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Revisiting 1968's Democratic National Convention In Chicago


As divisive as American politics seem now, consider 1968. Fifty years ago this week, Democrats gathered in Chicago for a presidential nominating convention. Inside the hall, Hubert Humphrey received his party's nomination over the opposition of liberals. Outside the hall, police brutally clashed with protesters. The nation was divided over the Vietnam War, which was especially hard for Democrats, since the outgoing Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, supported it. NPR's Don Gonyea continues our look back at 1968.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Here's the backdrop for the convention in Chicago. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had quit the race early in the year. Emotions were still raw from the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and candidate Bobby Kennedy. The anti-war protests were massive, and the response by police was dubbed the Battle of Michigan Avenue, or the Police Riot. Bill Plante was there working as a reporter for CBS News.


BILL PLANTE: I was at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balbo when the police moved in. Our spot was the first one overrun. When the cops charged, we didn't really see it coming.


PLANTE: There were people in the windows of the hotel throwing stuff down on the cops, including excrement and, you know, all kinds of objects.

GONYEA: And the dominant figure in Chicago those days was mayor and Democratic powerbroker Richard J. Daley who uttered this infamous quote.


RICHARD J. DALEY: Gentlemen, get the thing straight, once and for all. The policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.

GONYEA: Amid all of this, Democrats were trying to carry out the business of the convention. The house band played, evoking a far more quaint version of Chicago.


GONYEA: Larry Jacobs, who teaches at the Hubert Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, says what triggered the protests hung over everything on the inside as well.

LARRY JACOBS: The Vietnam War was the dominant issue. And the anger, the frustration, the rage of many Americans that the war had been expanded despite Johnson's public promises that it wouldn't be, that's the convention - that's the context.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thirty-fifth quadrennial convention of the Democratic Party of the United States is now called in session.

GONYEA: Hubert Humphrey, the sitting vice president, was the candidate of the establishment and had a clear path to the nomination, even though he'd only entered the race in April and had not run in any of the primaries. Larry Jacobs explains that the rules were very different then. Primary elections were not yet the main path to the nomination.

JACOBS: The power in choosing candidates was in the hands of the party leaders, and Hubert Humphrey was that candidate.

GONYEA: His main rivals, both anti-war candidates, were Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Neither could derail Humphrey. Remember - Senator Robert Kennedy had been assassinated just after winning the California primary, and many Democrats were still grieving that tragedy. The convention came to an emotional halt one night with the screening of a film titled "Robert Kennedy Remembered." It was narrated, at the request of Kennedy's family, by actor Richard Burton.


RICHARD BURTON: In the heat of a summer Saturday, they stood in an unbroken chain of sadness from New York to Washington. Surrounded by the drama of his death, they had come to touch the event themselves.

GONYEA: The film included footage of Kennedy reacting to the violent death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that year.


ROBERT KENNEDY: What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.

GONYEA: For many delegates and for many Americans watching at home, it was a moment to think of what might have been. But it was Hubert Humphrey who was moving toward the nomination. He faced huge political challenges, the biggest being the need to reach out to Democrats, Kennedy's supporters and others, opposed to the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, at his ranch in Texas, President Lyndon Johnson was watching and meddling, especially as delegates considered platform language to stop the U.S. bombing in North Vietnam. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was close to LBJ and worked with him on his memoirs.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And the moment when Hubert Humphrey had begun to arrange some sort of a compromise on the peace plank that would have helped him enormously in the election, Johnson began to think that it was a repudiation of his own policies on Vietnam and made that compromise not happen.

GONYEA: And Humphrey, still part of the Johnson administration, could not just break with the president on Vietnam. The convention often felt chaotic, such as when the violence in the streets prompted the Wisconsin delegation to call for a halt to convention business altogether, a motion vigorously rejected, the gavel pounding - pounding. Through it all, nominee-to-be Hubert Humphrey was getting a case of whiplash. Again, Larry Jacobs.

JACOBS: Everything that could go wrong for Humphrey, other than winning the nomination, went wrong for him.

GONYEA: But - wait - there is yet another twist to the story. President Johnson was still hoping that maybe, somehow, delegates would draft him as the nominee. To understand just how fantastical such thinking was, recall that this is just a few months after growing opposition to the war prompted Johnson to announce in March...


LYNDON JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

GONYEA: But by August, Johnson was thinking he was the only one who could beat Richard Nixon in the general election. Again, Doris Kearns Goodwin.

GOODWIN: And all of a sudden, he began to think maybe - maybe it is possible. If I'm needed to hold the party together, maybe I can come back.

GONYEA: But the troubled events in Chicago, outside and inside the hall, slammed the door shut on such unrealistic hopes. Humphrey prevailed.


HUBERT HUMPHREY: I proudly accept the nomination of our party.


HUMPHREY: This moment is one of personal pride and gratification.

GONYEA: Yet a moment also scarred by the violence of the week - the 1968 Democratic Convention limped to a close. It failed at the thing every successful convention must accomplish, bringing the party together for the general election. And it marked the end of an era where old-school party bosses ruled. It also cracked open the door to changes in how future nominees would be selected and who did that selecting.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.


INSKEEP: That amazing sound of the Battle of Michigan Avenue is provided courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives.


You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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