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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Chicago - 1968 Democratic National Convention

I was just twenty-one years old in August 1968 when I arrived at Chicago to attend the Democratic National Convention. I had participated in the delegate selection process in Colorado used back then to select delegates to attend the county, state, and national convention. I had been actively involved in politics since age 17 when I formed the Jefferson County Teen Democrats and later became a college director for the Colorado Young Dems.

I believe it was late March 1968 when I drove from Ft Collins, Colorado to attend a speech  in Denver being given by Senator Robert F. Kennedy who was running for President.  Kennedy spoke at the old downtown arena which has since been torn down. After the speech I got to go to a special area where I got to meet him personally. He was so thin. His hair was very gray and his gray suit was crumpled. I still remember him as being distracted or not with the moment. He seemed aloof or not wanting to be where he was.

A couple of weeks later Kennedy had to cut short his campaigning to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the crowd that had assembled to hear Kennedy speak in Indianapolis.  A month later Kennedy was assassinated. The country had gone mad, or so it seemed. King's death prompted riots across America. Kennedy's death was like the straw that broke the camel's back. How much more violence could we as a people endure?

I think it was late June or early July when I received a phone call inviting me to meet Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in his hotel suite at the Denver Hilton. I supported Eugene McCarthy, but I couldn't pass up the invite. Humphrey on that day was the opposite of Kennedy. He was very much in the moment. He was campaigning for every vote he could get at the convention which was weeks away. He was gregarious and at least acted like he really cared that each person in that hotel room mattered to him. I left still supporting McCarthy.

Eugene McCarthy attended the Colorado State Convention which was held in early summer at the Moby Gym at Colorado State University.  Robert Kennedy's Colorado supporters were divided as to who they would vote for at the convention. Some had moved to support McCarthy while others planned to go to Chicago to support Kennedy even though he was dead. The party loyalists supported Vice President Humphrey believing only he could actually get elected. They saw McCarthy as a spoiler and a losing candidate in a contest against Richard Nixon. Everyone in attendance that Saturday afternoon, however, gave Eugene McCarthy a rousing welcome. It was after all Eugene McCarthy's near win in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary over sitting President Lyndon Johnson that had first spurred Kennedy to seek the nomination and then I think led to Johnson's decision not to run for a second term. Period.  McCarthy had given hope to so many people during the very dark days of "nineteen hundred and sixty-eight". 

I arrived at the Convention on Friday afternoon in the sweltering heat and humidity for which Chicago is famous. A buddy and I had reserved rooms at the downtown YMCA. Oh My God, what a nightmare. The single bed room had no air conditioning. Instead of a window, this interior room opened into an air shaft.  I had to share a bath with a group of very strange men. I was scared out of my mind. What was a little nerdy suburban boy like me doing in a place like this?  I told the "adults" I was with about my plight, and I got invited to share a room with a couple of Colorado delegates who were staying at the Executive House.  I got to see them in their skivvies - not much better than the oldies at the YMCA but at least I didn't fear getting raped.

On Sunday before the Convention began the Colorado delegation attended a brunch at the lakefront home of Lt. Governor Mark Hogan's family. (I later worked as an intern in his office.)  Afterward a small group was invited to meet with Senator George McGovern at his suite at the LaSalle Hotel.  He was a very gentle man. Unlike Kennedy months before, McGovern was engaging, not aloof.  But he had not a chance in hell of getting the nomination let alone getting elected.

At the end of the afternoon I got to meet Senator Eugene McCarthy. He had just spoken to a group of Jewish voters. We attended the speech and managed to go backstage where met him in person.  I already admitted to being a nerd. Now I must admit I was a total idiot for believing for a moment McCarthy could have got the nomination. Things like that don't happen in real life. But in that moment I thought I had shook the hand of the man that would become the next President.

The Convention began on Monday night.  I had an alternate badge which meant I was not allowed to sit with the Colorado delegation unless a delegate left the floor. That lasted about fifteen minutes. Have you ever seen a Democrat sit down and shut up?  They moved about and caucused and caused commotion. That's what Democrats do. So I had plenty of opportunities to go on the main floor where I sat with the Colorado delegation for a few minutes. Then I got up and roamed around like the rest of the folks. Later I made my way to the hallways behind the television broadcast booths that overlooked the floor below. Then I found the McCarthy convention headquarters. Posters of McCarthy covered the walls.  Back then there were no computers or portable phones.  Some people had walkie-talkies but most communication was done in person or via messenger.
(Photo by Lee Balterman/Time  Life Pictures/Getty Images)
I was a political science major in college. The sight of all of the Senators, political figures, and newsmen was for me like being at the Oscars. In fact I did have an Oscar moment.  Paul Newman was standing in a huge hallway by himself smoking a cigarette - trying to be alone. I walked right past him, doing my best impression of not noticing somebody really famous.

