1. Archive

CHICAGO, 1968 // Fast forward to find a party with no soul

Published Jul. 6, 2006

The Democrats return to Chicago this week to make peace with the past. For 28 years they have steered clear of the Windy City, haunted by memories of the police war against anti-war activists that tore the Democratic Party asunder, probably cost Hubert Humphrey the presidential election and changed the course of American politics forever.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was a defining event in the nation's agony over the Vietnam war _ "the Big Bang of the American culture wars," as Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow put it. The war between the generations and the classes on the streets of Chicago was the culmination of an ugly year that included the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and black riots in urban ghettos. Chicago is where the nation's anger and divisions came to a bloody head.

The late Mayor Richard Daley, a Humphrey man and the last of the machine bosses, shouted obscenities at anti-war speakers inside the convention hall while his police bloodied Eugene McCarthy's anti-war legions on the streets. Police tear gas and the protesters' stink bombs filled the air, and police billy clubs came down on the shaggy heads of the anti-war protesters and any bystanders who got in the way. McCarthy's own hotel suite became a first-aid station. Anti-war delegates were arrested on the floor of the convention. Barbed wire ringed the center of action.

The nation watched the horror show on television and was forced to confront its own feelings about Vietnam and the counterculture the war had spawned at home. For a moment, it seemed that America's own sons and daughters, not the Viet Cong, were the enemy. An independent commission called what happened in Chicago a "police riot." But public opinion polls found that the vast majority of Americans sided with the police.

American politics hasn't been the same since. Richard Nixon seized the moment and was elected president in 1968, and four years later, reformers turned on the political bosses and rewrote the rules for nominating presidents. Primaries and caucuses replaced the smoke-filled room, a change that eventually robbed nominating conventions of their drama and purpose and gave rise to interest-group politics that make it difficult for candidates to appeal to the common good.

The great irony is that Democrats are returning to Chicago in 1996 to nominate Bill Clinton, a Vietnam draft evader and anti-war protester, for a second term in the White House. Both the Democrats and Chicago needed this reunion. They have waited more than a quarter of a century to exorcise the demons of '68. The mayor of Chicago is Richard Daley, son of the Boss, and Democratic delegates this week will be battling ennui, not police violence. The city is making sure its police officers are on their best behavior, and some of the veterans of the Chicago war will be among the delegates, mellowed by time and the responsibilities of adulthood. The Democratic Party used a lottery to decide which groups will be able to protest in a designated area near the convention hall.

If the Republican National Convention in San Diego two weeks ago celebrated the World War II generation, personified by Bob Dole's hard life on the Kansas plains and his wounds on a battlefield in Italy, the Democrats gathering in Chicago will celebrate the coming to power of the baby boomers, a generation shaped by Vietnam and motivated less by a sense of duty than a sense of entitlement.

The Vietnam war ended more than two decades ago, and if the Clinton campaign has its way, the Chicago convention will be less about healing old wounds than opening a fall offensive against Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, who rode out of San Diego on a wave of momentum that cut Clinton's double-digit lead in half. The convention will be as scripted and choreographed as the GOP convention in San Diego. The Democratic Party platform has been tempered to the times, the speakers carefully chosen and nothing left to chance. As in 1992, anti-abortion Democrats, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey, have been gagged. Even the Republicans, who adopted a rigid anti-abortion platform plank, permitted Colin Powell to use his prime time speaking slot to express support for abortion rights.

If anything, there may be even less "news" in Chicago than in San Diego. (Will Ted Koppel take his Nightline cameras and go home, as he did in San Diego?) Clinton spent last week taking advantage of the presidential stage to sign popular legislation _ a minimum wage increase on Tuesday, health insurance reform on Wednesday, welfare overhaul on Thursday and an executive order cracking down on teenage smoking on Friday.

The president is expected to announce more policy initiatives during the convention week. Though clearly stung by the Republican attacks on his character, the first lady and his record, Clinton suggested he has no intention of using his convention to retaliate in kind _ no cheap shots or personal attacks. He said he wants to keep it above the partisan fray and present a presidential aura. That doesn't mean he intends to roll over. Expect the president to intensify his assault on Dole's proposed tax cuts while reminding voters of his administration's economic successes. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who kept a low profile in San Diego, and the GOP's unpopular Contract With America can count on more prominent mention at the Democratic convention. Those are the issues Clinton believes will renew his lease on the White House.

On the surface, Chicago Democrats may appear to be one happy, unified family. But you won't have to scratch the surface too hard to find the disenchantment of the party's liberal base. It feels betrayed by Clinton's decision to sign the Republican welfare bill, which ended a 60-year-old federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor. Advocates for the poor and women's groups say they will take their protests to Chicago, but their dissenting voices are not likely to be heard in the convention hall.

Clinton is running for re-election as a "new Democrat," a hybrid breed that is hard to distinguish from moderate Republicans. In recent months he has co-opted many of the Republicans' best issues, from crime to welfare, from a balanced budget to violence on television. Liberal Democrats are holding their fire, hoping a Clinton landslide in November will reverse their fortunes on Capitol Hill and demote Newt Gingrich to minority leader.

The '96 convention promises to be as disciplined as the '68 convention was out of control. This time, the Democrats will stick to their scripts and bite their lips. Democrats lost their cool in '68; this year, they've lost their soul. If he were around today, Hubert Humphrey might feel more at ease in Chicago than in the new Democratic Party that has abandoned the poor.