidential election&mdash the story of the Chicago 7 and the riots of 1968 felt all too prescient.

News Analysis: Racism, unrest, police brutality. Is America living 1968 all over again? Yes, and no

In the broad sweep of American history, certain years stand like grim mileposts. The year 1968, bathed in blood and drenched in sorrow, is one. The year 2020 may be another.

The nation is convulsed today in a way it has not been in more than half a century: stalked by a mysterious virus, burdened by soaring joblessness, wrestling — once again — with the twin plagues of racism and inequality that have poisoned the country from its outset.

As it happens, 1968 was a presidential election year. So, too, is 2020. It is the time when Americans take stock of what has been and look forward, with varying degrees of hope and resignation, to what may be.

So much has changed in 52 years. So much remains the same.

Every election amounts to a choice, between candidates but also between possibilities. Given these unnerving times, the vote on Nov. 3 could very well matter more than any election in a generation.

That’s what happened the last time the country cast its ballots for president amid such an air of foreboding.

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In 1968, the country was torn apart by an ill-conceived war fought in the cities and jungles of far-off Vietnam. Americans came to realize the conflict was a lost cause and, worse, grew to understand their leaders had lied to cover up their own doubts about the war and ineptitude prosecuting it.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s leading apostle of nonviolent protest, was shot and killed at age 39 for dedicating himself to the proposition that all men, no matter the color of their skin, were created equal. Scores died as more than 100 cities around the country went up in flames.

Robert F. Kennedy, age 42, was shot and killed two months later after inveighing against the Vietnam War and taking up King’s torch.

In Chicago, rogue police smashed the heads of demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention after carefully removing their badges to avoid identification. Inside the hall, reporters were roughed up. When Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff objected to the police tactics, his speech was greeted with a stream of profanity and anti-Semitic invective from the city’s mayor, Richard J. Daley.

“It felt like the foundations of the country were trembling, which in fact they were,” said Allen Matusow, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, who has written extensively about the 1960s.

Today, our ground seems similarly shaky.

“We’re not stable in terms of our health,” said Peter D. Hart, who marked 1968 by quitting his career as a nonpartisan polling analyst to become a Democratic campaign strategist. “We’re not stable in terms of our society, and we’re not stable in terms of our economy.”

In November 1968, Republican Richard Nixon won the White House after promising to quell the country’s unrest and restore “law and order” to its sundered streets. The popular vote was close — Nixon just slipped past Democrat Hubert Humphrey — but the outcome wasn’t really. Nixon crushed Humphrey in the electoral college and probably would have won by a greater margin if Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, hadn’t carried five Southern states.

‘It felt like the foundations of our country were trembling, which in fact they were.’

Allen Matusow, a fellow at the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University

It’s been said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme, which suggests a set of recurring patterns. Indeed, there are through lines from 1968 to today.

One of Nixon’s campaign strategists, Roger Ailes, helped found Fox News and its high-octane formula of pugnacious conservatism. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign echoed Wallace’s bombastic populism and the governor’s thinly veiled appeals to racial prejudice and bigotry lately, as Trump seeks reelection, he has begun to echo Nixon, calling himself “your president of law and order” and speaking of a “silent majority” cowed into quiescence.

Those old enough to remember may be experiencing 1960s flashbacks (of a nonpharmaceutical sort) for good reason. As historian Rick Perlstein noted, “The soft domestic civil war of the 1960s created the order of battle of our political discussion today.”

The conflict between conservatives and liberals, or progressive, as some prefer, is familiar enough. So, too, is the raging culture war, even if the terms of engagement have changed we no longer fight over long hair and blue jeans but rather protective masks and hydroxychloroquine.

America is a vastly different, if still troubled, place.

It was only in 1967, in the felicitously named Loving vs. Virginia, that the Supreme Court upheld the right of black and white Americans to marry. Today, that right has been extended to same-sex couples.

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Whites are a shrinking portion of the population and, significantly, the electorate. There may still be cavernous differences in incomes and equality, but seeing black and brown faces in corporate boardrooms or seated at negotiating tables in Congress and statehouses around the country no longer prompts wonderment.

Today’s protests are smaller in scale and, thankfully so far, much less deadly. Strikingly, they are also vastly more integrated and greeted with much greater support and sympathy. In some instances, police officers have laid down their batons and marched with demonstrators, or dipped to one knee to show their solidarity.

The horrific death of George Floyd under the weight of a white policeman has been universally condemned, even by the agitprop commentators on Fox News. Compare that with attitudes at the time of King’s assassination, which occasioned the Chicago Tribune to editorialize against the perceived rending of the country’s social fabric.

“If you are white, feel guilty about it,” the editorial stated. “Yield the sidewalk to the migrants from the south who have descended on your cities. Honor their every want, because the ‘liberals’ tell you that it is your fault that they have not educated themselves, developed responsibility, trained themselves to hold jobs, or are shiftless and dependent on your taxes.”

The sentiment was hardly outside the norm.

California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who waged a brief unsuccessful 1968 challenge to Nixon for the GOP nomination, was among those who suggested King and his civil disobedience helped sow the seeds of his demise, calling the event “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.”

And yet here we are, again.

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This coronavirus may be novel, but not the disproportionate effect it has had on black Americans, who are more likely to lose their jobs or get sick and die.

Once more the nation’s cities, and its affluent suburbs, are the scene of protest and looting because once again another black man has been killed by a white police officer meting out his twisted version of justice. Once more there are incidents of law enforcement officers, some with their badges covered or removed, indiscriminately cracking down on peaceful demonstrators.

There is something particularly resonant and insidious in the fact the latest spark was struck not in the Deep South, with its benighted racial history, but in Minnesota, where Humphrey emerged as an early and forceful advocate of civil rights and liberals cherish the legacies of Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone.

America’s road toward that more perfect union is long and tortured, and anything but a straight line from injustice to remediation. And yet it moves forward.

Alan Shane Dillingham, 38, is an assistant professor of history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., and one of a new generation taking a fresh look at the legacy of the 1960s. “This isn’t just chaos,” he said of the upheaval arising from Floyd’s killing. “Certainly it’s concerning. But oftentimes in American history riot and rebellion have produced tangible changes to American society.”

Already, political lines are drawn.

Trump has hardened in his resolve to crack down on demonstrators, threatening to deploy the military if necessary. His Democratic rival, Joe Biden, has called for reforms, promising to create a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office and calling on Congress to immediately pass legislation outlawing the police use of chokeholds. There is virtually no overlap.

Rare is the election held in times as fraught as these. Rarer still is an election as significant as 1968 was and 2020 may prove to be.

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Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West. A reporter for more than 40 years, Barabak has covered campaigns and elections in 49 of the 50 states, including 11 presidential campaigns and scores of mayoral, gubernatorial, congressional and U.S. Senate contests. He also reported from the White House and Capitol Hill during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.

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Watch the video: NBC NEWS - 1968 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION NIGHT 1 8-26-1968 (August 2022).