BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amid the convention coverage this week were remembrances of another historic gathering of Democrats 40 years ago, August, 1968. After a time of unprecedented upheaval, Democrats convened in Chicago to select a presidential candidate.
Mark Kurlansky, author of 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, remembers the prevailing narrative of that day.
MARK KURLANKSY: The narrative of the '68 Democratic Convention was an incredible year-long drama, this movement to try to shift the Democratic Party from the party of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War to an antiwar party.
Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection, and suddenly there was a very viable likely winner of the Democratic nomination in Robert Kennedy, who was probably going to stop the war. [CLIP] ROBERT KENNEDY: This country wants to move in a different direction. We want to deal with our own problems within our own country, and we want peace in Vietnam. [CROWD CHEERING] [END CLIP] MARK KURLANKSY: Robert Kennedy was killed, leaving the question of what would happen to his delegates. And by the time they got into the convention, Hubert Humphrey, who was seen as kind of a yes man for Lyndon Johnson, was going to get in. [CLIP] HUBERT HUMPHREY: President Johnson has accomplished more of the unfinished business of America than any of his modern predecessors. And tonight, to you, Mr. President, I say thank you, thank you. [END CLIP] MARK KURLANKSY: All of this anti-war fight that had built with so much drama during the past year was going to be for nothing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there were these plans to demonstrate in Chicago. Principally, they were planned by the Mobilization Against the War and the Youth International Party or the Yippies. The Yippies seemed to be less of a political movement than they were a cultural statement. MARK KURLANKSY: It was this idea of street theater as politics. And Abbie Hoffman, in particular, was absolutely brilliantly wacky. [CLIP] ABBIE HOFFMAN: And you say, look, you know, what we really need is a revolution. We really got to overthrow the country, see, we want money, we want guns, you want dynamite, lollipops, acid, so everything. [END CLIP] MARK KURLANKSY: This was the man who, in 1967, with the march against the Pentagon, had threatened to make the Pentagon levitate and spin. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And he actually got the media to cover this, to stand by and watch to see if the Pentagon was going to levitate and spin. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We'd never fall for that now. MARK KURLANKSY: Which, of course, it didn't, you know. And then they turned to Abbie Hoffman and said, well, Mr. Hoffman, what went wrong, you know. And he just laughed. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And there was certainly a media savvy applied to the situation in Chicago. The unofficial motto of the Yippies was “Do what you want when you want to but [LAUGHS] make sure to get photographed.” So how did the violence play on TV? MARK KURLANKSY: Well, pretty much everybody had expected violence because Daley and the Chicago police had been very brutal in the race riots that happened after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, and the same month there had been an antiwar demonstration in Chicago, in which the Chicago police just beat up everybody. [CLIP]: RICHARD J. DALEY: Gentlemen, get the thing straight, once and for all. The policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder. [END CLIP] MARK KURLANKSY: In fact, Jesse Jackson had urged black people not to go simply because, you know, police beating up black people was not the effective television that police beating up white people would be. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s pretty sad and cynical. MARK KURLANKSY: Yeah, yeah. The curious thing historically about all of this is that Daley and his people didn't have any concern about the media coverage. [CLIP]: RICHARD J. DALEY: We are ready at this time, and we have been, to meet the terrorists who are going all over this country creating incidents like they created in Chicago. And they should be exposed and uncovered, and we hope we can get the cooperation of the press and television and radio to do it. [END CLIP] MARK KURLANKSY: I don't think that they really understood the impact of it because almost all demonstrations in 1968, all over the world, were suppressed with police violence. But up until that point, you hadn't seen it that much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The convention itself was playing out during another event, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia after a period of reform known as the Prague Spring. That also transfixed people around the world and captured the headlines. MARK KURLANKSY: The Prague Spring began in the first week of 1968 when a man named Alexander Dubcek became the new head of the Czech government, a dedicated Slovak Communist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But also, kind of a likeable little schlub. MARK KURLANKSY: He believed in the whole dream of Communism and that it was a liberating process. He believed in having a dialogue with the people and that it would be the people’s government. And so, the first thing that he did when he came to power is he asked the people of Czechoslovakia what do they want their government to be?
And they told him that they wanted freedom of the press and they wanted freedom to travel and they wanted all of these liberties, and none of this was a discussion about dismantling Communism. That was not even on the table. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, this idealistic Communist decided to grant those privileges in order to advance the cause of Communism and make it more responsive to its people. MARK KURLANKSY: And it riveted the world because here was this Communist government saying, yes, we're a Communist government but, you know, we have democratic values. And it was called Communism with a human face. And this was tremendously exciting, especially to young people all over the world.
And then on the night of August 20th and the morning of August 21st, the Soviet Union invaded their ally and crushed this whole thing. [CLIP]: MALE CORRESPONDENT: Czech television journalists working underground spoke of Russian and Czech security police working together to arrest well-known citizens. According to other reports, the arrests were concentrated among journalists and people prominent in cultural life. [END CLIP] MARK KURLANKSY: It really was, as Gorbachev pointed out some years later, the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union because it showed people that, contrary to the promise of Communism, no reform was possible and therefore there was no hope. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, here was this story of absolutely volcanic importance happening halfway around the world. Most of America’s leading reporters were, like now, at the convention. And you note that Daniel Schorr, an NPR senior correspondent - MARK KURLANKSY: [LAUGHING] Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who was at CBS at that time and had opened the CBS Moscow Bureau was reluctantly pulled away from the convention story. [LAUGHS] MARK KURLANKSY: Yes, he told me he was very upset about this. You know, he was being dragged away from the big story. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But covering a political convention in 1968 was very different than covering a political convention today. It really was news. You didn't know what was going to happen. You didn't know who was going to get nominated. You didn't know what kind of fights were going to take place.
In 1968, the media went to Chicago expecting to see a huge explosion and to cover it. In 2008, the media is going to Denver expecting to see a media show. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Mark. MARK KURLANKSY: My pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Kurlansky is author of 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani and edited – by Brooke.
We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson, engineering help from Zach Marsh and more help from Michael Bernstein and archivist Andy Lanset. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG] (FUNDING CREDITS)