50 years ago in Chicago

By Jules Witcover

Half a century ago this week in Chicago, the Democratic National Convention nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey for president. It occurred amid wild protests in the streets and in the convention hall against the Vietnam War, casting a pall over his election chances and the party itself.

In what an investigation later declared a “police riot,” Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley’s forces clubbed thousands of protesters into submission and lockup. The events set a tone of chaos and discontent that led in November to the election of Republican Richard M. Nixon.

Those scenes of stark drama and disunion were emblematic of “The Year the Dream Died.” That phrase — the title of a book I wrote about that fateful year — described not only the events of August and November but also the brutal and devastating assassinations of two Democratic icons, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy six weeks later.

Both men were fervent opponents of the Vietnam War, the frustrations and failures of which earlier in the year had obliged then President Lyndon B. Johnson suddenly to end his bid for re-election. Humphrey inherited the bulk of LBJ delegates, and after RFK’s death he went on dispiritedly to win the Democratic nomination, only to lose that fall to Nixon.

Prior to the Democratic convention, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern was persuaded to pick up the Robert Kennedy mantle, and ran as a stand-in for his delegates, but got nowhere. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, still a challenger to Humphrey for the nomination, never had a chance.

When Humphrey proposed to make a speech calling for a bombing halt in North Vietnam, Johnson was said to have told him: “You can get a headline with this, Hubert. But if you just let me work for peace you’ll have better chance for election than by any speech you’re going to give.”

A decisive floor debate over a Vietnam plank demanded by anti-war Democrats fueled the street riots and left Humphrey a dogged but politically wounded nominee. The plank was defeated by LBJ loyalists and Humphrey delegates, and outside the convention hall more demonstrations broke out.

After the voting against the plank on Johnson’s instruction, a memorial film of RFK was shown, triggering more vocal combat and calls of “We Want Teddy!” — referring to the surviving, grieving Kennedy brother, who declined to become an 11th hour candidate.

At Grant Park in downtown Chicago, police at Daley’s orders flooded into a makeshift camp and beat and arrested hundreds of anti-war demonstrators. Many were led by then student leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, both among the arrested. Nixon contended he had a plan to win the war but never revealed it.

At one point, LBJ made veiled threats to Humphrey that he would go to the convention and say he had changed his mind about not seeking re-election. He never followed through with what certainly would have triggered even more violence.

Across from Grant Park in the Conrad Hilton, Humphrey and McCarthy in their rooms could look down on the mayhem and hear the repeated taunts of “Dump the Hump!” and chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?”

Police gas wafted up to McCarthy’s room and he retreated to a 15th floor room set up as a first-aid station for his young campaign workers. When he learned that police had rounded up a group of them in the hotel lobby and were about to jail them, he raced down and intervened, telling them to return to their rooms.

Humphrey called reporters to his room and with watering eyes blamed the demonstrators, saying: “They don’t represent the people of Chicago. They’ve been brought in from all over the country. We knew this was going to happen. It was all programmed.”

In the Haymarket Lounge on the ground floor, after filing my final story of the night, I joined colleagues for nightcap as waitresses cleared tables amid the stench of stink bombs, as if it were just another work shift for them.

Such was Hubert Humphrey’s less-than-happy hour at the Chicago convention that made him a hapless Democratic presidential nominee on that night half a century ago.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.