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Chicago '68: Minnesota politics scorches nation.

Byline: Kevin Featherly

Fifty years ago, Minnesota was at the epicenter of the nation's political universeand perhaps came to regret it.

As the Democrats prepared for their August 1968 national convention in Chicago, the party's presidential candidates were two leading Minnesota politiciansVice President Hubert Humphrey and his Jesuitical antiwar opponent, U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

The convention arrived just beyond the midway point of one of America's most fraught years, featuring a series of shocksthe Tet Offensive, the abdication of President Lyndon Johnson, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, rioting in the cities. It was all prelude. Neither Humphrey nor McCarthy could have anticipated the intensity of the firestorm that awaited them in Chicago.

But Mayor Richard J. Daley sensed it. He converted his city into an armed encampment. Irrationally worried that 100,000 left-wing radicals were about to descend on Chicago, Daley ringed the convention hall with barbed wire and placed the city's 12,000 police on 12-hour shifts. He pulled in the Illinois National Guard troops, the U.S. Army, state and county law officers, Secret Service agents and private security contractorsbetween 25,000 and 30,000 defenders. The force Daley assembled was larger than George Washington's Continental Army.

"Never had so many feared so much from so few," Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko observed in his classic Daley biography "Boss" in 1971. "At most, 5,000 war protesters had come to Chicago."

Any mismatch was ignored. Chicago's blue-collar cops moved in and hit college-aged hippies hardalong with many journalists and other onlookers. The clubbings started at 11 p.m. Sunday night, when police pushed 4,000 protesters out of Lincoln Park and into the streets. They continued until conventioneers finally left town Friday morning.

"By Monday night," Royko wrote, "it was irrelevant to the police whether the person they clubbed was young or old, male or female, a protester or a hapless neighborhood resident who happened to be on his way home from work."

At the moment of Humphrey's Aug. 28 nomination in the Chicago amphitheater, McCarthy was in his 23rd floor hotel suite overlooking Grant Park. As he watched, a particularly violent clash unfolded below between protesters on one side, police and National Guardsmen on the other. He saw authorities execute a precise pincer movement against demonstrators, reminding the professorial McCarthy of Hannibal's ancient Battle of Cannae against the Romans.

"A battle of purgatory," McCarthy murmured as he turned away in disgust.

Not that protesters were all innocents. Some hurled rocks and bricks at police, others threw golf balls spiked with nails. Some were said to drop glass ashtrays from hotel windows at riot squads below. With all the tumult, Hubert Humphrey's doomed nomination arrived as a near-afterthought.

Fifty years later, the images of Chicago '68 remain stamped on the American political psyche. Even more vivid are the memories of those who were there.

For this piece, four eyewitnesses were interviewedHumphrey's top speechwriter Ted Van Dyk; former U.S. Congressman Don Fraser; Ridder Publications Washington correspondent Al Eisele; and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer. Together they shared their insights on Minnesota politics' moment in the black-hole sunChicago '68.

'What is happening?'

In 1968, George Latimer was a 33-year-old labor attorney and precinct organizer who hadn't yet risen in the political ranks. He went to Chicago under false pretexta well-connected friend scored him a bogus press pass.

His press-box vantage point gave Latimer a bird's-eye view of the notorious, televised clash between Daley and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, when the Connecticut senator took to podium and denounced the mayor's repressive "Gestapo tactics." Latimer couldn't hear the string of vulgarities Daley allegedly spewed back from the floor, but remembers seeing Daley sweep his finger across his throat, motioning for Ribicoff to shut his mouth.

But Latimer's most vivid memory occurred outside the hall, during a visit to McCarthy's headquarters suite on the 15th floor of the Conrad Hilton. There, Latimer stepped to the window and gazed out at the fighting on Michigan Avenue and inside Grant Park below.

