The revolutionaries inside the convention didn't get much ink.
By Michael Miner
August 28, 2008
If you were young and on fire and in anguish over the war in Vietnam,
was there anyplace to be in late August of 1968 but the streets of Chicago?
Yes. "The street seemed stupid to me," says Peter McLennon. "The
military had taught me there is power and there is noise, and power
was what was going on inside the convention."
But if you stood your ground in Lincoln and Grant parks, raised a
fist with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and ended up cuffed and
bloodied by engorged police, Convention Week would be your personal
Saint Crispin's, a time to forever hold hallow.
What of it! "My role model was not Abbie Hoffman, even though I went
to college with him," says William Singer, a young Chicago lawyer in
'68 who vaguely remembered him from Brandeis. Singer's role model was
The trouble with the standard Chicago '68 story is its limited cast
of characters. No one associates Bill Singer with Chicago 1968. Or
James Houlihan, Grace Barry, or, for that matter, Edward Burke.
Or Jill Schuker. Mary Jo Kopechne's roommate at the Blackstone Hotel
that week, a year before Kopechne died in Ted Kennedy's car at
Chappaquiddick. Or Frank Mankiewicz. They're outside the narrative of
insurrection because they were inside the convention doing politics.
"I thought the behavior of what you'd call the Abbie Hoffman-Jerry
Rubin crowd was very damaging to everything I wanted," Mankiewicz
told me the other day. "It made it seem the left was crazy. And I
thought we were pretty sober and correct."
Mankiewicz was a Bobby Kennedy intimate who became George McGovern's
campaign manager. He told Senator Abe Ribicoff to tear up his
nominating speech and speak from the gut. So Ribicoff famously
denounced the "Gestapo" tactics of the police out in the streets as
Daley stood and screamed.
Mankiewicz, who'd go on to become president of National Public Radio,
was a strategist. The others were young volunteers doing whatever.
"There were a lot of people looking for a place to alight," says
Schuker, "and McGovern provided that."
Actually getting him nominated wasn't likely, but maybe, against the
fierce opposition of the loyalists to Lyndon Johnson and his chosen
successor, Hubert Humphrey, they could get the convention to adopt
their so-called peace plank repudiating the war. The McGovernites
wanted America to get out of Vietnam and go back to reforming
society, and while Bobby Kennedy lived that agenda had seemed
electable. "I had friends by this time who had been killed in
Vietnam," says McLennon, who that summer was a college student two
years out of the army. "I felt enormous guilt. Robert Kennedy was the
great hope for me."
Senator Eugene McCarthy had been first to challenge President
Johnson, but most Kennedy kids dismissed him as a poseur. So
Kennedy's murder in Los Angeles marooned themuntil, just two weeks
before the convention, Senator George McGovern announced he was
running for president on the Kennedy agenda. "I was just completely
fuckin' electrified by that," says McLennon.
McGovern's Chicago headquarters, the fourth floor of the Blackstone
Hotel, was pretty empty when McLennon showed up. Vetted to make sure
he wasn't a spy for Humphrey, he was then told to buy himself a tie
because "I'd be meeting governors and senators and other
hoity-toity," and assigned to Ken Bode, a disaffected McCarthy
organizer who'd switched camps. Bodewho a quarter century later
would be dean of the Medill School of Journalismgave McLennon a list
of every Kennedy delegate west of the Mississippi and told him to
start calling. The message: vote for the peace plank and keep your
mind open. "A lot of the Kennedy delegates were professional
politicians who wanted to be with the winner, which Humphrey looked
to be," says McLennon. "Everybody asked, 'Is Teddy coming in?'"
Jill Schuker was an intern in Bobby Kennedy's Senate office in 1965
and rejoined him when he decided to run for president. The night he
won the California primary he also won in South Dakota, and that's
where she was. "On to Chicago," said Bobby to his cheering supporters
at LA's Ambassador Hotel. Schuker turned off the TV, and a few
minutes later there was a knock on her door and "everything turned to ashes."
Joining McGovern was a way to go on doing Bobby's work, a way to
grieve. Schuker remembers her ten days in Chicago in bits and
piecesthe "tension everywhere," the sense even before the convention
that "everybody was on edge." Later, the smell of "smoke bombs and
stink bombs all through the hotel." Mike Wallace taking refuge in
McGovern headquarters at the Amphitheatre after security had roughed
him up. The night of the Bobby Kennedy tribute, when "we started to
sing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' and the mayor shut it down and
they started to play 'Chicago' and we kept singing and it was like in
Casablanca where the Germans are singing and the French get up and
start singing the Marseillaise."
