Echoes of 1968 in the presidential race

The Donald says “there could be riots” if he is denied the Republican nomination at the July convention. Intentional or not, it’s an echo from the bizarre events of 1968.

In case you don’t remember…the election was about ending the Vietnam war, and fighting poverty and racism. Bobby Kennedy became the Democratic frontrunner for president when he beat Senator Gene McCarthy in the California primary, two months before the Democratic convention. Minutes after his victory speech, he was murdered.

All hell broke loose.

McCarthy, who had first challenged President Lyndon Johnson and precipitated Johnson’s early retirement, claimed the nomination. Kennedy’s ally George McGovern stepped in and claimed Kennedy’s mantle. And the party establishment panicked: They called in Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President.

Humphrey hadn’t run in a primary and was nearly as unpopular as the war-burdened president, but the he was the establishment’s choice going into the convention.

The antiwar movement was determined to have a voice in the proceedings, and the Left descended on Chicago for the big event. There were liberal activists; the increasingly radical Students for a Democratic Society; civil rights demonstrators from the South; and the most colorful of the lot, the Yippies, who nominated a hog named Pigasus for president.

On the night that the convention nominated Humphrey, a huge mass of demonstrators attempted to march to the convention hall. Blocked by police, they sat down in Michigan Avenue. They mayor, Richard Daley, gave the order for the police to attack, and they did, brutally. On national TV, they began gassing and clubbing sitting protesters, who chanted “the whole world is watching!” It was.

Inside the convention hall, the McCarthy and McGovern supporters denounced the “police state” violence unfolding outside. But the nomination proceeded, surrounded by mayhem. Humphrey was so tarred by the events that Richard Nixon eked out a victory in November.

Could something like this happen again?

In this year’s presidential race, there’s one big difference: one of the candidates is threatening violence if he is not nominated. The threat of violence from a candidate is unprecedented in modern times.

Arguably, political violence in America has always benefited the most extreme right-wing candidates. Trump has shown an appetite for provoking confrontations at his rallies, and he knows how to use it to further his cause..

The havoc of 1968 was not limited to rioting. One candidate and another great leader, Martin Luther King, were assassinated by gunmen. The outcome of the election was certainly shaped by violence. The prospect of returning to that era is scary, indeed.

As much as some of us might enjoy the spectacle of the Republican Party eating itself alive, a turn toward intimidation and brute force threatens to unleash forces that may lead in unpredictable, dangerous directions.

In the year that followed the events of 1968, my contemporaries and I struggled to find the lines between peaceful dissent and violent resistance. You can read about it in my new book Some Way Outa Here.

26 Aug 1968, Chicago, Illinois, USA --- The sign over the archway leading to the International Amphitheater welcomes delegates to the Democratic Convention, but from the sea of police helmets in the foreground, it looks like only police are attending. (Sign says "Hello Democrats, Welcome to Chicago" and a bunch of police are seen from the back. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Memory, Imagination and Some Way Outa Here

Some people have photographic memories. I’m not one of them. But lately I’ve learned how to remember things that seemed lost forever.

Writing is a great tool for plumbing the mind. Once I start writing about something, no matter how distant the memory is, details begin to surface. I hear long-forgotten voices, and remember the look of a room. Sometimes I can recall the words someone said…or at least I think I can.

It’s like singing a forgotten song: If you get the first line, the rest of the song pours out.

Despite this, in Some Way Outa Here, I had to fill in a lot of detail with my imagination when memory failed. I thought a lot about people who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and it gave me an opportunity to try to better understand them.

An example:
One of my characters, Evelyn, is based on someone who I knew as a co-conspirator and mentor. She was 15 years older than me, and more than 15 years wiser. I learned a lot from her.

Evelyn was a lot more complicated than I understood at the time. I remember her voice and her smile very clearly, and she told me things that I can still recall well. But why was she often so sad? I didn’t really know, and I could only recount her words, write about what she did, and describe her persona.
I lost touch with Evelyn and didn’t see her after 1976. Recently I discovered that she passed away a few years ago, and I was able to get in touch with her daughter. We had a long correspondence, and she described some of the demons her mother faced during her life, things I didn’t see or understand at the time. But I discovered that my recounting of Evelyn fit pretty well with the drama in her life that I wasn’t privy to. It gave me confidence that I was, in fact, able to draw the essence of a character by reimagining the details of conversations and events.

My book is full of these reimaginings. Is it really a memoir when liberties are taken in recounting events and people? To me, breathing new life into old memories, done in good faith, is a way of capturing the essence long gone places and long-unseen people. It may reveal more about the writer than the characters, but isn’t that what storytelling always does?

So far, my readers-from-the-past seem to be OK with it.

I’m curious how people’s memories match reality when we meet up with old friends. Have you reconnected with old friends lately?

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