How 2016’s Tumultuous Political Climate Mirrors the Dramatic Scene of 1968

It’s a presidential election year. The country is roiling. There’s violence in the streets and a growing menace overseas. As the convention unfolds, authorities brace for unrest. The national mood can only be described as grim.

This probably sounds familiar. But it is in fact a description of the cultural cauldron that was boiling over during the 1968 presidential contest, most famously at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

That event — punctuated by broadcasts of crowds of demonstrators chanting, “The whole world is watching!” and live coverage of altercations inside the convention hall — marked a turning point in the media’s handling of national conventions.

This year, after decades of bland, carefully choreographed conventions that have met with low viewership, audiences once again find themselves engaged in coverage that offers the possibility of something rare: both political news value and civil unrest.

Already the Republican National Convention is off to a tumultuous start. Nerves had been on edge about the potential for revolt on the convention floor, and indeed members of the Donald Trump campaign and representatives of the “Stop Trump” movement had a chaotic shouting match after party leaders blocked a roll-call vote on convention rules, essentially guaranteeing Trump the nomination.

Then there were allegations that portions of Melania Trump’s speech plagiarized statements made by Michelle Obama eight years ago at the DNC.

Most of the evening’s speeches — given 
under the convention theme of “Make America Safe Again” — focused on perceived threats to the nation. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said. “They fear for their children. They fear for themselves.”

Openly racist rhetoric was heard at the gathering. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, speaking on an MSNBC panel, questioned the contributions of non-white people to civilization.

Riot Act: During protests around the 1968 convention, reporters were shocked by the level of force used by police. Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Trump’s unconventional, antagonistic campaign, and the volatile state of U.S. race relations surrounding the shooting of unarmed black men by white police officers and the shooting of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., have raised parallels between 2016 and that historic 1968 convention. “The more we see this year unfold, the more it is seeming like 1968,” says CBS News veteran Bob Schieffer.

So far, events in Cleveland have not matched the level of anarchy that ensued nearly 50 years ago in Chicago. With police-provoked riots outside, and shouting and scuffling among delegates inside, the 1968 convention marked the implosion of the Democratic Party and a pivotal moment for the nation as a whole.

“It was a terrible time,” says Sam Donaldson, the ABC News veteran who covered the conventions that year. “What came out of Chicago was chaos.”

Journalists who were swept up in the mayhem of those August nights note differences between the unrest then and now. In 2016, there are myriad issues driving partisan and cultural divisions. The big factor that fueled the 1968 meltdown was opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft.

“There are huge similarities between 1968 and today despite all the changes over the last half century,” says CBS News vet Bill Plante, who covered the convention that year. “There is the part of the population that feels ignored and discriminated against by the authorities. There is a level of discontent and the feeling that things are getting out of control. But without the war, it’s hard to say it’s really the same.”

The 1968 convention received gavel-to-gavel live TV coverage inside the hall, but outside was a different story. Even the largest news organizations were still shooting 
on film, which meant an hourslong, if not daylong, delay in processing before it could air. That’s why footage of the melees that erupted during the convention week is hard to come by. Filmmaker Haskell Wexler famously found himself in the right place at the right time to capture dramatic footage of the bedlam in the streets, which he used in his 1969 feature “Medium Cool,” about a reporter who gets swept up in the violence at the convention.

“It all escalated in a matter of seconds. One of them punched me in the solar plexus. There, in a microcosm, is everything you need to know about what happened at that convention.”
Dan Rather

“All we had in the field were film cameras,” Donaldson recalls. “Video cameras were not lightweight like they are now. So that really made it hard to have instant communication.”

Still, there’s no doubt that the unsettling scenes from Aug. 26 to 29, 1968, helped Republican Richard Nixon defeat Hubert Humphrey, the incumbent vice president, 
that November. The breakdown in Chicago 
could not have been better scripted to support Nixon’s message of being the “law and order candidate” — the same mantle Trump has invoked.

Dan Rather, the CBS News alum who has covered every presidential nominating convention since 1960, notes that 1968 marked the end of the reign of iron-fisted Democratic Party bosses such as Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor at the time. Daley sought to make the 1968 DNC a showcase for his city, by any means necessary. That directive was passed on to his police force. A post-convention federal probe found that the conflicts involving thousands of antiwar protestors amounted to a “police riot.”

TV and film footage of the unrest shows Chicago police officers mercilessly beating 
youthful protestors with billy clubs and riot shields. Tear gas and stink bombs were lobbed to keep protestors away from the International Amphitheatre where the convention was held. Chicago became a textbook case of crowd control gone awry. Even as protestors taunted and pelted cops with rocks and other projectiles, reporters on the scene were shocked by the level of force used by police.

“I was not prepared for what happened in 1968, and I don’t think anybody was,” Rather says. “Daley could not keep control inside the hall. Nor could his police and other forces keep control outside the hall. There was, if you will, an explosion. Outside, it eventually devolved into a scene from ‘Les Misérables.’ ”

The 1968 conventions came on the heels of riots in major cities and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in June. Just four days before King was slain, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection, after early primary results revealed the depth of the opposition to his escalation of the war.

Donaldson notes similarities between the outpouring of support by young adults for Sanders’ liberal platform and the groundswell of youthful energy in 1968 behind Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. McCarthy campaigned on an antiwar platform, which resonated with the generation facing the draft.

Johnson’s withdrawal and the assassination of Kennedy sent the Democratic race into a tailspin. The “Clean for Gene” kids (McCarthy’s volunteers vowed to cut their hair and lose the hippie garb to help him win) were outraged that Humphrey was chosen by Democratic Party bosses even though he had not run in a single primary.

