When bloody riots broke out between anti-Vietnam War protestors and Chicago police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff ditched his prepared support speech for George McGovern and instead criticized Mayor Richard Daly's handling of the situation.
'Chicago 1968' the most controversial convention of them all
When Chicago Mayor Richard Daley realized that sizable dissident groups planned to mount highly visible demonstrations against the Vietnam War outside and around Chicago's Democratic presidential nominating convention in 1968, one imagines that a polite paraphrase of his response would be, "We don't need this." Which is exactly how the protesters felt about the war, along with other policies of Daley's Democratic Party that they considered insufficiently progressive.
The result has come to be known in near-universal shorthand as "Chicago 1968," a political convention that barreled off the rails to become as tumultuous and unsettling as the year in which it took place.
In a way, the 1968 exchange of accusations and insults was not much different from the one that always has and still does take place daily in a country that at least theoretically embraces free speech.
Flip on any cable news channel or talk-radio show today, and you'll hear someone telling you why someone else is a dangerous idiot.
The difference in 1968 was that each side took it to the streets, sparking the kind of bloody physical showdown that a generation later would be more associated with Serbia or Somalia.
Not to our credit, images of violent domestic confrontation were common on American television screens through the 1960s, a decade that began with vicious beatings of peaceful civil-rights demonstrators and later grew into urban riots and rebellion. Even in that context, though, what happened at the Democratic convention 40 years ago was intense enough to stop everything.
As Democrats gathered inside the International Amphitheater to nominate Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey for President and endorse most of the legacy of outgoing President Lyndon B. Johnson, demonstrators outside sought to draw attention by any means possible to their criticism of Johnson's Vietnam War.
The demonstrators never mustered the numbers they had hoped to bring into town. Despite early talk of 100,000, the ranks were less than a quarter of that at showtime.
Those who did show up for the marches, rallies and speeches thus realized even more acutely that the attention they would receive depended in part on Chicago authorities, notably including Daley and his police, treating them as if they were indeed a large and dangerous army.
It was Strategy 101: The more attention they received, the more people would somehow hear their message, which was the urgency with which they felt America had to not only end the war but rethink its whole direction.
Most of the country did not agree about that second part. Most of the country may not yet have agreed about the war, though that was the direction in which public thought was headed, at a quickening pace.
The point of challenging the Democrats in Chicago was to accelerate that pace. It was the old farmer-and-mule joke, where the farmer who wants the mule to start plowing breaks a board over the mule's head. Asked why, he replies, "First you have to get his attention."
Purely as theater, Chicago 1968 was part streetcorner dancing and part Shakespeare. It careened between comedy and tragedy, weaving self-indulgent play-acting into profound disagreements over the fundamental principles of the nation.
An absurdist branch of the demonstrators, the Yippie party under the late Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, held an event at which it nominated a pig (Pigasus, a name borrowed from John Steinbeck and the Oz books) for President.
A darker note was a speech by Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff on the fifth night of the convention, after the climactic clash between police and demonstrators.
Ribicoff was nominating South Dakota Sen. George McGovern as a progressive "peace" alternative for President - a purely symbolic move, since by then Humphrey's nomination was certain.
But Ribicoff took the occasion to go a step further:
"With George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago," he said, setting off a thunderstorm of cheers and boos on the floor.
TV cameras cut to Daley's reaction, and while there was no audio, his lip movement seemed consistent with the phrase, "F- you, Abe."
Daley later said he had simply called Ribicoff a "fake."
That's possible. What's inarguable is that by that fifth night, the tension had long since sucked all the oxygen out of Chicago and both sides were running on pure adrenaline.
In that sense, the 1968 Democratic convention felt like a perfect metaphor for 1968 America.
You wouldn't call 1968 the worst year in American history. It doesn't match the Civil War years, the Great Depression years or 1941, when we were bombed into a world war.
But 1968 had its problems, even beyond the emergence of the 1910 Fruitgum Company on top-40 radio. Martin Luther Jr. King was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Cities burned. One week in March, more than 500 Americans died in Vietnam.
In many ways, America in 1968 felt like a ship cut loose from its moorings and riding out a storm. The rules felt a little more negotiable, improvisation a little more necessary.
In the end, ironically, the Democratic convention shrugged off the heat and fury to do exactly what it would have done if the delegates had simply met all by themselves for lunch in a quiet private dining club.
They nominated Humphrey, the ultimate party soldier, by a margin of 1,759.25 votes to 601 for Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. They reaffirmed their commitment to assisting other sovereign states in resisting outside insurgency, i.e. they endorsed the war.
They also admired the party's domestic legacy of the previous four years, as they should have. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the right things for America, even though they ripped apart the Democratic Party that made them happen.
Within a generation, Southerners who inherited a blood hatred for the Republican Party dating back to the Radical Republicans of Reconstruction were telling themselves that below the Mason-Dixon Line, Republican was the new Democrat.
That Lyndon Johnson strong-armed those bills through Congress, fully knowing their political consequence, was one of the extraordinary political acts of the 20th century.
But he was winning no "profile in courage" points in 1968, a year when almost all eyes were on the war and, secondarily, the turn in the civil-rights struggle from peaceful demonstrations to a growing impatient militancy.
As late as the fall of 1967, when half a million demonstrators marched on Washington to protest the war, it was assumed that Johnson, who in 1964 was elected by one of the widest margins in history, would be renominated by acclamation.
The anti-war movement had tried to recruit a high-profile candidate to oppose him, focusing on New York Sen. Robert Kennedy after he expressed growing reservations about the war that his late brother was instrumental in defining as an American mission.
Kennedy declined to make that challenge, however, which left slim pickings. The only two senators who had flat-out opposed the war for any length of time were Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, credible elder statesmen but not viable presidential candidates.
So it was with small fanfare that the low-profile McCarthy declared his candidacy on Nov. 30, 1967.
McCarthy was no long-haired, fiery anti-war radical. He was a calm speaker, given to literary allusion, intellectual argument, poetry and droll irony. He was fastidiously groomed, which reflected the fact that outside of opposing the war he was frequently conservative in his policies as well. He had almost entered the clergy in his youth, and many of his positions were at odds with those widely held in the anti-war movement.
So he was considered the most token of anti-Johnson candidates.
But since he was the only horse to ride, much of the anti-war movement - excluding the radical fringe - fell in. Students took the spring semester off from class to "Get Clean for Gene," cutting their hair and politely promoting voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
On March 12, 1968, McCarthy got 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Johnson, who did not actively campaign, got 48%.
This wasn't all necessarily an anti-war statement. In fact, many conservative New Hampshire voters were probably as disenchanted by Johnson's Great Society programs as by the war.
Nonetheless, an unknown candidate holding a sitting President to less than half the vote said another wave had hit the ship.
On March 31, Johnson announced he would not seek another term, tacitly leaving the ball to be picked up by his vice president, Humphrey.
Once known as a fiery, populist liberal, Humphrey was now widely viewed as the party guy, the one who would rock no boats.