"The lighting was eerie, it was almost like there were floodlights," he recalls. "Coming across the bridge were jeeps with mounted machine guns. The Guard was coming. I was reminded of a play, [Jean Genet's] The Balcony, I once saw, which has to do with a dictator. It reminded me of that, in that it looked like the military was going to take over."

It was a moment of pure foreboding, he recalled, and almost biblically awesome.

"It filled you not with the awe of admiration but of being stunned, by seeing something that you looked at in disbelief, something that couldn't be happening here in our country," he said. Chicago, indeed that entire star-crossed year, "shook us," Latimer said. "And it's not hyperbole to say that we have never been the same."

'A terrific story'

One chapter title in Al Eisele's 1971 Humphrey/McCarthy biography, "Almost to the Presidency" says it all: "CatastropheChicago 1968."

Chicago was the first of many presidential conventions that Minnesota native Eisele covered in his career. The retired editor of Washington, D.C.'s The Hill newspaper was a Washington correspondent for Ridder Publications and covered the action inside and outside the Chicago convention hall. It was one of the three most important stories he ever coveredthe others being Watergate and the Clinton impeachment. It was probably the most dramatic of them all.

One incident sticks in his memory. On the final evening of the convention, he was in McCarthy's Hilton suite talking to the candidate. Outside yet another Grant Park clash was ragingthe worst of the week. Cops threw several demonstrators through the hotel's plate-glass windows while randomly clubbing anyone who got in their way; teargas seeped into the hotel's lobby.

Someone rushed into McCarthy's suite upstairs and urged the senator to get downstairs and tell the cops to lay off his volunteers. Accompanied by two physiciansMcCarthy's brother Austin and Dr. Bill Davidson, they all went downstairs to try to stop the beatings and treat the injured. Eisele went along to observe, being careful not to get in the way of swinging nightsticks.

Afterwards came the incomprehensible. According to "Almost to the Presidency," at 5 a.m. Friday morning, with the convention over, police stormed McCarthy's hotel suites, awakening, clubbing and herding campaign volunteers into elevators under the pretext that they had thrown ashtrays at cops from their windows.

McCarthy phoned the Humphrey campaign 10 flights up, urging the vice president's aides to summon him to come down and force an end to the raid. "I talked to [Humphrey's] people," Eisele remembers, "and they were urging him to go downstairs and do something. But he didn't, for whatever reason."

For a disappointed McCarthy, it was the final straw. He later said Humphrey's refusal to help his volunteers was a primary reason he refused to endorse Humphrey until the campaign's waning days. His anger helped keep Democrats divided well after Chicago, badly hurting Humphrey's chances.

Yet Eisele doesn't recall fearing for America the way Latimer did. "I didn't look at it in the apocalyptic terms," he said. "But clearly it was not something that helped the image of America around the world or helped the Democratic Partyor helped the democratic process, or helped Humphrey's hopes."

What he remembers was that Chicago '68 was a hell of a story with two politicians he had covered for years as principal actors. "The political tumult and the street violence, all that, was part of the political story," Eisele said.

'The 800-pound gorilla'

Former Congressman Don Fraser was a near-anomaly among'68 convention delegates: an outspoken war critic who supported Humphrey. "He wasn't particularly happy about that," Fraser said, "although he never made it an issue between us."

Fraser, who left Congress in 1979 and served as Minneapolis mayor from 1980 to 1993, spent his time in Chicago attending to convention business. He did not witness the street violence firsthand, though like all delegates at the convention he was aware of what was happening.

He remains baffled by Daley's show of force. "I have never seen a good account of what his reasoning was," Fraser said. "The impression I've been left with is that he was just determined to show that he was in charge."

Fraser was not in Humphrey's inner circle, but had private conversations with the vice president that, to Fraser, indicated Humphrey had misgivings about Vietnam and wanted out. "He supported Johnson," Fraser said, "but it was because he was vice-presidentnot because he felt necessarily that this was the cause for which the United States should be sending so many people over to fight."

For reasons known best to himself, Humphrey was unable or unwilling to break from the president on the war during that critical convention week in Chicago, Fraser said.

