After a divisive primary campaign, during which Robert Kennedy had been killed, and Lyndon B. Johnson had dropped out under increasing pressure over the war in Vietnam, there were two main candidates left at the time of the convention in Chicago at the end of August, each representing very different groups within the Democratic party. On the one hand, there was Eugene McCarthy, who was more progressive and had support especially from opponents of the war. On the other hand, there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who in many ways stood for Johnson’s policies and was seen as the establishment candidate. The convention has been characterized as a crucial turning point, where the party elites rallied behind Humphrey and firmly rejected a peace platform. The protests that occurred are often framed as a response to this decision, whereas in reality protests had been happening all week and the only real violence that occurred was carried out by the police against protesters.

Although most accounts, both at the time and in retrospect therefore focused on what occurred in the streets of Chicago, the politics of the convention were also interesting, as Mailer’s account in particular makes clear. Most importantly, it gives the impression that Johnson was the driving force behind the convention and was perhaps the biggest villain of the entire election. Even if McCarthy never really had a chance, Johnson made sure that nothing could go wrong, controlling every aspect of the event, right down to the seating of delegates and the volume of their microphones (Miami 114). This dispels the notion that Johnson dropped out fairly and passed on the torch to Humphrey.

In reality, Humphrey was never able to become much more than “Johnson’s candidate” (Miami 114) and his overall impression was underwhelming. In discussing his acceptance speech, Mailer quotes him as little as he can and suggests that Humphrey looks like a sales manager (Miami 220), a plain and uninteresting figure that is not even worth a lengthy discussion. It also reflects larger problems within the Democratic party, which is perhaps best reflected in Mailer’s description of the Hilton hotel as “the old fort of the old Democratic Party” (Miami 162), a powerful metaphor for the state of dysfunction the party is in, unable to form a coherent platform and unwilling to adapt. From Mailer’s discussion of Robert Kennedy’s death, we get the impression that the election would most likely have taken a very different direction, or at least that people at the time really felt that way. It also reframes Eugene McCarthy, about whom Mailer does not really seems to care, as a second option rather than the ultimate peace candidate. Although he was definitely the best alternative to Humphrey, his campaign never really stood a chance.

‘People would have protested regardless of who won.’

What has really been remembered about the Democratic Convention, however, is what was happening in the streets of Chicago simultaneously. Protesters from various backgrounds, Yippies as well as peace protesters, gathered in various parks throughout downtown Chicago to protest the war in Vietnam and oppose Humphrey’s candidacy. Mailer draws attention to why the protests really happened, suggesting they had little do with the rejection of McCarthy, as is generally assumed. His description gives a more complicated explanation, as the protesters were a very mixed group, of McCarthy supporters and pacifist, but also Yippies and other New Left activists. Many of whom had thrown their support behind McCarthy’s campaign, but at the same time, most would have protested regardless of who won the nomination. It does raise the question of whether their tactics were effective, as the Democratic Party did not change its mind.

Vine Deloria suggests that the protests showed the failure of the protest movement and the New Left to mature, as their actions were rooted in the symbolic protests of the early nineteen-sixties, which had become largely ineffective at this point. They “decid[ed] to create havoc in Chicago as a symbolic act of protest […]” (Deloria We Talk 62), something that was no longer the best tactic by this time. If they had formed their own party and presented a viable alternative to the mainstream candidates, the way George Wallace had on the other end of the political spectrum, they might have had a lot more success (Deloria We Talk 63). Instead, their actions came across as “childish and insignificant as the old Indian charges at the wagon train” (Deloria We Talk  67), failing to get their message across. Even if the protests were not as directly connected to McCarthy’s defeat as has been suggested, it is clear that there was a direct connection, and it made Chicago a defining moment for the peace movement as a whole.

Police brutality
Broadcast on live television, the real story that dominated everything else was not just the behavior of protesters and the reasons why they protested, but also the ways in which the authorities reacted. Tensions were high all week, but the biggest confrontation occurred on August 28, in what has been called the ‘massacre of Michigan Avenue’ for the level of violence used by the police. Mailer’s account of the event, which he witnessed from his hotel room in the Hilton (unlike Thompson, who was actually out in the street), compares the police’s actions to a chain-saw and a scythe cutting through grass (Miami 177). This also confirms that the protesters were in fact peaceful and unable to offer much resistance to this onslaught by the authorities.

Others have also connected it to the more systemic problem of police brutality, not just against protesters, but also against minorities for example. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin briefly references “the government’s indefensible and obscene performance in Chicago” (130), using the events of Chicago as an example in the context of the treatment of African Americans. The connection between the violence that occurred and the nomination of Humphrey was an easy one and it reflected negatively on his campaign, which may have helped Richard Nixon’s victory. In “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker” (1974), Thompson remarked that “Richard Nixon is living in the White House today because of what happened that night in Chicago” (The Great Shark Hunt 20), hinting at the immediate political implications and suggesting that there is a direct link between Humphrey’s defeat and police brutality during the Democratic Convention and. Whether or not Nixon was able to win because of the protests, because of Humphrey’s candidacy, or because of other reasons, the Democratic Convention was an important moment that is characteristic of what was happening that year.

Discussion Questions:

  • Would McCarthy have had a chance against Nixon? More specifically, would strongly opposing the war in Vietnam have been enough for him to win in the general election?
  • Can an incident like the protests in Chicago really swing an election, as Thompson suggests, or perhaps only in the context of a period like the nineteen-sixties?

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