This was good in terms of reassuring a country that felt rocked enough already. It wasn't helpful at all in getting out the critical message, that he was looking to end the war rather than extend it.
So there was a much wider opening for an anti-war candidate now, and soon Robert Kennedy had rethought things and announced his own candidacy.
Or, as McCarthy drolly observed, "Before New Hampshire, there was one senator supporting me. I don't think that's the case anymore."
Still, Kennedy had an uphill battle against Humphrey, who had the support of Daley and virtually all the Democratic establishment.
But Kennedy had the charisma and the name to carry the ball further than McCarthy, and after he won the Democratic primary in California on June 5, it seemed possible the anti-war side could make inroads at the Chicago convention, if only in the party platform.
Minutes later, much of that hope was dealt a mortal blow in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen in Los Angeles, where he was assassinated as he left the building after his victory speech.
Come late August, though, that did not discourage thousands of protesters who had decided the Democrats - the party in power, the party that had driven the war - needed to be confronted on its consequences.
Accordingly, Daley put 12,000 Chicago police officers on 12-hour shifts for the duration. He also called in 7,500 Army troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen, giving him just slightly fewer troops than Alexander the Great commanded when he marched out to rule the world around 335 B.C.
Demonstrators who wanted permits to assemble were shuffled to Lincoln Park and Grant Park, miles from the convention center. Most requests to march toward the Amphitheater were denied. An 11 p.m. curfew was declared.
Daley had no intention of letting his city look disorderly.
In the streets and the parks, the first few nights of the convention were marked by sporadic challenges to the police and sporadic police responses, many involving that problematic 11 p.m. curfew.
The two sides circled each other, figurative and literally. Inside the convention, the anti-war forces talked bravely while the traditionalists, the one who thought it would be madness and political suicide for the Democrats to disown everything their leaders had said and done over the past six years, gradually confirmed their majority.
Into that hole dropped all realistic hope of a peace platform.
Outside, the demonstrators were getting some press and irritating the people in authority, which was a different, less tangible and less immediate power than Daley held.
But it was power of its own sort.
On the fifth day, the Democrats formally rejected the peace platform, and somewhere around 6,000 demonstrators rallied in Grant Park.
The rejection of the peace platform was almost immediately followed by the nomination of Humphrey, a one-two punch that, while expected, still sent demonstrators' frustrations boiling over.
Although they had no permission to march anywhere, and it was highly unlikely they would have marched 10 miles through some of Chicago's roughest neighborhoods to the Amphitheater, they decided to move out of the park and go somewhere, even if it was only toward the Hilton Hotel across the street, where many convention staff and aides were staying.
So they began pushing their way out, even as police geared up to enforce one more 11 p.m. curfew. That's when the most famous stretch of ugly began.
Some observers said it started when police clubbed a man trying to lower an American flag. But that kind of "incident" soon was exploding everywhere.
Chicago authorities told police to clear the area in front of the Hilton, apparently not realizing that most of the people there were not demonstrators, but people attending the convention, as well as tourists and other civilians.
The police, their own frustrations as acute as those of the demonstrators, waded in. Doctors who tried to help the injured were clubbed. Aides to high-ranking Democratic officials were clubbed. Everyone was tear-gassed.
There were reports that police cheered a soldier who attacked a cameraman filming the events.
But plenty of film survived, and within the hour it was on national television. That's when Ribicoff invoked the Gestapo. On ABC television, conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal debated the same issues, with Gore Vidal saying, "the only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself," and Buckley replying: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."
As often happens in battle, the attention focused on the warring sides was disproportionate to their actual numbers, which mattered not at all. On television, it looked like Daley's Chicago had unraveled into the thing he disliked and feared most: disorder.
The consequences of Chicago 1968 were several. Eight protesters were arrested on charges of conspiracy and inciting to riot: David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and Tom Hayden.
They became the Chicago Seven when Seale's abuse of Judge Julius Hoffman, after Hoffman had ordered him shackled and gagged, got him thrown out. After one of America's great exercises in judicial absurdity, several were convicted on various charges, including contempt of court. The convictions were all ultimately thrown out.
Dellinger, Rubin, Hoffman and attorney William Kunstler were tried and convicted by another judge, who sentenced them to nothing.
All went on to public careers. Hayden became a California assemblyman, Seale writes cookbooks. Hoffman committed suicide.
Born in New Britain, Connecticut, to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland, Samuel Ribicoff, a factory worker, and Rose Sable Ribicoff, he attended local public schools. Ribicoff's relatively poor parents valued education and insisted that all his earnings from part-time boyhood jobs go toward his future schooling. After high school, he worked for a year at a nearby factory of the G. E. Prentice Company to earn additional funds for college. Ribicoff enrolled at New York University in 1928, then transferred to the University of Chicago after the Prentice Company made him the Chicago office manager. While in Chicago, Ribicoff coped with school and work schedules and was permitted to enter the university's law school before finishing his undergraduate degree. Still a student, he married Ruth Siegel on June 28, 1931 they would have two children. Ribicoff served as editor of the University of Chicago Law Review in his third year and received an LLB cum laude in 1933, being admitted to the Connecticut bar the same year. After practicing law in the office of a Hartford lawyer, Ribicoff set up his practice, first in Kensington and later in Hartford.
Having become interested in politics, Ribicoff began as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, serving in that body from 1938 to 1942. From 1941 until 1943 and again from 1945 to 1947 he was the judge of Hartford Police Court. During his political career, Ribicoff was a protégé of John Moran Bailey, the powerful chairman of the Democratic Party of Connecticut.
U.S. Representative Edit
He was elected as a Democrat to the 81st and 82nd Congresses, serving from 1949 until 1953. During that time he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, a position usually reserved for members with more seniority, and was a mostly loyal supporter of the foreign and domestic policies of President Harry S. Truman's administration. Generally liberal in his outlook, he surprised many by opposing a $32 million appropriation for the construction of a dam in Enfield, Connecticut, arguing that the money was better spent on military needs and foreign policy initiatives such as the Marshall Plan.
In 1952 he made an unsuccessful bid for election to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, losing to Prescott Bush.
Governor of Connecticut Edit
After returning to his legal practice for two years, he ran for governor against incumbent Republican John Davis Lodge, winning the election by just over three thousand votes. As governor (1955–1961), Ribicoff soon faced the challenge of rebuilding his state in the wake of devastating floods that occurred in the late summer and fall of 1955, and he successfully led bipartisan efforts to aid damaged areas. Ribicoff then successfully argued for increased state spending on schools and welfare programs. He also supported an amendment to the state constitution that enhanced the governing powers of local municipalities. Easily reelected in 1958, Ribicoff had by now become active on the national political scene. A longtime friend of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, Ribicoff had nominated his fellow New Englander for vice president at the 1956 Democratic National Convention and was one of the first public officials to endorse Kennedy's presidential campaign.
Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Edit
When Kennedy became president in 1961, he offered Ribicoff his choice of cabinet posts in the new administration. He reportedly declined the position of attorney general, fearing that he might create needless controversy within the emerging civil rights movement because he was Jewish, and instead chose to be secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW). Although he did manage to secure a revision of the 1935 Social Security Act that liberalized requirements for aid-to-dependent-children funds from Congress, Ribicoff was unable to gain approval for the administration's Medicare and school aid bills. Eventually, he tired of attempting to manage HEW, whose very size made it, in his opinion, unmanageable.
Ribicoff reflected that he mainly sought out the position of HEW Secretary out of concern for education and "realized that the problems of health and welfare were so overriding that education was relegated to the back burner" during his tenure. 
He was finally elected to the United States Senate in 1962, replacing retiring incumbent Prescott Bush by defeating Republican nominee Horace Seely-Brown with 51% of the vote. He served in the Senate from January 3, 1963, until January 3, 1981.
Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy as president when the latter was assassinated in 1963. Ribicoff supported Johnson at first but eventually turned against the Vietnam War and the president's management of it, believing that it drained badly needed resources away from domestic programs.
Ribicoff allied with consumer advocate Ralph Nader in creating the Motor Vehicle Highway Safety Act of 1966, which created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency was responsible for many new safety standards on cars. These standards were questionable because up until then, the emphasis had always been put on the driver. In response, Ribicoff stated that:
The driver has many faults. He is negligent he is careless he is reckless. We understand that. I think it will be the millennium if you will ever get a situation where the millions and millions of drivers will all be perfect. They will always be making errors and making mistakes.
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, during a speech nominating George McGovern, his senatorial colleague from South Dakota, he went off-script, saying, "And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Many conventioneers, having been appalled by the response of the Chicago police to the simultaneously occurring anti-war demonstrations, promptly broke into ecstatic applause. Television cameras promptly focused on the indignant reaction of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Ribicoff spent the remaining years of his Senate career fighting for such issues as school integration, welfare and tax reform, and consumer protection.
During the 1972 Democratic National Convention, presidential nominee George McGovern offered Ribicoff the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, but he declined it and it eventually went to Senator Thomas Eagleton.  After Eagleton withdrew, McGovern asked Ribicoff (among others) to take Eagleton's place. He refused, publicly stating that he had no further ambitions for higher office. McGovern eventually chose Sargent Shriver as his running mate. Later in 1972, following the death of his wife, Ribicoff married Lois Mell Mathes, who became known as "Casey". 
Future U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman worked in Ribicoff's Senate office as a summer intern and met his first wife, Betty Haas, there.
On May 3, 1979, Ribicoff announced his intention to retire at the end of his third term. President Jimmy Carter released a statement crediting Ribicoff with having "compiled a distinguished career of public service that can serve as a model of decency, compassion, and ability." 
In 1981, Ribicoff fulfilled his pledge to retire from the Senate and took a position as special counsel in the New York law firm of Kaye Scholer LLP and divided his time between homes in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut and Manhattan. He was co-chairman of the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Having suffered in his later years from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, he died in 1998 at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale in The Bronx, New York City, and is interred at Cornwall Cemetery in Cornwall, Connecticut.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention
Across the country and in Chicago, tensions were already high by the time delegates to the Democratic National Convention arrived for the opening session on this date. The destruction of the King riots on the West and South Sides in April was still a vivid memory. In June, Senator Robert F. Kennedy's final words had included the phrase, "On to Chicago," when his presidential candidacy was cut short by an assassin's bullet in California.
Colorful young activists such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had vowed to lead Vietnam War protesters to Chicago to disrupt the convention. Chicago police fueled the paranoia by publicizing reports that demonstrators were planning to spike the city's water supply with LSD. Mayor Richard J. Daley made it clear he would brook no attempts to disrupt the convention or sully the city's name. The Illinois National Guard was called up and roads to the International Amphitheatre were surrounded with such heavy security that the Tribune called the convention site "a veritable stockade."
As the delegates jammed into Chicago's downtown hotels, thousands of young demonstrators moved into Lincoln Park. Attempts to get city permits to spend the nights in the park had failed. So each night, police moved in, sometimes using tear gas and physical force to clear them out. At first, the news media focused on events at the Amphitheatre, where tempers flared during debate on the Vietnam War. CBS newsmen Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up on camera by security guards, causing anchor Walter Cronkite to intone to a national audience, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, if I may be permitted to say so."
The clashes reached a pinnacle on Wednesday, Aug. 28. TV cameramen in the Conrad Hilton Hotel (the former Stevens Hotel) turned their cameras down on the crowd, which chanted "The whole world's watching." Someone threw a beer can. Police charged and dragged off protesters, beating them with clubs and fists. "Many convention visitors . . . were appalled at what they considered unnatural enthusiasm of police for the job of arresting demonstrators," the Tribune reported the next day. It would later be called a "police riot." That night in his speech nominating George McGovern, Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff criticized the "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago." Television cameras zoomed in on an enraged Daley, shouting back at the rostrum.
Not until August 1996, with a different Mayor Daley running Chicago, did the Democrats return. That convention, at which President Bill Clinton was nominated for a second term, was a carefully managed affair. But the whole world was not watching.
'68 MOMENT STANDS OUT IN RIBICOFF TRIBUTES
Former Sen. George S. McGovern was recalling Monday how stunned he was when his old friend and colleague Abe Ribicoff confronted Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
After all, this was not only the city where Daley ruled, but also the convention where Daley was lord and enforcer, the de facto commander of the police outside the convention hall who were waging what the news media would call a "pitched battle" with protesters.
McGovern was a last-minute presidential entry, trying to hold together delegates who had been loyal to the slain Robert F. Kennedy. He watched as Ribicoff, speaking from the podium, took off his glasses, praised McGovern, and accused Daley and his lieutenants of "Gestapo tactics."
"It was sure out of character," McGovern recalled in an interview Monday. "But it sure galvanized the convention."
Ribicoff died Sunday at 87, and in every tribute, in every obituary, he is being remembered as the man who stood up not only to Daley, but also to the Democratic establishment. It was something that Washington insiders, especially U.S. senators, simply did not do anywhere, let alone on national television in front of the party's resident kingmaker.
Ribicoff clearly has an important place in Connecticut political history as a former governor and senator. But outside the state, he is remembered most for that moment in Chicago.
Ribicoff was very much a part of the Washington establishment that anti-war protesters had tagged as the enemy by the late 1960s.
"He was a liberal-to-moderate politician, close to the Kennedys," said Stephen J. Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University.
Ribicoff was President Kennedy's first secretary of health, education and welfare, in 1961. He left the Cabinet the next year, choosing to seek a U.S. Senate seat from Connecticut in 1962.
"They were probably his least satisfying years," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., said in his Senate floor tribute Monday, referring to Ribicoff's time in the Cabinet. "He would say, 'I'm used to being my own man.' "
He won the Senate seat, and quickly, comfortably became known as a loyal Democrat, with notably close ties to party regulars such as John M. Bailey, the state and national party chairman. He was a fighter for progressive issues such as the environment, highway safety and Medicare.