"Whether he had fears of how Johnson might respond, denouncing Humphrey publicly or whatever, I don't know," Fraser said. "I have the impression that Johnson was the 800-pound gorilla in the arena in which Humphrey would have to operate."

Ted Van Dyk: 'He could have'

Few people were closer to Hubert Humphrey than Ted Van Dyk, the vice president's senior assistant and top speechwriter. Van Dyk, a future Columbia University vice president, also worked as a senior advisor to the McGovern and Carter presidential campaigns. In his memoir, "Heroes, Hacks and Fools," Chicago '68 features prominently.

Violence was reaching a crescendo in Grant Park when Van Dyk went into the lobby of the Hilton to witness the melee. He remembers seeing glassware being dropped onto cops' heads from the upper floorsby McCarthy volunteers, he believes. He watched police beating people and "indiscriminately arresting everyone."

He almost got pulled bodily into the maelstrom himself. "I took about two steps off the sidewalk and was grabbed by a policeman," Van Dyk said. "I had to break his grip and go back inside." There teargas wafted into the lobby. It characterized the chaos for Van Dyk, as did another scene that he watched in horror: A man in plain clothes threw a defenseless woman, head first, down a flight of stairs.

Contrary to popular belief, Humphrey tried to break politically with Johnson before the convention, according to Van Dyk. But Humphrey was rebuked when he sought Johnson's blessing.

The campaign had prepared a white paper outlining Humphrey's independent position on Vietnam, Van Dyk said. It proposed no unilateral withdrawalthe goal of peace activistsbut offered to reduce American military presence and suggested that, with a show of good faith by the North Vietnamese in negotiations, the Hanoi bombing might be suspended. That was an accommodating step toward McCarthy's position.

"Humphrey showed it to Johnson," Van Dyk said. "Johnson said that if Humphrey issued it, he would denounce him as playing politics with peace."

But Humphrey could have refused to yield to that pressure and Van Dyk personally advised Humphrey to do so. On the other hand, Van Dyk said, Johnson's threats were hardly hollow.

"Imagine if a president were to go on national television and denounce his own vice president for harming the peace process?" Van Dyk said. "What do you think that would do to him?"

Nonetheless, Van Dyk wanted to roll the dice, call Johnson's bluff and issue the white paper. "It was an ongoing dispute inside our own group," he recalls. "Humphrey felt unable to do so."

Had he taken that step, Humphrey might have averted many of the street clashes, Van Dyk said. Adopting even the outlines of McCarthy's peace plank would leave the antiwar crowd with little to protest. That, in turn, would have spared "lunch-bucket liberals" shattering television scenes of disorder and chaos that soured them on Democrats.

Had Humphrey taken from Nixon only the blue-collar precincts of Ohio and Northern New Jersey, Van Dyk asserts, Minnesota's Happy Warrior would have been president.

Humphrey ultimately did break from Johnson in a nationally televised address from Salt Lake City on Sept. 30. The effect was dramatic; Humphrey began uniting his party and erasing Nixon's 15-point Labor Day lead. But Salt Lake City may have been too little, too late.

Why didn't Humphrey move earlier? Was he intimidated by Johnson? Was he too loyal to the president?

Neither, said Van Dyk. "He was not fatally weak; he was good-hearted," Van Dyk said. "He lacked a jugular instinct, let's put it that way. It was not in him. He never tried to get even with people; he would often not take the decisive and ruthless action which would have been in his own interest. He was just too humane. He was almost too good to be true."

Too good, in other words, for the good of the country? Van Dyk wouldn't go that far. But Humphrey's insistently good nature exacted a critical price at Chicago, he acknowledges.

"All of that led to a lack of decisiveness," Van Dyk said, "at a moment when it was really needed."

This piece, in slightly altered form, originally appeared in Law and Politics magazine in October/November 2008

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Publication:Minnesota Lawyer
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Aug 31, 2018
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