The Democrats convened in Chicago in late August 1968 to select their candidate for the presidency of the United States. It did not go well.
The Vietnam War had cleaved the party. President Lyndon B. Johnson, ostensibly the party’s leader, had told the country in March that he would not seek another term so that he could focus on the increasingly bloody conflict in Southeast Asia. He had become so controversial that he would be an invisible man in Chicago, his name rarely spoken, his image nowhere in the amphitheater.
His anointed heir and the presumptive nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, found himself manacled to the administration’s grim war. Humphrey did not compete in the primaries. Instead, he owed his front-runner status entirely to the patronage of party bosses who controlled vast numbers of delegates.
The antiwar activists arriving in Chicago saw the convention as a farce. The fix was in. “Dump the Hump!” would be one of their milder chants. The protesters included peaceniks, black militants, revolutionaries, anarchists, communists and what the stodgy news media referred to as flower children.
Or, as Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Youth International Party, or Yippies, put it: “We were dirty, smelly, grimy, foul, loud, dope-crazed, hellbent and leather-jacketed. We were a public display of filth and shabbiness, living in-the-flesh rejects of middle-class standards.” (Eventually, he wound up working on Wall Street.)
The protesters practiced street-fighting tactics. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale later wrote, “We’re not here to be sitting around a jive table vacillating and bull-jiving ourselves.”
They were on a collision course with the epitome of a Democratic Party boss, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. He vowed to keep order. Earlier in the year, when riots erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daley had notoriously ordered police to shoot to kill arsonists and “shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.”
Now, with the Democrats arriving, Daley prepared for an invasion of hundreds of thousands of protesters — a vast horde that never materialized. He deployed 12,000 police officers, many undercover, backed by 5,600 members of the Illinois National Guard, and another 5,000 regular Army soldiers from Fort Hood, Tex., and other bases held in reserve.
What ensued was easily the most disastrous political convention of the last century. Its polarizing reverberations are still being felt in American politics. Chicago 1968 forever changed the way Democrats and Republicans nominate presidential candidates, opening the process to outsiders and populists — and eventually to a reality TV star.