1968 Democratic Convention

The Bosses Strike Back

Inside the convention hall, delegates battled over the Vietnam War and the power of the party establishment. Outside, Chicago police prepared for a parallel battle with antiwar protesters who flooded the city. (Bettmann/ Corbis)
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It was against this extraordinarily emotional background that the Democrats convened. Hubert H. Humph- rey, LBJ's vice president, had sat out the primaries but secured delegates controlled by the party establishment. Senator Eugene McCarthy—the antiwar candidate whose strong second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary had demonstrated Johnson's vulnerability—had abundant forces in the hall, but they were now relegated to the role of protesters. Senator George S. McGovern had rallied what remained of Kennedy's forces, but he, too, knew he led a group whose hopes had been extinguished.

From whatever political perspective—party regulars, irregulars or reformers—they all shared an abiding pessimism over their prospects against a Republican Party that had coalesced behind Richard M. Nixon. They gave voice to their various frustrations in the International Amphitheatre during bitter, often profane, floor fights over antiwar resolutions. The eventual nomination of Humphrey, perceived heir to Johnson's war policies, compounded the sense of betrayal among those who opposed the war. The bosses, not the people who voted in the primaries, had won.

The violence that rent the convention throughout that week, much of it captured live on television, confirmed both the Democrats' pessimism and the country's judgment of a political party torn by dissension and disunity. In November the party would lose the White House to Nixon's law-and-order campaign. In the nine presidential elections since, Democrats have won only three, and only once—in 1976, after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign in disgrace—did they take, barely, more than 50 percent of the votes.

Changes in party rules have curtailed the establishment's power to anoint a presidential nominee, but the ideological divides have persisted; thus this year's rival candidates battled bitterly to win state primaries. And after such a divisive primary season, in the end the nomination still depended on the "superdelegates" that replaced the party bosses.

One 1968 memory remains indelible 40 years later. Throughout that week I had been a guest commentator on NBC's "Today" show, broadcasting live from Chicago. Early Friday morning, a few hours after the convention ended, I took the elevator to the lobby of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where I had been staying, to head for the studio. As the elevator doors opened, I saw huddled before me a group of young McCarthy volunteers. They had been bludgeoned by Chicago police, and sat there with their arms around each other and their backs against the wall, bloody and sobbing, consoling one another. I don't know what I said on the "Today" show that morning. I do remember that I was filled with a furious rage. Just thinking of it now makes me angry all over again.

Haynes Johnson, who has written 14 books, covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention for the Washington Star.


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