With the 2008 Democratic national convention about to begin in Denver, I can't help recalling the first DNC that I covered in 1968, exactly 40 years ago this week. Yes, it was the infamous gathering in Chicago, when the conflict turned bloody. I never made it inside the convention hall -- but I did grab a front row seat for what "went down," as we used to say.
It culminated 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've 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 reporting!
My mentor at the Gazette was a young, irreverent City Hall reporter named John Hanchette. He went on to an illustrious career at other papers, and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent for Gannett News Service. Hanchette was in Chicago that week to cover party politics as a Gazette reporter and contributor to the Gannett News Service (GNS). I was to hang out with the young McCarthyites and the anti-war protesters. To get to Chicago I took my first ride on a jetliner.
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 was in McCarthy headquarters and Hanchette was in one of Gannett's makeshift newsrooms. Probably at about the same time, we pulled back the curtains and looked out our separate windows to see police savagely attacking protesters with nightsticks at the intersection directly below.
Like me, Hanchette 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. 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 (and you think Hillary has a beef?) -- as protesters inside the Hilton chanted, "You killed the party! You killed the party!"
Finally, I screwed up my courage and crossed to Grant Park where the angry protest crowd gathered. 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 arrived and sang, along with other notables, including some of the peacenik delegates. Cops lined the park -- back up by jeeps with machines guns pointed at us.
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.
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 in 1968.
P.S. Norman Mailer's terrific book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, has just been republished.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. Among his nine books are two for Random House: "The Campaign of the Century" (about Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934) and "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady" (the Nixon-Douglas contest in 1950). His latest book on Iraq and the media is "So Wrong for So Long."
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