Ribicoff faced re-election in 1968 and wanted to be part of what he called "new political forces." Two of his Senate colleagues, Robert Kennedy and Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, were drawing strong presidential support in Connecticut, and after Kennedy was assassinated in June, Ribicoff aligned himself with McGovern.
He had agreed to give the South Dakota senator's nominating speech on the convention's third night.
It was a night when Americans saw an eerie juxtaposition of Chicago "running in blood," as author Theodore H. White would write, while the convention serenely conducted its carefully scripted business.
Ribicoff had prepared remarks ready on the TelePrompTer. Sitting about 15 feet away was Daley and his Illinois delegation, an entourage White branded a collection of "pudgy, cigar-smoking politicians."
Ribicoff removed his glasses and stared at Daley. "With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn't have those Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. With George McGovern, we wouldn't have a National Guard."
The hall erupted. Daley gestured crudely at Ribicoff and uttered an obscenity, the wording of which is still a source of debate.
"How hard it is," said Ribicoff, his voice shaking. "How hard it is to accept the truth, when we know the problems facing our nation."
Ribicoff would continue, but no one really remembered anything more.
Though there are second acts and beyond in American political life, people are usually remembered for the event that first brings them public attention.
For instance, although John Glenn has had a long Senate career, including being the top Democrat on the committee investigating campaign finance, history books are most likely to cite him as the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1962, and then return to space as a septuagenarian.
Ribicoff served 12 more years in the Senate after Chicago, but that night in August 1968 would forever mark him as an establishment figure the outsiders could embrace.
"What he did motivated all the people at that convention to go home and start working on his campaign," recalled Anne Wexler, a Washington consultant and a 1968 state delegate. "All the McCarthy and Kennedy headquarters immediately were converted into Ribicoff headquarters."
Four years later, McGovern stunned American politics by winning the Democratic nomination. He said Monday that he wanted Ribicoff on his ticket, and offered him the vice presidential spot before he settled on Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri. Eagleton later withdrew after reports that he had been treated for depression.
Ribicoff said no to the offer. "He told me he was about to get married," McGovern recalled, "and [said] 'The last thing we need is a presidential campaign.' "
Ribicoff returned to the Senate, where as a senior member he had key roles in crafting bills.
"All the government reorganization that Jimmy Carter wanted went through Sen. Ribicoff's committee," recalled Claudia Weicker, a professional committee staff member in the late 1970s. "He was particularly proud that he helped create the Department of Education."
Monday, though, the road of remembrance wound through Chicago.
"I don't think he ever expected to explode like that, and I don't think it was aimed at Mayor Daley," said McGovern. "Remember, when you're speaking from that podium, you don't really see individuals in the audience. I'm sure Abe was speaking to 50 million Americans."
In a book-lined living room in Longmeadow, John Fitzgerald — a retired high-school history teacher — leafed through a stack of papers from his trip to Chicago in 1968, as a Massachusetts delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
“This was something I wrote up back then — ‘Journal of a Delegate,’” Fitgerald said, and began reading aloud. “Thursday, left Bradley [Airport] 8 a.m., arrived Chicago 9:30 a.m. Polluted air over Chicago. Very hot and humid. . Stifling monoxide stench.”
That sickly atmosphere fit the nation’s mood. The country was still reeling from the recent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., while in Vietnam, more than 1,000 Americans were dying every month.
Fitzgerald was a Vietnam vet — a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who’d decided the war was wrong.
“If they asked me, what do you really want to see us do, I would’ve said, I want to see you take all the troops out of there tomorrow,” Fitzgerald recalled.
Hence, his desire to nominate Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose anti-war campaign had prompted President Lyndon Johnson’s stunning decision not to seek re-election.
Also traveling to Chicago that August was Michael Kazin, who is now a history professor at Georgetown. Back then, he was a Harvard undergrad and member of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.
“I wanted to disrupt the convention, to be quite honest with you,” Kazin said. “The Democratic Party was the party that had prosecuted the war, that escalated the war. And even though I’d worked as a 16-year-old to elect Lyndon Johnson in 1964, by 1968 I was completely done with the Democratic Party.”
Meanwhile, the party itself was on the verge of cracking up. The delegates in Chicago ran an untenable ideological gamut, from old-school Southern segregationists to people who, today, would be labeled “progressive.” Fitzgerald was in the latter group: In addition to an anti-war nominee and an anti-war platform, he wanted the convention to seat racially integrated delegations from the south.
“Alabama, Georgia, they had all white delegations, and were opposed to the Civil Rights movement, and in some cases openly supportive of [George] Wallace,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the ardent segregationist who was making a third-party presidential run.
“[Vice president] Hubert Humphrey and Johnson were counting on those people voting for them,” he added, alluding to the fact that Humphrey was campaigning as Johnson’s ally and heir. “So one of the challenges we had was to stop the pro-Humphrey delegates and elect the challenge delegates [who] were sympathetic to the McCarthy antiwar movement.”
The challenge for Kazin and his fellow SDS members was different. Instead of turning the Democrats against the Vietnam war, they wanted to turn the antiwar movement against the Democrats.
“We had a campaign to go to Chicago and try to convince young antiwar activists who were supporting Eugene McCarthy at the time, and those who had been supporting Robert Kennedy before he was assassinated, to give up on the Democrats and come over to our side, and be involved in a real radical movement,” Kazin said.
One which, among other things, embraced violence as a tactic.
“Some of us went on a sort of mini-riot through the Loop, through downtown Chicago, I think that Saturday night, before the convention began,” Kazin said. “Some people smashed windows, some people smashed — I wasn’t one of them, but some people smashed windows in police cars. . You really [felt] like you’d struck a blow against the American empire, which of course in retrospect was quite ridiculous.”
Inside the convention hall, things felt equally unhinged. In one infamous episode, a young Dan Rather was pushed to the ground as he tried to interview a delegate being escorted out by security, his cries broadcast live to a national audience: “Don’t push me! Take your hands off me unless you intend to arrest me!”
On August 28, the chaos outside and inside the convention converged. Chicago police cracked down hard on 10,000 protesters, swinging billy clubs and spraying tear gas in what was dubbed the Battle of Michigan Avenue and later described, in an outside report, as a police riot.
Meanwhile, on the convention floor, Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff decried that violence as he nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern, who also opposed the Vietnam war. “With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago,” Ribicoff said.
That enraged Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who shouted back an unprintable response. But ultimately, Ribicoff’s pitch failed. The next day, the Democrats nominated the pro-war Humphrey, even though he hadn’t run in any primaries and the majority of the party’s primary voters had backed anti-war candidates.
“The way the McCarthy campaign ended, in the perception of a lot of young people in America in particular, electoral politics was fixed,” Fitzgerald said. “It was broken. So a lot of people walked away from ’68 with a bad feeling about whether they should ever participate in electoral politics again. That still exists.”
