Last week’s news that George McGovern, the longtime South Dakota senator and presidential candidate had died triggered a flash of memories going back to the terrible summer of 1968.
I was pulled back to memories of the war in Vietnam, political turmoil, violent street protest, assassinations.
Although I admired President Lyndon Johnson in many ways, I could not support his position on the war. So when Bobby Kennedy, who hated LBJ (and who was heartily hated in return) launched his insurgent campaign on March 16, I signed up.
Johnson unexpectedly announced his withdrawal from the race on March 31.
Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4. At that awful time it seemed to me (and many others) that Bobby Kennedy who might be able to bring the country together, as he was the one force who could appeal to blue collar working people, Blacks, liberals and even some conservatives.
I had gone to my parents’ home to celebrate my father’s birthday on June 4. Early on the morning of the 5th, my mother came into my bedroom in tears.
“Bobby Kennedy has been shot!” Oh, my God! The next day, he died without ever regaining consciousness.
Ten weeks later, I decided to go to Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention. At that time, I was publisher of a small group of newspapers, and I figured I might as well be on the scene for what might be a defining moment in American history.
When I got there, the streets of Chicago were jammed with armed Chicago police and Illinois National Guardsmen.
A “police riot” had broken out in Grant Park, where many were injured. In the convention hall, TV newsmen, including Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, and other reporters were tear-gassed and roughed up by the police. Security in the convention hall was ultra-tight; I was stopped by security guards multiple times while trying to make it to the floor with my press credentials.
Things calmed down a bit when the lights in the hall were dimmed and a memorial film on Bobby Kennedy was played. As it ended, those of us who had been in the campaign started singing in grief and anger our theme song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
In a dispatch from Chicago to my newspapers, I wrote:
“It was an enormous, spontaneous and, at the start, dignified outpouring of genuine emotion and respect, intensified by the fact that on this matter the convention could be submerged in a common feeling. Rep. Carl Albert (the Speaker of the House, who was in the chair) evidently misread the nature of the outpouring and tried to gavel it to a halt. It didn’t work.
“He tried again, and again. A fourth time.
“And suddenly the convention came very near to going completely out of control. The demonstration turned into a vast act of defiance against those who lacked the common sense to handle the convention in a humane manner. …
“For in that vast hall of people clapping and crying and singing was sounding the death knell of the old-style political system.”
McGovern’s time came in 1972
The convention ultimately rejected McGovern, who had gotten in the race as a last-minute stand-in for those Kennedy delegates who did not want to vote for his chief anti-war rival that year, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy. McGovern went on to chair a party commission that changed radically the party rules, reducing the power of the old pols in the smoke-filled room.
Four years later, that system worked to make McGovern the nominee. But he ran one of the most inept campaigns of all time, and ended up losing in one of history’s greatest landslides.
And the power of the old pols was largely replaced by the system of primary elections that today are the main device for selecting candidates.
At the time, these changes were hailed by most (including me) as valuable ways to open up the party and make it more democratic. But as time has passed, I’ve come to feel that primary elections are lousy ways to pick candidates.
The old bulls who used to inhabit the smoke-filled rooms knew very well the candidates, their weaknesses and strengths. Their power depended on making informed choices between the candidates. It’s been usurped by clever marketing, sound bites and TV ads of the sort we’re experiencing in this year’s election, nearly half a century after the bitter chaos of Chicago.
Back in 1968 on the convention floor, I saw McGovern as a reformer, the successor to Robert Kennedy. Today, in 2012, I think of him as a good and decent man who unknowingly and unintentionally changed American politics for the worse.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.