Robert Schmuhl ’70 | August 20, 2018
Author Norman Mailer described what occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention as “the siege of Chicago,” and that week of rage in late August 50 years ago produced political repercussions still reverberating today.
Have you ever asked yourself how the current nominating process of presidential candidates began and why Washington “outsiders” win the White House so often these days? In both cases, the roots of what’s happened in the past half-century extend back to those fateful — and bloody — days in the Windy City.
Five months before the convention and beleaguered by mounting criticism of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek re-election as president. That unexpected decision opened the door to a ferocious struggle over who would become the Democratic nominee for the fall campaign.
Three candidates emerged as contenders: Senators Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who faced off in four of the nation’s 15 primaries that year (with Kennedy winning three), and Johnson’s vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, who joined the fray in April, opting to collect delegates without running in a single primary.
But tragedy struck in early June. Kennedy was shot and later died after delivering his victory speech in California, his most consequential triumph of his brief campaign for the nomination. RFK’s assassination, two months after Martin Luther King was killed, forced Americans to question where the nation was headed politically and morally.
Going into the party convention, Democrats faced a difficult but definite choice. They could support a strongly anti-war candidate (McCarthy) or the No. 2 figure of the Johnson administration (Humphrey), who’d sided with the president’s policy in Southeast Asia. (LBJ’s approval rating in August of ’68 was 35 percent, the lowest of his White House years.)
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