As Fitzgerald sees it, the most recent Democratic contest shows the party still hasn’t learned from history.
“They ignored the lesson of ’68,” he said. “They locked out Bernie Sanders and his supporters. That Democratic National Committee was locked into Hillary Clinton. [But] that wasn’t where the majority of Americans were.”
Michael Kazin’s regrets are different. He was arrested in Chicago, and says after his release, a group of police actually threatened to kill him and his friends.
Still, in hindsight, Kazin thinks he and other radicals pushed their provocation too far.
“To be fair — and at the time, I wasn’t being fair to the police — but they felt under siege, too,” Kazin said. “I mean, after all, people like me, we were talking about revolution. We were calling the police ‘pigs.’”
Kazin notes that a post-convention poll showed most Americans backed the police, not the protesters — and that Richard Nixon’s law-and-order message helped him win the presidency that fall.
“The war in Vietnam made a lot of people a little crazy,” Kazin said. “And I think it pushed the New Left, of which I was a part, to do some things which hurt our cause in the long run, which helped build a conservative movement.”
The divide created by the chaos of 1968 is still with us. While many Democrats see President Trump as a Nixon-esque figure plagued by scandal, many Republicans see a leader who stands with law enforcement, and against crime and illegal immigration. It happened five decades ago, but in the realm of politics, the 1968 Democratic Convention isn’t really history at all.
The Worst Convention in U.S. History?
We asked historians to tell us how the 2016 Republican National Convention stacks up.
Donald Trump is thrilled with how the 2016 Republican National Convention went this week. It was, he said at a campaign event in Cleveland on Friday, “one of the best conventions ever.” The four days were “incredible.” The speakers were “groundsetting.” And the “unity” was “amazing.”
That’s one way to put it. Many other observers have focused on what went wrong, from the delegate walk-outs, floor chants and a plagiarism controversy on Monday, to a conspicuous non-endorsement on Wednesday to a leaked speech on Thursday. And then there were the wild “lock her up” chants throughout, and, of course, the bewildering foreign policy interview in the middle of the whole thing. Before long onlookers were calling it “the worst convention I’ve ever seen” and speculating whether it was the “worst political convention ever.”
Politico Magazine decided to find out. We asked a group of political historians to tell us: What was the worst convention in history—and how does this one stack up?
The agreement was: This one was pretty bad. Whether you measure it by disorganization, by harm to the party or by sheer distastefulness of the message, it ends up on most of our historians' shortlists, if not right at the top. “This Republican convention could certainly be a plausible candidate for, say, the three-to-five worst conventions in American political history,” writes Jack Rakove, though he doesn’t think it will have the lasting negative consequences that, say,1968’s riot-plagued DNC had. And David Greenberg calls it a “hot mess,” though it falls short of Miami’s 1972 DNC in terms of sheer fiasco factor, where “punchy delegates mocked the process, nominating Martha Mitchell (the deranged wife of Nixon’s attorney general), Archie Bunker, the Berrigan Brothers, Mao Tse-tung and other absurdities” and “the circus delayed McGovern’s acceptance speech until almost 3 a.m.—memorably described as ‘prime time in Guam.’”
Others do think that this year’s RNC marks a genuine new low for American politics. It “barely edged out the 1868 Democratic National Convention as the worst in American history” for its “disorganization, infighting, racism and apocalyptic language,” writes Heather Cox Richardson. (In 1868, the delegates appropriated “This is a white man’s country. Let a white man rule” as their slogan.) “The 2016 Republican Convention,” writes Jason Sokols, “was remarkable not for its bumbling shows of discord—culminating in Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement—but for the ways in which it illuminated a consistent message: hatred.” And Federico Finchelstein saw the same hatred, as well as its global reach: “For global historians of fascism such as myself, the convention was something entirely new. … It signaled, at the top of the Republican ticket, the new American preeminence—in line with a strain of xenophobic right-wing populism that is developing around the world.”
‘Cleveland convention was a hot mess, but it wasn’t a fiasco.’
David Greenberg, a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
The Republicans’ Cleveland convention was a hot mess, but it wasn’t a fiasco. Our history boasts some far more catastrophic conventions—where whole factions of a party walked out to launch third-party bids, where balloting dragged on for days amid irreconcilable conflicts or where violence broke out in the streets or the convention hall itself.
One of the more comical fiascos was the 1972 convention in Miami at which George McGovern was chosen to lead the Democrats. Thanks to new party rules handed down by a committee that McGovern had himself chaired, the South Dakota Senator parlayed victories in the spring primaries and caucuses—and benefitted from the Nixon White House’s dirty tricks against formidable rivals like Ed Muskie—to sew up the nomination. Like today’s NeverTrumpers, however, a “Stop McGovern” movement (of which Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was a leader) tried to derail the senator’s bid. Even at the roll call vote, 40 percent of the delegates voted for other candidates, including Henry “Scoop” Jackson, George Wallace and Shirley Chisolm.
Platform fights had sown much acrimony and combativeness, but the convention really went awry during the vice presidential balloting. Party panjandrums wanted someone who spoke for the traditional Democratic rank and file they needed to shore up support from the blue-collar, urban and Irish Catholic Democrats who were suspicious of the far-left, wine-track McGovern. But a series of credible contenders, including Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, declined offers, leading to the selection of Missouri’s Thomas Eagleton. During the roll call, punchy delegates mocked the process, nominating Martha Mitchell (the deranged wife of Nixon’s attorney general), Archie Bunker, the Berrigan Brothers, Mao Tse-tung and other absurdities. Extending late into the night, the circus delayed McGovern’s acceptance speech until almost 3 a.m.—memorably described as “prime time in Guam.” Ratings, needless to say, suffered.
News soon emerged that Eagleton had undergone electro-shock therapy for depression. McGovern insisted he would stand by his running-mate “1000 percent”—only to drop him unceremoniously from the ticket days later in favor of Sargent Shriver.
‘I would still hold out for the big Democratic shebang in Chicago 1968’
Jack Rakove is professor of history and political science at Stanford University.
This Republican convention could certainly be a plausible candidate for, say, the three-to-five worst conventions in American political history. But as a native Cook County Democrat, and proud of it, I would still hold out for the big Democratic shebang in Chicago 1968 (which, alas, I missed, because I was called up to military service the week before it started). We will only know the significance of the 2016 GOP convention when we can measure its short- and long-term fallout, in terms of its effects on polls, the ensuing campaign, etc. Mostly it seemed to confirm the existing criticisms, both within the Republican Party and from without, of the underlying, potentially fatal defects of the Trump campaign. The convention was a nice illustration of all that—fourth-rate celebrities, discussions of avocados and Trumpian viticulture, a wholesale reliance on Trump’s status as a breeding male—but how much did it add to the existing story? Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article about the drafting of The Art of the Deal, in its own way, was just as interesting!
