Hubert Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey; drawing by David Levine

It was perhaps unfortunate that Daley, the hoodlum suzerain of the city, became emblematic of all that the young people in their anguish cried out against, even though he plainly deserved it. No one should ever have been surprised that he set loose his battalions against the kids; it was the triumphant end-product of his style, and what else might one expect from this squalid person whose spirit suffused the great city as oppressively as that of some Central American field marshal? And it was no doubt inevitable, moreover, a component of the North American oligarchic manner—one could not imagine a Trujillo so mismanaging his public relations—that after the catastrophe had taken place he should remain so obscenely lodged in the public eye, howling “kike!” at Abe Ribicoff, packing the galleries with his rabble, and muttering hoarse irrelevancies about conspiracy and assassination, about the Republican convention (“They had a fence in Miami, too, Walter, nobody ever talks about that!”) to a discomfited Cronkite, who wobbled in that Oriental presence between deference and fainthearted suggestions that Miami and Chicago just might not be the same sort of thing.

That is what many of us did along about Thursday night in Chicago—retreat to the center, the blissful black interior of some hotel room and turn on the television set. For after four days and nights in the storm outside, after the sleepless, eventually hallucinated connection with so many of the appalling and implausible events of that week, it was a relief to get off the streets and away from the parks and the Amphitheater and the boorish, stinking hotel lobbies and to see it as most Americans had seen it—even if one’s last sight was that of the unspeakable Daley, attempting to explain away a shame that most people who witnessed it will feel to their bones for a very long time.

Yet, again, maybe in the immediate aftermath of the convention it was too bad that Daley should have hogged a disproportionate share of the infamy which has fallen upon the Democratic party; for if it is getting him off the hook too easily to call him a scapegoat, nonetheless the execration he has received (even the New York Daily News, though partly of course out of civic rivalry, carried jeering stories about him) may obscure the fact that Daley is only the nastiest symbol of stupidity and desuetude in a political party that may die, or perhaps is already dead, because it harbors too many of his breed and mentality. Humphrey, the departed John Bailey, John Connally, Richard Hughes, Muskie—all are merely eminent examples of a rigidity and blindness, a feebleness of thought, that have possessed the party at every level, reaching down to those Grant Wood delegates from North Dakota who spilled out from the elevators into my hotel lobby every morning, looking bright-eyed and war-hungry, or like Republicans, whom they emulated through becoming one of the few delegations that voted against the pacific minority Vietnam plank en bloc. It has been said that if various burdensome and antiquated procedural matters—the unit rule, for instance—had been eliminated prior to this convention, the McCarthy forces might have gained a much larger and more significant strength, and this is at least an arguable point of view; for a long while I myself believed it and worked rather hard to see such changes come about (some did), but now in retrospect it seems that the disaster was meant to be.

RECALLING those young citizens for Humphrey who camped out downstairs in my hotel, that multitude of square, seersuckered fraternity boys and country club jocks with butch haircuts, from the suburbs of Columbus and Atlanta, who passed out Hubert buttons and Humphrey mints, recalling them and their elders, mothers and fathers, some of them delegates and not all of them creeps or fanatics by any means but an amalgam of everything—simply well-heeled, most of them, entrenched, party hacks tied to the mob or with a pipeline to some state boss, a substantial number hating the war but hating it not enough to risk dumping Hubert in favor of a vague professorial freak who couldn’t feel concern over Prague and hung out with Robert Lowell—I think now that the petrification of a party which allowed such apathy and lack of adventurousness and moral inanition to set in had long ago shaped its frozen logic, determined its fatal choice months before McCarthy or, for that matter, Bobby Kennedy had come along to rock, ever so slightly, the colossal dreamboat. And this can only reinforce what appears to me utterly plausible: that whatever the vigor and force of the dissent, whatever one might say about the surprising strength of support that the minority report received on the floor, a bare but crucial majority of Americans still is unwilling to repudiate the filthy war. This is really the worst thought of all.


