Recollections of the 1968 Democratic Convention

By David L. Brown

The 2008 Democratic National Convention opens tomorrow in Denver. I will not be there. However, there are apparently a good number of individuals who are preparing to turn the event into a replay of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — and I WAS there, so perhaps I may have some perspective on the subject.

That time forty years ago was far different from the present era. Yes, both were times of war and yet the present battles in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot in any way be equated to the mess in Vietnam. There was a Democratic regime in the White House. The war in Vietnam began under Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson continued it despite growing public pressure to break and run. (Sound familiar?) “Hanoi Jane” [Fonda] and other outspoken war critics were fanning the flames of civil unrest. The Weather Underground had emerged as a home-grown terrorist movement.

And it wasn’t just the war that was at issue in that unsettled era of the 1960s. Deep social changes were taking place. Self-proclaimed Hippies celebrated the Summer of Love. Woodstock, LSD, marijuana and “free love” identified a significant part of an entire generation of young Baby Boomers. In the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination Chicago and other cities saw race riots like nothing our nation had seen for generations. (I was there, too, as a witness, but that’s another story.)

Today, forty years hence, tens of thousands of modern day Hippies are descending upon Denver to “recreate ’68.” I have to say, What! Not only is the “evil war” that we are presently engaged in nothing to be compared to Vietnam (and I can cite numerous reasons why it is not), but this is a “Republican” war, not a “Democratic” one as was the case forty years ago. The present day Democrats are a world apart from their warmongering predecessors of the Vietnam era. They could better be characterized as appeasement monkeys in the mold of Neville Chamberlain. So why in the name of Allah are these neo-Hippie protesters preparing to disrupt the Democratic Convention in Denver?

Well, you really have to scratch your head over that, but I may have figured it out. Try this: There IS no reason — they’re doing it, as we used to say, for the Helluvit! For kicks. To be able to say, “Look, Ma, I’m on TV — and I’m a moron!” Yeah, making Mom proud, for these are the children of the 1960s Hippies, or in some cases the now aging and unrepentant protesters of the 1960s themselves, emerging like zombies from the grave to relive the “glory days” when the national news portrayed them as brave heroes struggling to save the soul of America.

Apparently they intend to achieve this resurgence in Denver by, among other things, hurling excrement and urine at the police and others. Well, at least you can’t say they don’t have good taste. Er, wait! Yes you can. And you can count on CNN and all the rest to be there, documenting the activities of the demented potheads and letting the world know that America is still filled with misguided kooks. The international news crowd will be there in force to cheer them on as the flying poop and urine balloons fill the  air. No doubt many an American flag will be desecrated and more than a few miscreants will have their heads cracked. Manufactured news, the best kind. Let us hope that no policemen are injured.

Flashback. Forty years ago I was working as a freelance writer and photographer in Chicago. Among my accounts was McGraw-Hill World News and its family of several dozen magazines based in New York. It was through this connection that I was a witness to the 1968 convention. It seems that the campaign manager for Hubert Humphrey, then Vice President and set to become the Democratic candidate, was a medical doctor. The magazine Medical World News was covering his activities for a feature article, and I was assigned to do the photography.

Early on the morning of the convention opening I was waiting outside Vice President Humphrey’s suite in the Hilton Hotel, under the suspicious and uneasy eye of a Secret Service agent, for a 7 a.m. appointment to photograph Humphrey and his campaign manager during a breakfast strategy meeting. Already there were ominous signs of trouble. The rotten egg smell of stink bombs was beginning to waft through the Hilton’s ventilation system.

I spent the day following the campaign manager to various caucuses and finally to the convention site for the opening session. (I still have my press credentials around here somewhere.) Finally, late at night as the convention center emptied out I boarded a press bus for the ride back to downtown Chicago where I had left my car. As the bus pulled up in front of the Hilton I saw thronging mobs of unruly protesters gathered in the park across Michigan Avenue and spilling all over the area. There were lines of policemen and the situation looked dangerous (as proved to be the case). Having no desire to hang around and wait for trouble, I was able to get my car out of a nearby parking garage and get out of Dodge.

The rest is history. That night the city exploded into a virtual war between the protesters and the Chicago Police. Heads were cracked and thousands were arrested. It almost appeared that many of the participants came there specifically to be beaten or dragged into custody, in a misguided interpretation of Ghandi’s philosophy of passive resistance. In this case, it was aggressive resistance since the protesters brought it upon themselves rather than vice versa, but of course the media blamed the event on the Chicago Police, who were in fact only defending themselves and trying to keep the peace. It is only a miracle that it didn’t turn into a bloody massacre, and the protesters would no doubt have been more than happy should that have happened.

One has to wonder what if any good was achieved. The Democratic Party was made to look bad, which no doubt contributed to the election of Richard (“Tricky Dick”) Nixon. I personally favored Humphrey, viewing Nixon as an intolerable weasel, about which my instincts proved correct. Under Nixon the war went on for several more years and ended in a disgraceful rout when with a bit more effort South Vietnam could have been won for freedom instead of falling under the Communist boot of Ho Chi Minh (who was after all the aggressor there, not America). Sound familiar? Yeah.

It may be quite interesting and even entertaining to watch what happens in Denver this week. I have not followed television news since being disgusted by the hysterical and unprofessional reporting of Hurricane Katrina several years ago, but I think I will be tuning in. A good time to sit back with chips and popcorn on hand and a few cold ones in the fridge to watch our [broken] political system in action. Let the games begin! (Oh, wait, that was LAST week!)

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