Mayor Daley - Defiant
The two major items on the Wednesday agenda was the vote on the party platform,  but primarily the Viet Name plank, and the Presidential nominations.   The Colorado delegation drove to the conventional hall in our two buses just like we did on Monday and Tuesday. The peace initiative plank sought to establish a cessation of offensive actions by the U.S. and to establish a withdrawal date of American troops. The Party regulars voted that proposition down. They did not want to embarrass the President with any unneeded or unwanted advice. Even after that defeat of the peace plank, I still believed that McCarthy had a chance in getting the nomination. Paul O'Neil later wrote in LIFE magazine "President Lyndon Johnson used last week's convention to preserve his hard policy on Vietnam. Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley used it to demonstrate his personal sovereignty and iron control over his city."

As I recall the scenario that followed the Convention Chairman cited Chicago city rules which forbade any kind of placard or banner to support a candidate whose name had been put into nomination.  The McCarthy people took the Chair at its word and no demonstration was planned.  Guess what, Mayor Daley changed the rules and allowed the Humphrey delegates onto the floor with placards galore. Humphrey signs were everywhere.

I went up to the McCarthy headquarters and told the people what had happened on the floor. I asked if I could remove all the McCarthy posters from the walls and take them to the floor to be distributed when McCarthy's name was placed in nomination. Of course I could. And I did. Those posters were the extent of McCarthy's demonstration save the people waving and shouting and carrying around of the state standards.

Throughout the day and into the night tensions were mounting between the 10,000 or so yippees assembled in Grant Park.  The police charged the protesters. What transpired was photographed and documented for all to see. Television crews weren't quite as agile then as they are now, but they got plenty of footage of cops beating people. The people being beaten responded by calling the cops "Pigs" and yelling "Seig Heil!".  That enraged the cops who let their aggression explode. Later, the Walker Commission would term the conduct of the Chicago Police Department a "Police Riot".

Word started to spread throughout the convention floor about what was happening in the streets of Chicago.  Senator Abraham Ribicoff used his nomination speech of George McGovern as a vehicle to tell the convention floor (and those watching the proceedings at home) about the violence in the streets. He said "with George McGovern we wouldn't have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago". The drama grew more intense after Colorado Chairman Bob Maytag (that Maytag, the washing machine Maytag) got control of an open microphone and said "Is there a law by which Mayor Daley can be compelled to suspend the police state terror...." His microphone was cut off.  The voting followed. Humphrey was selected as the nominee. That was not the end of the events for Wednesday, August 28, 1968, however.

After the convention adjourned for the night, the Colorado delegation went back to our buses. We got inside and everybody was talking about Maytag's remarks, the defeat of the peace plank, how Humphrey just lost the election, and so on. Then we all started to notice that all of the other buses had left the parking lot. A young lawyer named Steve Heady got off the bus to ask what the delay was. A cop ordered him to get back inside the bus and shut up and announced nobody would be leaving the parking lot until he decided it was time to go. So we sat there for maybe an hour. Some women were crying. A lot of the men were very angry. Every other bus had left the area. Finally, our bus drivers were allowed to leave. We drove back to the our hotel. But my night was not over.

I have no sense of time as to when we got back to the Executive House. My buddy Don S. and a few other people decided to walk down to the Hilton Hotel where the McCarthy headquarters was located.  I was not prepared for what  was to come next. When we got near the hotel we could smell the awful odor of tear gas.  Not just a lingering whiff. No, this was a massive presence, the kind of stench you may have experienced if you ever drove past stockyards in the hot humid summer. A stench so bad you think the person next to you just vomited all over the place.  No matter where I went, the odor was there. The closer we got our eyes started to react as well.
Injured inside the Hilton Hotel
When I got to the hotel I went everywhere looking for another friend who  decided to work at the McCarthy headquarters rather than attend the convention. I went up to the McCarthy floor looking for her.  Everywhere I went  I saw people in blood stained bandages. I saw boys and girls my age and younger and older all bloodied.  It seemed everybody was bloodied and most were bandaged. The hotel lobby looked like a scene from a World War II movie full of wounded warriors just back from the battle. Except this was America. And this was not World War II.

In 1968 I got to watch on TV as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I got to attend the Democratic National Convention which turned into  debacle as the TV networks showed the Chicago Police Department wage a police riot against American citizens. For seventeen minutes viewers at home got to watch the police take out their aggression on American citizens as the people being beaten shouted "The Whole World is Watching".  I got so fed up with the Democratic Party and its convention that I left Chicago the next day and went back home by myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great entry, Gary, thanks for sharing your experience with your readership.


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I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.