History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. —Karl Marx
The scenario is all too familiar. A political event in Chicago. Police and Secret Service highly visible with instructions to keep protesters from interfering with the event. Protesters interfere anyway. Police react. People are hurt. Several are arrested.
But wait, we’re not talking about events of this past week. I’m referring to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. If you think this year’s political cycle is the craziest thing ever, then please allow me to give you a brief history lesson. While we are still relatively early in the year, and yes, history repeats far too often, things will have to get a lot worse for this election year to equal the chaos of 48 years ago.
1968 was, by any account, a watershed year. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered on April 4, setting off unrest around the country. The war in Vietnam was not going in our favor, with the North Vietnamese having launched the Tet offensive at the first of the year. Pop artist Andy Warhol was shot April 3 (he recovered). Anti-draft protests were already common and continued to intensify. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite aired a special, Who, What, When, Where, Why? directly contradicting official accounts of how things were going in Vietnam. President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election.
Political scheduling back then was more condensed than it is now. Candidates were still making up their mind whether to run as late as April and May, completely missing the early state primaries because they could get at-large delegates through backroom dealings. Care was taken to craft a strong anti-war platform to distance candidates from President Johnson’s policies that had dragged his popularity down to something in the neighborhood of 32%.
Then, California happened. Senator Robert Kennedy won the state’s primary rather handily; it looked like he could unite factions and take the nomination from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He had been celebrating with supporters at a rally in San Fransisco and as he is leaving the stage, just after midnight on June 5, Kennedy is shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan. The split in the party was now unreconcilable.
While the nation mourned, summer grew hot as Richard Nixon slugged it out with Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan for the Republican Nomination. On the Democratic ticket, Vice President Humphrey considered himself a shoe-in, but still faced strong competition from Senators George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. In the middle of all that, Alabama Governor George Wallace was running an independent campaign that seemed to have all the Southern states sewn up.
By the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago, hard lines had already been drawn. Using a system, not unlike the super-delegates available today, Humphrey had already clinched the nomination, but several states threatened to change their votes. Abbie Hoffman had mobilized some 100,000 young people, ostensibly members of the Youth International Party (YIPPIES) with the specific goal of disrupting the convention. McGovern and McCarthy had their protesters as well, both inside and outside the convention center. Infamous Chicago Mayor Richard Daly, a supporter of Humphrey, responded to the threats by, among other things, calling out the National Guard and surrounding the convention center with fencing topped with barbed wire. Allegedly, troops and police had been given the order to “shoot to kill,” but that was never directly proven.
Wait, it gets worse. In the hot August heat, the air conditioning at the convention center kept going out. Taxi drivers went on strike. Telephone operators went on strike, and in 1968 that really was a big deal. Phone service could not be guaranteed. Television was limited to broadcasting from either inside the Conrad hotel or inside the convention hall, so they would have to use film, which had to be processed, to cover the riots outside.
The convention was a literal bloodbath, with both protesters and delegates running afoul of police and National Guardsmen. Lincoln Park, where many of the Yippies were camping, was bombed with tear gas which then contaminated the hotel rooms of delegates staying nearby. Free-for-alls erupted on the convention floor as delegates argued over platform planks. The worst day of rioting, August 25, came as delegates argued over the peace plank of the platform. As protestors attempted to march on the convention center, they clashed with police and Guardsmen resulting in hundreds of injuries, including reporters and doctors attempting to help. Nothing like it has been seen since. Chicago police recorded almost 600 arrests, including reporter Hal Bruno who is now political director for ABC news. Everyone widely considered the possibility that the United States was on the brink of collapse.
We didn’t collapse. We know how the election, and the war, turned out. In hindsight, we can see where the mistakes were made and wish things had turned out differently, but the point is that through such a dark and divided time in our history, we survived. If history repeats, we have that success on which to build.
As I watch the campaign rhetoric float across my social media accounts, I see concern in many voices that we are widely divided as a nation and many wonder if we can survive the deep differences of opinion. The scenes in Chicago and St. Louis are frighteningly familiar for those of us old enough to remember. The frustration of young people who feel the government has let them down is exactly what allowed Abbie Hoffman to mobilize so many thousands. Racial tensions are also every bit as high now as they were in 1968 and who would be surprised if we were to see Gloria Steinem leading a National Organization of Women (NOW) march on either Cleveland or Philadelphia. Seeing CBS news journalist Sopan Deb manhandled and arrested by Chicago police was chilling.
Yet, we’ve not hit that tipping point, and I hope we don’t. The death of Robert Kennedy played heavily into the subsequent violence in Chicago. Fortunately, violence this year has not reached the point of homicide. After 1968, Secret Service agents were assigned to leading candidates and we’ve already seen them at work. However, we must also remember the attempted assassination of George Wallace during the 1972 campaign, which the Secret Service was not able to stop.
We’re just now hitting mid-March. We’ve summer yet to go and climatology forecasts predict it could get hot. Perhaps it’s comforting to know that if history repeats itself we’ve survived such turmoil before. Let’s hope this isn’t that year. We don’t need another 1968. We don’t need another President Nixon.