Right now, only a day or so after the event, it is hard to be sure of anything. A residue of anguish mingles with an impulse toward cynicism, and it all seems more than ever a happening. One usually sympathetic journalist of my acquaintance has argued with some logic but a little too much levity that the violent confrontations, like the show of muscle among the black militants, were at least only a psychological necessity: after all, there were no killings, few serious injuries, had there been no violence the whole affair would have been tumescent, impossibly strained, like coitus interruptus, and who would have had a bruise or a laceration to wear home as a hero’s badge? As for myself, the image of one young girl no older than sixteen, sobbing bitterly as she was being led away down Balbo Avenue after being brutally cracked by a policeman’s club, is not so much a memory as a scene imprinted on the retina—a metaphor of the garish and incomprehensible week—and it cannot be turned off like the Mr. Clean commercial that kept popping up between the scenes of carnage. I prefer to think that the events in Chicago were as momentous and as fateful as they seemed at the time, even amid the phantasmagorical play of smoke and floodlights where they were enacted.

ONE FACTOR has been generally overlooked: the weather. Chicago was at its bluest and balmiest, and that gorgeous sunshine—almost springlike—could not help but subtly buoy the nastiest spirit and moderate a few tempers. Had the heat been as intense and as suffocating as it was when I first arrived in the city the Tuesday before the convention began, I feel certain that the subsequent mayhem would have become slaughter. I came at that time to the Credentials Committee meeting in the Conrad Hilton as one of four “delegate challengers” from Connecticut, presenting the claim that the popular vote in the state primaries had indicated that 13 delegates out of 44 should be seated for McCarthy, rather than the 9 allowed the McCarthy forces by John Bailey. Although logic and an eloquent legal brief by Deane Louis Pollak of the Yale Law School were on our side, the megalithic party structure could not be budged and it was on that stifling day—when I scrutinized from the floor the faces of the hundred-odd cozy fat cats of the Committee, two from each state plus places like Guam, nearly all of whom were committed to the Politics of Joy and who indeed had so embraced the establishment mythopoeia that each countenance, male or female and including a Negro or two, seemed a burnished replica of Hubert Humphrey—that I became fully aware that McCarthy’s cause was irrevocably lost. Nor was I encouraged to hedge on this conviction when, sweating like a pig, I made a brief ad hominem plea in summation of our case, finished, and sat down to the voice of the Committee chairman, Governer Hughes of New Jersey, who said: “Thank you, Mr. Michener.” Later, the governor’s young aide came up to apologize, saying that the governor knew full well who I was, that in the heat and his fatigue he must have been woolgathering and thinking of James Michener, who was a good friend of Mr. Hughes—a baffling explanation which left me with ominous feelings about life in general.

When I returned as an observer to Chicago the following Sunday, the lobby of the Conrad Hilton resembled a fantasy sequence in some Fellini movie, people in vertical ascent and horizontal drift, unimaginable shoals of walleyed human beings packed elbow to elbow, groin to rump, moving sluggishly as if in some paradigmatic tableau of the utter senselessness of existence. It took me fifteen minutes to cross from one side of the hotel to the other, and although I endured many low moments during the convention, I think it was at this early point, amid that indecent crush of ambitious flesh, that my detestation of politics attained an almost religious passion.

THE CONRAD HILTON is the archetypal convention hotel of the universe, crimson and gold, vast, nearly pure in its efficient service of the demands of power and pelf, hence somehow beyond vulgarity, certainly sexless, as if dollar hustling and politicking were the sole source of its dynamism; even the pseudo-Bunny waitresses in the Haymarket bar, dungeon-dark like most Chicago pubs, only peripherally distract from the atmosphere of computers and credit cards. Into the Hilton lobby later that week—as into the lobbies of several other hotels—the young insurgents threw stink bombs, which the management misguidedly attempted to neutralize with aerosol deodorants; the effect was calamitous—the fetor of methane mingled with hair spray, like a beauty parlor over an open sewer—and several of the adjoining restaurants seemed notably lacking in customers. Not that one needed any incentive to abandon the scene, one fled instinctively from such a maggot heap; besides there was much to study, especially in downtown Chicago on the streets and in the park, where the real action was, not at the convention itself (I only went to the Amphitheater once, for the vote on the minority report), whose incredible atmosphere of chicanery and disdain for justice could best be observed through television’s ceaselessly attentive eye.