By contrast, the 1968 convention, per se, did have lasting implications for the Democratic Party that continued to reverberate well into the next decade. While there is no question that the challenge of dealing with “hippies, flippies and dippies,” as Mayor Richard J. Daley once described his antagonists, overwhelmed the administrative talents of the Chicago machine, the specter of wanton police brutality in Grant Park and the occasional chaos on the convention floor, including the famous outburst of Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff, did contribute to the fissures that haunted Hubert Humphrey’s campaign thereafter and vexed the party for a longer period.
‘A strong contender would be the Republicans in 1932’
Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history at the University of Washington.
The 1932 Republican National Convention in Chicago. | AP Photo
Worst convention in history? A strong contender would be the Republicans in 1932. It wasn’t a moment of party implosion like the Democrats’ Chicago inferno in 1968 or the GOP’s Goldwater vs. Rockefeller throwdown in 1964. Nor was there much controversy about who’d be the nominee. Incumbent President Herbert Hoover got the nod on the first ballot (it took the Dems four votes to choose FDR that same year). But it was a failure both in substance and style. Having been in charge of the executive branch during the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, GOP leaders decided that the best approach to the economy during the convention was to talk about it as little as possible. Instead, all the convention drama focused on the repeal of Prohibition—a hot issue within the Republican Party but one of considerably less importance to Americans standing in bread lines. Even worse, in an era when conventions were turning into major media events—both conventions that year were broadcast on national radio—the RNC was an utter snooze. Reporters pronounced it “singularly colorless.” One dispirited Republican delegate lamented that the convention was so dull that “even the nuts don’t seem to care what goes into the platform.”
With a vague economic program, a stay-the-course message, and not much drama about who’d win the nomination, the convention reinforced the narrative that the party and its president were low-energy and out of touch. People may remember that “Happy Days Are Here Again” became the campaign theme song for Franklin Roosevelt. What they may not know is that the song played first at the GOP convention that year (both events happened in the Chicago Stadium, and the house organist played the song during both). At the RNC, it sounded like a funeral march at the DNC, it fit the upbeat message. Roosevelt used it in every election afterwards.
How does the 2016 RNC stack up? It didn’t change the story, it didn’t heal party fractures, and I’d be surprised if it changed many minds. However, it is too soon to tell whether Trump’s doubling-down on his message is going to be his key to victory or the fatal step toward defeat. We’ll have to wait for the next generation of historians to assess that one.
‘The worst that the country has seen since the Democratic National Convention of 1868’
Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University.
If by “worst” we mean the worst-organized or worst-executed convention, the GOP gathering in Cleveland is a strong contender. But who’s to say whether a plagiarized speech, a half-empty hall and the Ted Cruz imbroglio are worse than, say, the 1972 Democratic Convention, which was so poorly run that the nominee delivered his acceptance speech at 3:00 a.m.? Or the 1924 Democratic convention, which required over 100 ballots to select a candidate? Or the 1964 Republican convention, which resembled a barroom fight?
If, however, we mean angry, ugly and venemous, then this week’s convention is probably the worst that the country has seen since the Democratic National Convention of 1868. That year, Frank Blair, an erstwhile conservative antislavery man, issued a public letter on the eve of the convention, denouncing Republicans for enfranchising a “semi-barbarous race of blacks” that “subject the white women to their unbridled lust.” Blair’s letter established the tone for the convention, whose slogan read, “This is a white man’s country. Let a white man rule.” As one Democratic strategist unabashedly acknowledged, the party’s only path to victory was to excite “the aversion with which the masses contemplate the equality of the Negro.”
One can’t quite get away with that level of racial invective today (though in a convention-week panel, Congressman Steve King essentially tried). But the 2016 convention dripped with racially charged rhetoric of a variety that we have not experienced in well over 100 years. In their incitement against Latinos and Muslims, convention speakers, including Donald Trump, made clear that they believe this is a country for Christians of European descent, and that we should let those men rule.
2016 ‘only barely edged out the 1868 Democratic National Convention’
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College.
The 2016 Republican National Convention was shocking for its disorganization, infighting,
racism, and apocalyptic language, but it only barely edged out the 1868 Democratic National Convention as the worst in American history. Curiously, the two were very similar.
In 1868, only three years after the end of the Civil War, the Democrats met in New York York City to write a platform and pick a presidential candidate. The Democrats hated the Republicans who had just defeated the Confederacy and freed the slaves, and they loathed the strong federal government that was enforcing racial equality. But their virulent opposition to the federal government did not mean unity. Party leaders had to balance the racism of white Democratic voters against the demands of eastern financiers who wanted to roll back taxes but who also wanted the new $5 billion national debt to be paid in full.
They couldn’t. The convention caved to southern whites. Delegates declared America “a white man’s country” and the platform attacked the Union government that had just won the Civil War. It called for an end to black rights, taxation and government bureaucracy. Crucially, it alienated wealthier voters by calling for the repayment of the national debt in depreciated currency. The factions fought over the nomination for 22 ballots. Then delegates, in desperation, cast votes for the convention’s chairman, a conservative New Yorker. He categorically refused to serve. But when he left the hall briefly, the convention nominated him anyway. Going into the election with a problematic candidate and little principle other than the destruction of the federal government and white supremacy, the Democrats lost.
‘It still pales in comparison to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago’
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton.
Ideally, a political convention should bring a party together and broadcast a positive image to the general public. While this year’s RNC fell considerably short on both those goals, it still pales in comparison to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Democrats had been thrown into chaos over the previous year—with Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar insurgency, Lyndon Johnson’s stunning announcement that he wouldn’t run again, and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on the campaign trail—and the convention only made things worse. Antiwar activists came to Chicago not just to protest “the party of death” but to sow chaos in the streets. In response, Mayor Richard Daley overreacted considerably: All of Chicago’s 12,000 police were put on 12-hour shifts, 7,500 regular Army troops were flown in to suppress potential riots in black neighborhoods, and 6,000 National Guardsmen were armed with flamethrowers and bazookas, trained to fight mock battles with hippies. When the convention passed a plank supporting the war, the two sides clashed in the streets outside, turning into what an official report called “a police riot.” Scenes of the street fighting were broadcast live to the whole nation for 17 minutes, and the chaos spread into the convention itself. Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of the police from the podium, and in response Mayor Daley screamed a stream of obscenities at him. All told, the convention showed a party badly divided and out of control.
‘Trump-fest took [vitriol and character assassination] to … levels not seen since 1992’
Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University.
This was certainly one of the ugliest and angriest conventions in recent history. While vitriol and character assassination have always been part of party conventions, Trump-fest took this to new levels—or at least levels not seen since 1992, when Patrick Buchanan lit up the Republican convention with his call to arms for a culture war with the Democrats. A central focus of almost every speech was been to vilify and criminalize the Democratic nominee with barroom rhetoric. This is not to say the convention won’t be effective in mobilizing Trump supporters and partisan Republicans, but it has lowered the bar as to what kind of political rhetoric is permissible from the podium.
‘The 1968 Democratic Convention has long stood as the worst … Until now’
Jason Sokol is an associate professor of History at the University of New Hampshire.
