Fifty-two years ago my trip to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention would culminate in the crushing of Sen. Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam crusade inside the convention hall and the cracking of peacenik skulls by Mayor Richard Daley's police in the streets. Together, this doomed Hubert Humphrey to defeat in November at the hands of Richard Nixon.
I'd been a political-campaign junkie all my life. At the age of 8, I
paraded in front of my boyhood home in Niagara Falls, N.Y., waving an
"I Like Ike" sign. In 1968 I got to cover my first presidential campaign
when one of Sen. McCarthy's nephews came to town, before the state
primary, and I interviewed him for the Niagara Falls Gazette,
where I worked as a summer reporter during college. I had been chair
of the McCarthy campaign at my college. So much for non-biased
To make a long story short: On the climactic night of Aug. 28, 1968,
Hanchette and I ended up just floors apart in the same building: the
Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. I'd been out among the protests earlier that week, which had already turned bloody, but avoided any harm to myself, which was my way. Just after the peace plank to the DNC platform was defeated that evening, and with many of those around me in tears, TV coverage switched to shocking scenes of young folks getting beaten with nightsticks on the streets of Chicago, but we didn't know where. Then we smelled tear gas and someone the curtains along a wall of windows and we looked out to see police savagely attacking protesters with
nightsticks at the intersection directly below.
Soon I headed for the streets. By that time, the peak
violence had passed, but cops were still pushing reporters and other
innocent bystanders through plate glass windows at the front of the
hotel, so the danger was still real. I held back in the lobby, where someone had set off a stink
bomb. Some Democrats started returning from the convention hall --
after giving Humphrey the nomination even though McCarthy and Bobby
Kennedy won most of the primaries -- as protesters inside the Hilton chanted, "You killed the party! You killed the party!" And: "You killed the country." And, of course, "Dump the Hump!"
Finally, I screwed up my courage and crossed to Grant Park where the
angry protest crowd gathered, with military troops in jeeps with machine guns pointed directly at us. And there I stayed all night, as the
crowd and chants of "pig" directed at the cops increased. Many in the
crowd wore bandages of had fresh blood on their faces. Phil Ochs (later a friend)
arrived and sang, along with other notables, including some of the
peacenik delegates and a famous writer or two. This was Zuccotti Park but with heavily armed soldiers ready to swoop in, not simply NYC cops. Somehow we survived the night.
When I returned to Niagara Falls that Friday, I wrote a column for
that Sunday's paper. I described the eerie feeling of sitting in Grant
Park, and thousands around me yelling at the soldiers and the media,
"The whole world is watching!" -- and knowing that, for once, it was
true. Months later organizers of the protest such as Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, faced charges at the notorious trial of the Chicago 8. Abbie and the attorney, Bill Kunstler, later became regular writers for me at Crawdaddy. I interviewed Tom for a New York Times Magazine piece and edited a major feature on him at Crawdaddy when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976 (he lost but later served many years in the California state legislature).
More than 35 years later, after I had written two books on other
infamous political campaigns, I returned to Chicago for a staged
performance of a musical based on one of them. As I got out of a cab to
make my way to the theater, I had an eerie feeling and, sure enough,
looking up the street I noticed Grant Park a block away -- and the very
intersection in front of the Hilton where skulls were cracked that night
P.S. Norman Mailer's terrific book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is still in print.