1968 Democratic convention 'impossible to forget,' says reporter who covered it
I was in awe when I attended my first national political convention. I was in high school in Chicago and had a job as an Andy Frain usher -- and the assignment for that week in August 1960 was to work at one of the gates at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, collecting tickets and checking passes of delegates and alternates and news media for the Republican National Convention.
The only thing I remember was the night that Republican nominee Richard Nixon was leaving the convention hall through the gate I was working at, and he was stopped by a television crew for an interview. While the TV crew did its work, I had a chance to chat with the Nixon daughters, who seemed to be a little younger than I was (16 at the time).
Eight years later, as a young Herald reporter at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago -- which began 50 years ago today -- I learned that political conventions were not only about political speeches and promises and vociferous cigar-smoking delegates, but that political conventions could also be about expressing strong beliefs about what our country was doing, the direction it was heading, and protests.
It also was the first -- and only -- exposure I have had with tear gas.
The Herald in 1968 had determined -- wisely -- that our responsibility to Herald readers was to report on the local aspects and impacts of the convention -- what our local delegates were doing and saying, and their reactions to what was happening on the convention floor. We didn't need to focus on the Democrat platform as much as on what the suburban Democrats thought of it and, if relevant, what Democrat goals might mean to the suburbs.
Delegates from the Northwest suburbs generally were supportive of Mayor Daley's harsh words and strong opposition to the demonstrations that were taking place. Daley was the head of the Illinois delegation and as I recall, most, if not all, of the Illinois delegates were supportive of Daley. That included delegates from the suburbs and from downstate Illinois. Activities that were embarrassing Chicago were embarrassing the entire state of Illinois, and there was concern that the events in Chicago could be used by Republicans on behalf of Richard Nixon's campaign.
As Hubert Humphrey was being nominated and gave his acceptance speech inside the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, other groups gathered outside. Protesters against the Vietnam War, members of the Youth International Party (Yippies), representatives of the Students for a Democratic Society, and others came to Chicago and defied Mayor Richard J. Daley's vow that "no thousands will come to our city and take over our streets, our city, our convention."
Most (actually, all) of the activity involving the young people took place near the convention hotels, particularly the Hilton, which was the convention headquarters. But in order to cover the convention itself, and the Illinois delegates, you had to be at the International Amphitheatre, and the only way to get there was by convention-managed buses.
It became challenging to a reporter to try to cover a story when most of the story was taking place outside the convention hall, and if you left the convention hall, you ran the risk of being stopped by police and questioned, or being surrounded by anti-war protesters who wanted you to pledge your support to them. If you were a reporter, they wanted to assure that you supported their cause. As a 24-year-old reporter at the time, it was easy for me to assure them that I understood their "cause." (And as a 24-year-old reporter, I did.)
We did manage to develop and nurture good contact with the Eugene McCarthy delegates and supporters. Our job was not to decide who was "right," but to report, as best we could, the differing views.
It's hard to say what impact Chicago had on the general election. The growing war and unhappiness with President Lyndon Johnson likely had more to do with Nixon's election than activities in Chicago, but Chicago certainly did not help the Democrats in 1968.
I've been fortunate to have attended or participated in six national political conventions since 1968 -- all of them Republican. Two involved the nomination of Ronald Reagan, including Detroit in 1980 and Dallas in 1984.
Probably the most memorable (for nonpolitical reasons) was the Republican convention in New Orleans in 1988 when my wife and children attended and got to watch the nomination of George H.W. Bush.
Sometimes it is difficult to remember details about eight different conventions.
But it is not difficult to remember 1968 in Chicago. It's impossible to forget.
• Ed Murnane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.