The 1968 Democratic Convention has long stood as the worst convention in history. Until now. The 1968 convention showed the Democrats as a party hopelessly divided, torn in two by the Vietnam War. Inside the convention hall, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago barked anti-Semitic epithets at Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff. Outside, in Grant Park, the Chicago police savagely beat protesters. There seemed to be no worse way to nominate a president. Today’s Republicans have found a worse way. The 2016 Republican Convention was remarkable not for its bumbling shows of discord—culminating in Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement—but for the ways in which it illuminated a consistent message: hatred. Most other conventions have attempted to offer hopeful visions of the candidate and the nation. Richard Nixon did indeed pledge “law-and-order” at the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, but he softened it with doses of sunny optimism.
This convention centered on a terrifying theme of anger. The thousands of attendees reveled in their hatred for Hillary Clinton, for immigrants, for Muslims, for African Americans. Rudy Giuliani raged at black protesters. Chris Christie fueled the crowd’s fury toward Clinton, apparently hoping that millions of Americans would forget how his own political team perpetrated the most vengeful scheme since the days of Watergate. Donald Trump presided ominously over it all. In the end, Trump presented himself just as he has throughout the campaign: he is the ultimate fear-monger, with nothing but enmity to offer.
‘With [a wall] as the one concrete platform plank, literally, the Republican convention might indeed be the worst.’
Meg Jacobs, research scholar in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University
It’s hard to call this the worst convention. The numbers who tuned in were up, the speakers unified members at the arena and at home around a central theme—anti-Hillary, and the race thus far shows that what the press sees as fumbles and gaffes does not hurt the GOP nominee and often helps him. So by those measures Trump had a good convention. He promised a good show and with the constant cheers like “lock her up” or “build a wall” or “send them home” he delivered.
The remaining question, though, is: Can a candidate sustain a race premised largely on hate and not on real policy? History suggests otherwise. Trump does offer a promise of greatness. But even that vision rests largely on targeting others. It’s hard to think of any other convention where the major party candidate has run so much on force of personality alone, promising to be the tough guy against undesirables. But targeting undesirables is not an economic platform. Trump may have been trying to channel Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 with his appeal to forgotten and silent Americans. All he seems to be offering, though, is permission to speak up and say ugly “politically incorrect” things. Nixon too used racially coded messages and conservative messages. And like Trump he was an opportunist. But unlike trying to rally working class and middle class Americans through nativism, Nixon also offered concrete programs. To broaden his base, he supported EPA, OSHA and even price controls to protect struggling Americans. Reagan also promised to rid the country of Jimmy Carter’s malaise through a clear conservative fiscal agenda, as did the two Bushes.
To rally his base Trump, the real estate mogul, came back to where he started his campaign with a promise to build a wall. With this promise as the one concrete platform plank, literally, the Republican convention might indeed be the worst. And if his appeal premised largely on hatred works that will be a new low.
‘This was the worst convention—if by “worst,” we mean the most fascist and populist in recent memory.’
Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at The New School in New York.
I agree that this was the worst convention—if by “worst,” we mean the most fascist and populist in recent memory. To be sure, Donald Trump’s extremism echoed that of Republicans past, like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. But for global historians of fascism such as myself, the convention was something entirely new, and clearly the worst from the perspective of undemocratic developments. It signaled, at the top of the Republican ticket, the new American preeminence—in line with a strain of xenophobic right-wing populism that is developing around the world.
Through Trump’s mix of racism, religious discrimination, anti-migration and anti-integration rhetoric, along with the new call for the imprisonment of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, (the “lock her up” chant was a prevailing theme at the convention), Trump presented himself on the global stage as a new dominant world leader for the populist pack. In his leadership style, a striking first at the GOP convention, Trump was less comparable to previous Republican candidates and more akin to the likes of Marine Le Pen in France, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. All these powerful leaders are reminiscent, in turn, of historical figures like General Juan Perón in Argentina and Getulio Vargas in Brazil, who converted fascist ideas into a form of electoral authoritarianism dubbed populism.
These leaders sent opponents to jail. Like we saw at the convention, they made a point of presenting those they did not like—whether political opponents, the media or the judiciary—as enemies rather than interlocutors or sectors of society entitled to different opinions. All populists claim to talk in the name of the masses and against the elites, just as Trump on Thursday declared, “I am your voice.” But in practice, they replace the voices of the citizens with their own singular voice. Decrying a diverse plurality of American voices, the Republican convention showed the world that America and Trumpism are writing a new chapter in the long global history of authoritarian challenges to democracy. That is a scarier outcome than any other presidential convention I can remember.
Retelling Tales of Contentious Conventions
Retelling Tales of Contentious Conventions
Sen. Everett Dirksen reacts to the vote against Robert Taft, whom he supported for president during the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago. © Bettmann/Corbis hide caption
Sen. Abraham Ribicoff cites "Gistapo tactics" of Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic convention. Corbis hide caption
Political conventions aren't what they used to be. Floor fights over platforms and nominees have given way to "unified, happy affairs," NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts says.
As Democrats convene in Boston to nominate Sen. John Kerry, Roberts and NPR's Renee Montagne discuss the history of some of the most contentious conventions and why the gatherings aren't as dramatic as they once were.
"The parties have been trying to go to the electorate with a unified message," Roberts says. "But beyond that, the people who control the conventions won't let the people with different views speak."
The last time there was even an attempt at that was in the 1992 Democratic convention, when Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey wanted to talk about abortion. But Casey was told he could not make a pro-life speech at the convention.
Also long gone are conventions with a real fight over the nomination. The 1952 Republican convention pitted conservative Robert Taft of Ohio against Dwight Eisenhower. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who backed Taft, accused Thomas Dewey, the GOP nominee in 1944 and 1948, of leading the party "down the road to defeat." Eisenhower was nominated and went on to become president.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater was considered by some Republicans to be too conservative. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tried to bring the GOP back to the middle, warning of "an extremist threat" to the party posed by groups like the John Birch Society. He was drowned out by cries of "we want Barry" from the convention floor. Goldwater won the nomination but lost the election in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
The country's deep division over the Vietnam War came to a head at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, addressing the convention, condemned "Gestapo tactics" of Mayor Richard Daley's police cracking down on the antiwar protesters outside. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated over Sen. George McGovern, who was favored by war opponents.
"There are some Democrats who think that that convention cost them the election in 1968, which was very, very close, and they haven't had a raucous convention since then," Roberts says.
When Aretha Franklin Rocked the National Anthem
In 1968, the Queen of Soul drew a fierce, racially charged reaction when she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Democratic National Convention. The reaction to her death shows how much America has changed—and hasn’t.
Zack Stanton is digital editor of Politico Magazine . You can find him on Twitter at @zackstanton.
