Chicago, 1996

The choice of Chicago as the site of the 1996 Democratic Party is a surprising one, unless, for reasons as yet not evident, the Party anticipates the need for the kind of protective security that an experienced Chicago police force and Illinois National Guard can provide.

The Democratic Party in the last half-century has faced two important moral-political challenges. The first was that of civil rights, the subject of the 1948 Convention in Philadelphia. Following the example of the Supreme Court which in 1946 ordered the desegregation of interstate transportation, the Party acknowledged its responsibility to take political action, first, because of the importance of the matter, but also because the Democratic Party, especially in its Southern components had, with some aid from Republicans, exploited racial differences and divisions. The risk of raising civil rights as a political issue by the Republican Party would have been slight. For the Democrats it promised to be divisive if not disastrous.

The Party took the high moral way. The results were divisive, but not disastrous. The convention approved a civil rights plank. The Dixie-crats walked out and ran their own candidate. Truman was nominated and then elected in the November election of 1948.

In 1968 the Democratic Party faced a similar, or comparable, political-moral challenge, in the Vietnam War.

The issue was not as deeply, and historically, divisive as was the Civil Rights issue of 1948, nor did it promise to be disastrous to the Party if the anti-war position carried day. The heart of the conflict in Chicago was over whether the Party would take responsibility for a war in which the country had been deeply involved by the Johnson Administration despite what seemed to be a strong commitment made by candidate Johnson in the 1964 campaign for the Presidency. The Administration was firmly set on having the Party accept that responsibility, and thus share guilt for the war. In the most controlled, violent, and un-democratic convention in the history of the country, the pro-war position was endorsed. Those of us opposed had expected that delegates we had won, or deserved to have by every reasonable standard, would be accepted, that a reasonable debate would be conducted, and a plank reflecting in some degree the differences existing among the delegates, be accepted. It was not to be so.

The unit rule, by which a majority of a state delegation, or a state party by its rules, was free to give the whole delegation to one candidate, was supposed to be abolished in 1968. Those in control of the convention put off that change until 1972. Without success, delegates, who had been chosen two to four years before the convention, long before the Vietnam War had become an issue, were challenged.

The Administration and the Party officials controlling the convention did not limit their defenses and offenses, to party rules and procedures. The approaches to the convention hall were protected by coils of barbed wire. The Chicago police were present in great numbers. Soon after the convention participants began to congregate, the police were joined by the Illinois National Guard, courtesy of the then-Governor Koerner, equipped with guns, and a crowd container, consisting of a frame of barbed wire mounted on the front of a jeep or other military vehicle. We learned after the convention that there had been a third line of defense, or offense, in U.S. Army Reserves, that had been put on partial alert to move into action if the Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard proved inadequate.

The surveillance, and control preparations went beyond these more or less open demonstrations of force and overt flaunting of party rules.

When I moved into my suite of rooms in the Hilton Hotel, the Secret Service, which proved itself, wholly loyal to their service, told me that I had their word that my rooms were not bugged, and that we could speak freely within those confines, but they warned that they could not say the same for the telephones, which they said were tapped. They warned us not to say anything on the telephones, that we wished to keep private.

In later Congressional hearings it was acknowledged that Army Intelligence had, indeed, tapped our phone lines.

Perhaps the strangest occurrence of the convention was that of the evening of Aug. 28, following the vote nominating Humphrey. One would have expected that the pro-Administration position having been sustained and their candidate nominated, they would have been somewhat satisfied. It was not to be so. Beatings of students and others of my supporters took place on the sidewalks and streets outside the Hilton Hotel and in Grant Park, across Michigan Avenue. Dr. William Davidson and my brother, also a surgeon, set up an emergency hospital on the fifteenth floor of the Hilton Hotel.

This was not the last act of violence perpetrated by the police. We spent Thursday cleaning up our campaign headquarters, and preparing to leave on Friday. Some time, between three or four o'clock in the morning, as nearly as we could mark, the police, aided by hotel employees, raided our rooms and working space on the fifteenth floor of the Hilton Hotel.

Some fifteen or twenty policemen burst out of the elevators into the fifteenth floor lobby. They proceeded to round up persons in the lobby and then to open bedroom doors, get people out of bed, force them to join others in the lobby, and then to conduct all of them downstairs into the main lobby, where, ringed by policemen, they forced to sit on the floor like prisoners of war. One girl, near hysteria, told me that she had been playing bridge, and holding a twenty-one point hand, when the police broke up the game.

When I, having learned of the raid, reached the lobby, I inquired as to who was the officer in charge, no one stepped forward. I directed the captives to rise and return to their rooms on the fifteenth floor. The police left the hotel.

My last warning from the Secret Service was that as soon as I left Chicago, as planned for Friday, that the Daley police intended to arrest anyone found in the city having any identification with my campaign. I delayed my departure to Saturday, after advising, actually warning, all supporters to leave Chicago, or at least find some space, such as the airport, which was beyond Daley's jurisdiction.

As our chartered American Airlines plane flew out of Midway airport, the pilot came on the communications line and said, "We are now leaving Prague." Years later I was sent an album, put together by someone who was at the convention, showing on opposite pages scenes from Chicago and from Prague. The differences were marginal Military uniforms rather than those of police; tanks instead of jeep people containers; gun smoke instead of tear gas vapor.

These events are supposed to be wiped from memory, or from consideration, by returning to the Chicago scene, and sealed or supplemented by having the current mayor of Chicago, a son of the Richard Daley of 1968, and Tom Hayden, a protester in Chicago, not a campaign worker, plant a tree.

If the Democrats were seeking a former convention site that would remind of past acts of political courage and credit, they should have gone to Philadelphia and recalled the work of that convention, rather than to Chicago, the scene of its modified Fascist-controlled convention of 1968.

Eugene J. McCarthy was a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His campaign for the Presidency in 1968 forced incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson out of the race. He ran again in 1976. He is the author of 17 books.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1995-1996 The Progressive Populist