Activists in Action: An anti-Trump rally on July 18, the first day of the convention, highlighted a variety of causes. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

“Bernie Sanders was the not the first candidate to inspire a generation of young activists,” Donaldson says. “The thing that stands out about Chicago was the clash between young and old over the war. Mayor Daley had his idea of what he wanted the convention to look like. He ordered his police to surprise these kids in the street with tear gas and riot batons. The stage was set for violence and chaos.”

Inside the convention, the action was captured live. CBS News alum Rather was famously punched in the stomach by a security guard as he tried to speak with a delegate who was being hustled out of the hall. He was unaware at the time that the incident was broadcast live on the network.

Security “kept trying to muscle me out of the way, and I kept trying to talk to this delegate and ask why he was being ejected,” Rather recalls. “It all escalated in a matter 
of seconds. One of them punched me in the solar plexus to get me out of the way. There, in a microcosm, is everything you need to know about what happened at that convention.”

NBC News’ John Chancellor didn’t get clocked, but he did get caught up in a boisterous shouting match between members of the New York and Alabama delegations — one that also aired live.

“This is a perfect indication of the mood of this convention on the floor,” Chancellor told NBC’s live TV audience, “fractious, disputatious, discontented, annoyed, mad at the security force and the police here.”

Another famous moment was the F-bomb dropped after Abraham Ribicoff, the powerful senator from Connecticut, decried the Chicago police’s “Gestapo” tactics during his speech nominating South Dakota Sen. George McGovern (who would win the Democratic nomination in 1972). News cameras caught Daley mouthing “F— you” in response (although he later maintained he was shouting “faker”). In 1968, such language was shocking for network television. “Whatever he said, it started with an ‘F,’ ” Plante says.

Schieffer attended the 1968 convention 
not as a reporter but as a political spouse. His wife, Patricia, was a member of the Texas State Democratic Executive Committee. The drama, he recalls, even made its way into the Hilton Hotel where many delegates were staying. “One night we came back to the hotel, and there were fire hoses running through the lobby and police everywhere,” Schieffer says. “Somebody had set a fire in the hotel. Gene McCarthy was trying to negotiate with the cops who had come into the hotel and clashed with his young supporters. It was all just scary.”

Plante witnessed the worst of the outdoor rioting on the night of Aug. 28. Police and protestors had been clashing throughout the week in various locations near the convention site, but the climax came on the night Humphrey took the floor to accept the nomination. The battle erupted around 8:30 p.m., after pressure had been building following an antiwar rally in Grant Park, as thousands of people tried to move from the park to the amphitheatre.

“The cops advanced on the protestors and anyone else who was in the way, swinging their clubs, throwing tear gas,” Plante says. “People were watching from the balconies of hotels. There had been a lot of taunting of police all day. It was just a really ugly moment. Being in the middle of it — I’ll never forget it.”

Plante’s crew got about 10 minutes of footage, but eventually had to retreat “or we’d get whacked in the head,” he says.

The tension was so pervasive and the issues so divisive that below-the-belt brawling extended into the TV studio, where ABC News had National Review editor William F. Buckley and author Gore Vidal conducting nightly point-counterpoint commentaries on the convention.

“Bernie Sanders was not the first candidate to inspire a generation of young activists. The thing that stands out about Chicago was the clash between young and old over the war.…The stage was set for violence and chaos.”
Sam Donaldson

“One night it got so vicious, Vidal called Buckley a ‘crypto-Nazi,’ and Buckley shot back, ‘You’re a queer,’ ” Donaldson says, recalling his shock at the language going out on live TV. “Howard K. Smith was saying ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, please.’ ”

The fallout from the Chicago convention included the federal investigation of police tactics and a four-year legal battle over the “Chicago 7” protest leaders. But the most lasting ramification was a generation’s worth of damage to the Democratic Party’s image.

The debacle also marked the beginning of the modern emphasis on primaries and caucuses as the vehicle by which candidates are selected. Anger over the fact that Democratic insiders installed Humphrey forced big changes in the party’s rules by 1972 (when Nixon cruised to reelection in a landslide victory over McGovern).

“1968 was the last time that you could argue the conventions actually decided [the nominee],” Rather says. “That changed post-1968, when the balance of power shifted to the primaries and caucuses.”

That shift also coincided with the nominating conventions becoming much more predictable and made-for-TV affairs. Party leaders were too spooked by the memory of Chicago 1968 to leave much to chance. “With a few exceptions, you’ve basically seen the conventions become infomercials for the parties,” Rather says.

He and others note that the tools of communication available in 1968 were primitive by the standards of today, when anyone with a smartphone can be a broadcaster. Back then, reporters had to don headphones and a backpack full of equipment just to communicate with producers in makeshift convention studios. Rather remembers feeling like he was “in a bad futuristic movie” wearing headphones with an antenna sticking up on top.

This year, Rather will be a one-man band: He’s doing reports for Sirius XM Satellite Radio and longer dispatches that he will produce himself for broadcast via — what else? — Facebook Live. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he says.

He and other veterans of the Battle of Chicago say they hope law enforcement and security forces remember the most important lesson from 1968.

“The Republicans will make every effort to keep the lid on this convention and not have violence,” Donaldson says. “But the Republicans are not going to be in control of the forces outside. The people who come to protest Donald Trump need to be handled in the right way, unlike the Chicago police of 1968, so that it doesn’t break into full-scale warfare.”

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