Five decades ago this month—before “Chicago 1968” became shorthand for mayhem and riots, days ahead of Sen. Abe Ribicoff’s convention-stage denunciation of the police department’s “Gestapo tactics,” and minutes ahead of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “welcome” speech threatening “law and order in Chicago”—Aretha Franklin opened the Democratic National Convention with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that gave birth to days of outrage among older, white traditionalists upset that the 26-year-old black Detroiter hadn’t stuck to what they thought the script of a national anthem performance should be.
“When the Democratic party selected Aretha Franklin to sing … it apparently was not aware that a ‘soul’ version of the anthem is considered bad taste,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Paul Jones. “The appearance of Miss Franklin stirred more controversy than even the seating of the [segregated] Georgia delegations.” “Musically, the generation gap was never so wide,” said New York Times critic Jack Gould.
True, Miss Franklin was singing behind the beat of the full military-style band playing the anthem in accompaniment, but this, her manager explained, was not a stylistic choice so much as an unintentional one—they were at one end of the arena and she was on the other, performing without the benefit of an in-ear monitor to hear them.
“Did she know the words?” harumphed Boston Globe TV critic Percy Shain. “Did she leave out ‘land of the free’? And if so, was it inadvertent or intentional, as a comment on the status of the black people?” (The missing answers: Yes, though she stumbled once No and Not Applicable.)
Watching the recording of Franklin’s performance today—knowing how everything turned out for her, that she’d come to be revered as the national consensus choice as the greatest voice of the 20th century and that her death Thursday at age 76 uncorked a nationwide outpouring of remembrance—it’s difficult to imagine what exactly people were so riled up about.
But there had never been anyone like Aretha Louise Franklin.
There’d been female pop stars, but their voices were thin, or their skin was light, or their waists were safely narrow, or their sensibilities fine-tuned for mainstream audiences. Some, like Diana Ross or Ronnie Spector, were relegated to “girl groups” under the thumb of brand-name record executives and producers. Gospel stars who crossed over were men with matinee-idol looks, like Sam Cooke. Crooners like Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were of an older vintage and had to sand down their rough edges. In the 1960s, black artists who made it big with white audiences—including the entire Motown stable—often had to check their politics at the door so as to avoid controversy (which, per Hitsville impresario Berry Gordy’s business sensibilities, was de facto company policy).
All of which made what Franklin was doing all the more daring. She was black. She was a woman. She had curves. She was strong, but knew deep pain. She was angry about injustice. She came from the church. She married Sunday morning with Saturday night. She didn’t apologize for it or check anything at the door. And in 1968, that made her daring.
By the time of the Democratic convention, Aretha was 19 months into a burn-your-tongue hot streak unlike anything a woman of color had ever had the opportunity to achieve. Within that time span, she became the top-selling solo female artist in music history, with nine top-10 hits.
The emotions she evokes on those songs are, half a century later, still so perfectly heartfelt it’s hard not to envision that Aretha is pouring out her soul directly onto the vinyl record press. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with her soft ecstasy on a lyric like “Oh baby, what you’ve done to me.” Her cut-the-bullshit tone on “Chain of Fools.” On “Think,” the way the pushback in her voice gets more and more assertive, as if she’s whipping herself into a lather the more she recalls how she’s been treated. She takes Otis Redding’s “Respect,” an up-tempo number about a man wanting to receive respect when he comes home from work, slows it down and inverts it into the story of a working woman demanding—not asking for—the treatment she’s earned. The matter-of-fact way she falls into a reverie then snaps out of it: “Oooh, your kisses—sweeter than honey. But guess what? So is my money.” She owns the song so completely that we cannot imagine it ever belonging to anyone else. (Not for nothing did Chicago deejay Pervis Spann anoint her the “Queen of Soul” in October 1967.)
With so much professional success over the previous year and a half, it was a risk to sing at the 1968 Democratic National Convention amid the tumult of the Vietnam War and student protests, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, with an unpopular President Lyndon B. Johnson declining to run for reelection. Offering her voice for the “The Star-Spangled Banner” at that moment in time was itself a political act. So was the flavor of the way she sang it, imprinting the stylings of black gospel music upon the national anthem, laying claim to it as belonging to people like her, even as some Southern Democrats in that very hall were threatening to leave the party and support the presidential campaign of segregationist Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.
Today, we take for granted that pop artists can express their political views and for the most part, nobody really bats an eye. That wasn’t always the case, especially for performers of color.
Aretha Franklin was part of the reason that changed.
She’d always been a social justice activist, the unavoidable outcome of growing up the daughter of Detroit megapastor C.L. Franklin, a man born in Mississippi a half-century after the end of slavery and a half-century before the Voting Rights Act. The Rev. Franklin was an agitator for change, a man whose musical, whooping sermons were carried on black radio stations nationwide. He toured the country in the 1950s and ’60s with a gospel act that featured his daughters. In Detroit, he’d organized the June 23, 1963, Walk to Freedom, the largest civil rights march in American history at the time, where more than 100,000 demonstrators turned out and his friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “He was the high priest of soul preaching,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson eulogized at C.L. Franklin’s funeral in 1984, combining “soul, silence, substance and sweetness.”
Aretha Franklin’s inheritance was a tradition in which the political was about justice, justice was about morality, morality about the church’s teachings, and the church was alive through song. “American history wells up when Aretha sings,” President Barack Obama said in 2016. How could a voice like that, charged with such raw emotion, not be political?
With her convention performance, people listened to Franklin and saw and heard what they wanted to or needed to. Any offense lived in the imagination, and as such, certain prejudices took hold in certain viewers.
In that sense, it is not unlike viewers’ reactions to the protests of black athletes during the national anthem today (at the urging of a military veteran, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel, not sit, during the song in order to demonstrate his reverence for it). People read unintended motivations into actions, seeing or hearing what they, on some psychic level, want.
Unlike those athletes, though, Aretha Franklin wasn’t protesting during the anthem. When she sang the song’s closing line—“O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”—she was not protesting, but singing it as written, as a question rather than a claim of fact. That she was the one singing it was statement enough.
On this day in 1968, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley opened the four-day Democratic National Convention at International Amphitheater in what would prove to be the most violent such gathering in U.S. history. From its inception, the delegates were primed to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey for president to succeed President Lyndon B. Johnson, who chose not to run for reelection.
Outside the convention hall, tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators took to Chicago’s streets to protest the Vietnam War.
In the ensuing days and nights, police and National Guardsmen repeatedly clashed with protesters. Hundreds of people, including many innocent bystanders, were beaten. Some were beaten unconscious, sending hundreds of them to hospital emergency rooms. There were multiple arrests.
The violence even spilled over to the convention hall, as guards roughed up some delegates and members of the press. Writer Terry Southern described the convention hall as “exactly like approaching a military installation barbed-wire, checkpoints, the whole bit.” CBS correspondents Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up by security guards — Wallace was punched in the face. Both incidents were broadcast live on television.
For the rest of the convention week, violence followed the pattern set at its start. An exception: protesters were joined on Aug. 28 by the Poor People's Campaign, led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Ralph Abernathy. This group had a permit and was split off from other demonstrators before being allowed to proceed to the amphitheater.