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CHICAGO, 1968 // The convention that changed the world

The memories come, not as in a movie with one scene after another in logical progression, but more in flashes, like an NFL highlight reel.

I feel as though I should remember more.

Chicago, late August 1968, was after all a watershed place and time in American political history, a place and time where the American system collapsed and naivete died.

But I shall have to settle for what is left:

The memory of the cloy of stink bombs and the way the stench seemed to coat my tongue and lodge at the back of my throat just beyond the threshold of the gag reflex.

The frightening sting of tear gas spreading across my face as tears streamed from my eyes.

The blood flow from the head of a young woman who had been chanting peace slogans just outside of Grant Park but otherwise posed no threat to the Chicago cop who swung his club like a baseball bat and appeared deliberately to aim high for maximum damage.

Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago, seated in the front row with the Illinois delegation in the International Amphitheatre, his arms folded across his ample girth, mouth turned down, jowls dancing, eyes narrowed to angry slits, a dyspeptic, Buddha-like figure as he listened to speakers delivering anti-war messages to the convention. There was not a shred of doubt in my mind that this was a man who wouldn't hesitate to order his cops to hurt people who came to disrupt his city, and hurt them badly.

It was a week of pandemonium. Fury. Anarchy. Hatred. Fear.

And flies. Everywhere, flies.

Chicago was the second national political convention I covered in my career. The first had been only a few weeks earlier, the coronation of Richard Nixon in steamy, insufferable Miami Beach, where the only salvation was the wide availability of really good lox and chopped chicken livers.

Even though I was assigned to a special investigative reporting team in the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, I was still a journalistic neophyte, barely out of college. I didn't know any better; I actually looked forward to the Chicago convention.

You see, I knew Abbie Hoffman, the founder of the Youth International Party, the Yippies. I found him funny, warm and polite. He told me the Yippies were going to nominate a pig, Pigasus, to be their presidential candidate. Cute.

It never occurred to me that anything in which Abbie Hoffman was involved could go so wrong.

It started the very first night.

One of my AP colleagues who knew Chicago well collected six or eight of us for what he guessed would be the only decent meal we would get to eat during what promised to be an especially busy week.

He made reservations for us at a well-known and elegant French restaurant set in a stately old home a few miles from The Loop. We had just finished a very rich meal and several bottles of wine when we heard the first sirens.

This was an era before cellular phones and pagers. We had no way to learn what was going wrong. But when we emerged from the restaurant, we encountered an endless stream of police cars blasting toward the center of the city with light bars ablaze and sirens wailing. Whatever it was, it was big.

There were no taxis. A transportation strike had parked 80 percent of them. So, in our best clothes, we ran the three miles to Grant Park, every stride increasing the threat that we would return our dinners to the city that fed us. The melee, it turned out, was minor. Relatively speaking.

I found Abbie. I asked him if I could hang out with him the next night for a story about the protesters. He told me he would prefer that I not because it was too dangerous.

I protested that I could take care of myself.

"No, you can't," he said, looking me right in the eye. "This train is out of control, and I don't think we can stop it."

I don't know that Hoffman, or any of the other protest leaders who would later be tried as the Chicago Seven for inciting the violence, ever tried to put the brakes to the confrontations. But I also never saw them do anything that warranted the level of reaction hurled against them.

A special investigation would later describe the events as a "police riot."

The atmosphere was no calmer inside the convention hall, transformed for the week into a barbed-wire encircled fortress, inexplicably infested with hundreds of thousands of flies. They were mean, aggressive, predatory flies. It was, perhaps, apt.

The vehement, determined supporters of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Wisconsin Sen. Eugene McCarthy and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern battled each other for credentials and delegate votes.

In those days, it was actually possible for a convention to open without any single nominee wanna-be clearly the majority choice. The primary system had not yet expanded to the point where conventions were rendered nothing more than self-indulgent, anti-climactic block parties.

After multiple inconclusive votes of the delegates, the identify of the eventual nominee often was worked out by power brokers in one of those proverbial smoke-filled back rooms. Everyone would gather in unity behind that winner the next day.

Not in Chicago in 1968.

There were nasty demonstrations. Delegates were in each other's faces. Some stood on their chairs and screamed at speakers.

There was an acrimonious debate, spanning two days, over the Vietnam plank in the party platform. Shouts of "Stop the war!" began in the New York and California delegations and spread across the floor and into the galleries.

Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy's press secretary, rose to declare that Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated earlier in the summer, would have supported the anti-war plank. The chants began anew.

When the delegates finally approved a plank endorsing the Johnson administration's policies, New York delegates in black arm bands began to sing, We Shall Overcome.

The vote signaled that Humphrey was the leading contender to lead his party in the fall. That prompted McCarthy to declare he wouldn't support the Democratic nominee. It also hardened the resolve of the estimated 15,000 protesters on the streets facing off against Chicago's 12,000-man police department and about 5,700 National Guardsmen.

There were bloody confrontations daily. Sometimes several times a day.

In one skirmish, the police backed protesters against the facade of the Mayflower Hotel, several blocks down Michigan Avenue from the Conrad Hilton, the headquarters hotel. The press of humanity shattered one of the Mayflower's plate glass windows, and several people were pushed through.

That night, I wearily boarded a Mayflower elevator for my room. Just as the doors began to close, I saw a flash of color, tie-dye perhaps, and a hand tossed a canister onto the elevator floor. The stink bomb quickly sickened the seven of us trapped together until we could bring the car to a stop and escape, choking and retching.

I alone in the group knew the sick sensation would pass because this was my second experience with it in as many days. Eventually, I would have to discard two of my favorite outfits because no cleaning establishment in Washington could get the wretched smell out of them.

The final night was the worst. Viewers watching on television saw pictures of Humphrey giving his acceptance speech alternated with live images of violence in the streets.

Both sides abandoned any pretense of restraint. The authorities used clubs, rifle butts, tear gas and mace against a crowd made up largely of teenagers. But the protesters, carrying North Vietnamese flags and emblems of anarchy and led by such luminaries as comedian Dick Gregory, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and several convention delegates, including newspaper political columnist Murray Kempton, threw rocks and bottles. There were hundreds of injuries on both sides, hundreds of arrests.

That November, Nixon beat Humphrey, largely on the strength of a promise that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War.

Getting American soldiers out of Southeast Asia, the message of pariahs in Chicago in August, became the official goal of the nation three short months later.

I would go on to cover another seven national political conventions. But I don't clamor to cover them anymore. I barely take notice, if you want to know the truth. I didn't watch much of the Republican National Convention in San Diego. I also don't expect to watch much of the Democrats' return to Chicago this week after an absence of 28 years.

What with pre-emptive primaries, tempered passions and brokered ideologies, they offer me little to find interesting.

After all, I was at the convention that changed the world.

Jean Heller is a Times staff writer

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