Since I somehow felt that sooner or later the cops would make their presence felt upon me more directly (a hunch that turned out to be correct) it appeared to me that they deserved closer scrutiny. They were of course everywhere, not only in the streets but in the hotel lobbies and in the dark bars and restaurants, in their baby-blue shirts, so ubiquitous that one would really not be surprised to find one in one’s bed; yet it was not their sheer numbers that truly startled, as impressive as this was, but their peculiar personae, characterized by a beery obesity that made them look half again as big as New York policemen (I never thought I might feel what amounted to nostalgia for New York cops, who by comparison suddenly seemed as civilized as London constables) and by a slovenly, brutish, intimidating manner I had never seen outside the guard room of a Marine Corps brig. They obviously had ample reason for this uptight façade, yet it was instantly apparent that in their sight not only the yippies but all civilians were potential miscreants, and as they eyed passersby narrowly I noticed that Daley, or someone, had allowed them to smoke on duty. Constantly stamping out butts, their great beer guts drooping as they gunned their motorcycles, swatting their swollen thighs with their sticks, they gave me a chill, vulnerable feeling, and I winced at the way their necks went scarlet when the hippies yelled “Pigs!”

ON TUESDAY NIGHT I left a party on the Near North Side with a friend, whom I shall call Jason Epstein, in order to see what was going on in nearby Lincoln Park. There had been rumors of some sort of demonstration and when we arrived, at a little before midnight, we saw that in fact a group of young people had gathered there—I estimated 1,000 or so—most of them sitting peacefully on the grass in the dark, illuminated dimly by the light of a single portable floodlamp, and fanning out in a semicircle beneath a ten-foot-high wooden cross. The previous night, testing the 11 P.M. curfew, several thousands had assembled in the park and had been brutally routed by the police who bloodied dozens of demonstrators. Tonight the gathering was a sort of coalition between the yippies and the followers of a group of Near North Side clergymen, who had organized the sit-in in order to claim the right of the people of the neighborhood to use the park without police harassment. “This is our park!” one minister proclaimed over the loudspeaker. “We will not be moved!” Someone was playing a guitar and folk songs were sung; there was considerable restlessness and tension in the air, even though it was hard to believe that the police would actually attack this tranquil assembly which so resembled a Presbyterian prayer meeting rather than any group threatening public decorum and order. Yet in the black sky a helicopter wheeled over us in a watchful ellipse, and word got back to us that the police had indeed formed ranks several hundred yards down the slope to the east, beyond our sight. A few people began to leave and the chant went up: “Sit down! Sit down!” Most of us remained seated and part of the crowd began singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Meanwhile, instructions were being given out by the old campaigners: don’t panic, if forced to the street stay away from the walls and blind alleys, if knocked to the ground use your jacket as a cushion against clubs, above all walk, don’t run. The time was now about twelve-thirty. Vaseline was offered as a protection against MACE, wet strips of cloth were handed out to muffle the tear gas. The tension was not very pleasant; while it is easy to over-dramatize such a moment, it does contain its element of raw threat, a queasy, visceral suspense that can only be compared to certain remembered episodes during combat training. “They’ll be here in two minutes!” the minister announced.

And suddenly they were here, coming over the brow of the slope fifty yards away, a truly stupefying sight—one hundred or more of the police in a phalanx abreast, clubs at the ready, in helmets and gas masks, just behind them a huge perambulating machine with nozzles, like the type used for spraying insecticide, disgorging clouds of yellowish gas, the whole advancing panoply illuminated by batteries of mobile floodlights. Because of the smoke, and the great cross outlined against it, yet also because of the helmeted and masked figures—resembling nothing so much as those rubberized wind-up automata from a child’s playbox of horrors—I had a quick sense of the medieval in juxtaposition with the twenty-first century or, more exactly, a kind of science fiction fantasy, as if a band of primitive Christians on another planet had suddenly found themselves set upon by mechanized legions from Jupiter.

Certainly, whatever the exact metaphor it summoned up, the sight seemed to presage the shape of the world to come, but by now we were up, all of us, off and away—not running, walking, fast—toward Clark Street, bleeding tears from the gas. The streets next to the park became a madhouse. The police had not been content to run us out of the park but, charging from the opposite direction, had flanked us, and were harrying people down the streets and up alleys. On a traffic island in the middle of Clark Street a young man was knocked to his knees and beaten senseless. Unsuspecting motorists, caught up in the pandemonium, began to collide with one another up and down the street. The crowd wailed with alarm and split into fragments. I heard the sound of splintering glass as a stone went through the windshield of a police car. Then somehow we disengaged ourselves from the center of the crowd and made our way down Wells Street, relatively deserted where in the dingy nightclubs Go-Go girls oblivious to the rout outside calmly wiggled their asses in silhouette against crimson windows.

