(My daughter, who was not quite four years old at the time, asked me recently to talk about the 1968 Chicago convention for her children who are living thru this new awful time now.)
On the cab ride in from Midway airport we passed sandbagged machine gun nests on the University of Chicago campus. That was the start of it.
I spent the summer of 1968 back in Washington, sleeping in hotels and working in rented offices for the McCarthy for President campaign. I was, to put a fine point on it, making a hash of organizing delegates to the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, trying to learn who they were, who might talk to them, how they would vote. I was over my head.
But probably we should quickly review. Won’t take long. Two words.
By the Spring of 1968 Vietnam, not even the size of California and eight thousand miles away, was the biggest thing in America. Whatever I can tell you about it is weak tea. For example, in 1968 there were 650,000 American soldiers there, four times as many as we ever had in Iraq. That year 16,500 of them came home in body bags, more than four times the number of Americans killed in Iraq total. In January ’68, Tet in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese attacked pretty much everywhere, including the US Embassy in Saigon, and by the summer much of America had more or less decided the war was lost. And/or morally wrong. Or inexplicably stupid. Some quite rational people were rooting for the Vietcong.
The many Americans who thought otherwise were enraged. Angry at the commies fighting us in Vietnam, annoyed at President Lyndon Johnson for not winning, and furious with the hippies and peace-niks for not supporting the war. Some of this was played out violently in America. It was a very, very bad time. Worse, I think, than the Age of Trump. Angrier. Much more dangerous.
This story does get better. Over the winter of ’67-’68 my friends Allard Lowenstein and Curtis Gans looked for someone to run against President Johnson as a war protest. He wasn’t their first choice, but Minnesota Senator Gene McCarthy agreed to do it. Later Bobby Kennedy joined too. Judy Herrick and I quit our jobs in New York and joined the McCarthy campaign formally in about April.
Compress a few months of non-stop work across the country, and that gets us to Chicago for the Democratic nominating convention and the machine guns and the hippies and the police riot. You’ve probably heard about the Chicago convention. If not, there are books and Wikipedia. It was wonderful and awful, the necessary real-time face to face between the Americans who thought the war was wrong and lost, and those who hated that reality and us.
Judy lived in the Hilton Hotel doing the schedule for candidate McCarthy. I tried to manage McCarthy delegates on the Convention floor from a war room at the Amphitheater. Outside, the police beat up hippies and nuns and unlucky civilians going home from work. Police riots in the streets. Near riots on the Convention floor. Security roughed up Dan Rather and any number of Liberal delegates. A deeply disappointing if predictable end where Lyndon Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey was nominated — to lose later to Nixon — and where the police, to emphasize the point, basically clubbed, gassed and beat the shit out of everybody they could find.
A measure of the times is that Chicago was intense, but it didn’t strike me then as all that out of tune with everything else going on. Every day, plane loads of the dead and shattered coming home from Nam, Martin King murdered in Memphis, riots, uprisings, Bobby Kennedy shot down in LA. It was intense.
So Chicago. After the Convention and Police Riot, pretty much burned out, Judy and I took off for an island in Lake Huron with Annie Hart and Peter Dybwad. To distract us Peter drew from memory a complete Monopoly board game. Later we went back to New York and wrapped up our lives there. We got rid of our apartment and gave away everything that didn’t fit in a used station wagon. Then the car and everything in it was stolen — New York! — although we got the empty car back. So we traveled light, headed for California.
The election? Humphrey and the Dems got just killed by Nixon who said he had a “secret plan” to end the war which then went on for seven more years. George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, ran a nakedly racist independent campaign and won five states.
Judy and I spent election night in Provo, Utah on our way to California.
So, you see, some things did work out.