IT HARDLY NEEDS mention that Daley might have dealt with these demonstrators without having to resort to such praetorian measures, but violence was the gut and sinew of Chicago during the week, and it was this sort of scene—not the antiseptic convention itself, with its tedium and tawdriness and its bought and paid-for delegates—that makes its claim on my memory. Amid the confusion, I recall certain serene little vignettes: in the lobby of the Pick-Congress Hotel, Senator Tom Dodd flushing beetred, smiling a frozen smile while being pounded on the back by a burly delegate, steelworker type, with fists the size of cabbages, the man roaring: “I’m a Polack! We know how to ride that greased pig, too!” Or the visit I made—purportedly to win over delegates to McCarthy—to the Virginia delegation, where I was told by at least three members of the group that, while nominally for Humphrey, they would bolt for Teddy Kennedy in a shot (this helped to convince me that he could have won the nomination hands down had he come to Chicago).

But it is mainly that night-scene out of Armageddon that I recollect or, the next day, the tremendous confrontation in front of the Hilton, at the intersection of Michigan and Balbo (named for Italo Balbo, the Italian aviator who first dumped bombs on the Ethiopians) where, half-blinded from the gas I had just caught on the street, I watched the unbelievable melee not from the outside this time but in the surreal shelter of the Haymarket bar, an hermetically seeled igloo whose sound-resistant plate glass windows offered me the dumbshow of cops clubbing people to the concrete, swirling squadrons of police in Panavision blue and polystyrene visors hurling back the crowds, chopping skulls and noses while above me on the invincible TV screen a girl with a fantastic body enacted a comic commercial for BIC ballpoint pens, and the bartender impassively mooned over his Daiquiris (once pausing to inquire of a girl whether she was over 21), and the Muzak in the background whispered “Mood Indigo.” Even the dénouement seemed unreal—played out not in the flesh but as part of some animated cartoon where one watches all hell break loose in tolerant boredom—when an explosion of glass at the rear of the bar announced the arrival of half a dozen bystanders who, hurled inward by the crush outside, had shattered the huge window and now sprawled cut and bleeding all over the floor of the place while others, chased by a wedge of cops, fled screaming into the adjacent lobby.

I left Chicago in a hurry—like many others—pursued by an unshakable gloom and by an even profounder sense of irrelevance. If all this anguish, all this naked protest, had yielded nothing but such a primitive impasse—perhaps in the end best symbolized not even by the strife itself but by a “victorious” Hubert Humphrey promising us still another commission to investigate the violence he might have helped circumvent—then the country truly seemed locked, crystallized in its own politics of immobility. There were to be sure some significant changes—removal of the unit rule for one—at least partially brought about by those who worked outside the establishment, including many amateurs in politics; had they been effected in less hysterical circumstances they might have been considered in themselves prodigious achievements.

And there were some bearable moments amid all the dreck: the kids going to bed unblanketed on the cold ground by the fires in Grant Park when I came back just before dawn after our encounter with the police in Lincoln Park, the crowds by the hundreds hemmed in by National Guard troops (themselves Illinois plow-boys or young miners from places like Carbondale, most of them abashed and ill-at-ease—quite a contrast to the brutal belly-swagger of the cops—but all of them just as ignorant about the clash of ideologies which had brought them up here from the prairies); or the next night when again there was a vigil in the park and over a thousand people, including protesting delegates from the convention, came bearing candles and sat until dawn beneath the stirring leaves, singing Where Have All the Young Men Gone? as they waved their candles, a forest of arms; or the moment in the daylight, totally unexpected, when a busload of children, no more than six or seven years old, rode up from somewhere on the South Side with a gift of sandwiches for the demonstrators and slowly passed by in front of the park, chanting from the windows in voices almost hurtfully young and sweet: “We want peace! We want peace!” But these moments were rare and intermittent and the emotional gloss they provided was unable to alleviate not just the sense of betrayal (which at least carries the idea of promise victimized) but the sorrow of a promise that never really existed.

This Issue

September 26, 1968