The New York Times said "The Battle Hymn" rolled on and on, beyond
the point when the "hard-core" Texas and Illinois delegations sat
down and shut up, beyond the point when "the Daley claque in the
hall's south gallery" chanting "We love Daley" gave out. Eventually a
Chicago alderman, Ralph Metcalfe, asked for a moment of silence in
Kennedy's memory, and then, says McLennon, many of the McGovern
people walked out.
Daley, too, thought the war was a blunder, and Bobby Kennedy had been
his choice for president. Yet the mayor became not just the foe but
the enemy, the choleric face of tyranny. "I think he was too quick to
respond, and overrespond, to the crazies," says Mankiewicz. Above
all, the mayor wanted order. But the muscle wasn't supplied only by
police, Mankiewicz tells me. A lot of it came from convention
credentials enforcers, "strong-arm guys who were very tough and very
hard to resist" and were sent in by Johnson to keep the convention in
line for Humphrey.
At one point McLennon was thrown out of the Amphitheatre. "If you
made the mistake of saying 'Hey, what's going on?' you got tossed,"
says McLennon. He ate a greasy corned beef sandwich in an Irish bar
across Halsted and waited for the McGovern staff to figure out how to
get him back in.
"It was the first convention I'd paid any attention to. I suppose
that was true for a lot of us," says James Houlihan. Freshly
graduated from Quigley Seminary, Houlihan had been a student
coordinator for Kennedy, and he remembers serving McGovern as
"basically a page"a gofer. "This guy lost his speech," he recalls.
"We must have looked with him for half an hour, and I said, 'Why
don't you rewrite it?' I didn't realize it was Ted Sorensen."
(Sorensen had been John Kennedy's speechwriter and biographer.)
One familiar face Houlihan spotted at the Amphitheatre was Eddie
Burke's. Burke had been Houlihan's classmate at Quigley , but he'd
dropped out, become a cop, and gone to law school. A few months
before the convention Burke's father, Joe, died, and Eddie took over
for him as committeeman of the 14th Ward. "He was bringing in the
14th Ward," Houlihan remembers, "to make sure the galleries were
filled with appropriate Democrats."
Like Houlihan, Grace Barry grew up in the 19th Ward, where her dad
was a precinct captain. She remembers assigning a nephew to run
messages between the Blackstone and convention headquarters in the
Hilton"He was 12 years old. I figured the crazy people wouldn't go
after him." The streets outside the two hotels"all smoky and awful."
The frantic search for Sorensen's speechshe says she's the one who found it.
"The night of the tribute to Bobby Kennedy, it looked as if we
wouldn't be able to get in," says Barry. "They weren't recognizing
credentials at some doors." Why? "Ask Eddie Burke. He was a policeman
and he was giving people a hard time. But I knew him and we did get
in and the tribute did happen." (I tried to ask Burke but couldn't reach him.)
McLennon has known Houlihan and Barry since the convention, and he
has a line on them. "They were all part of an idealistic group of
young Catholics who wanted to make their marks in the worldall
proteges of Andrew Greeley," he says. "They wanted to be better than
the machine. They wanted power and they wanted to exercise their
power for good. Grace Barry today is who she was trained to be."
Today Barry is president of the Economic Club of Chicago. She became
a close friend of Maggie Daley, the present Mayor Daley's wife (along
the line acquiring some interesting city contracts at Chicago
airports), and she has a story to tell. "Remember that the last thing
Robert Kennedy said in Los Angeles was, 'On to Chicago,'" Barry says.
"Before Mrs. Daley [the present mayor's mother] died, she told this
story. It turned out the mayor was the last person [Bobby Kennedy]
talked to before that speech. Mrs. Daley said, 'I answered the phone
and as always when he called he asked about the children, and then
Dick took the phone and told him, 'Don't worry. Illinois is going to
be with you.'" Barry says she cried when she heard that. It made her
surer than ever that if Bobby Kennedy had lived he'd have been
nominated and then elected, and America today would be a better place.
Like Singer, Schuker, and Houlihanand for that matter, Eddie Burke,
today Chicago's most powerful aldermanBarry went to Denver for this
week's convention. Remembering the Kennedy and McGovern campaigns,
she says, "I think Obama is the first politician who has come along
and run for president who has made me have the same enthusiasm." She
feels sorry for her generation's children, who grew up with no one to
Obama is Schuker's answer to disaffected friends from 1968 who think
people like herself who stayed in politics "took the Kool-Aid." She
says, "There has to be buy-in at some point"some commitment to the
political process"or else the system will never totally change."
And it has, she saysthe party of the poll tax and White Citizens
Council has chosen a black man as its nominee for president. "All I
can say is, we're walking the walk. We're not just talking the talk.
Bobby Kennedy would have been proud."
They've all stayed in public service. McLennon is the chief aide on
voting machine technology for Cook County clerk David Orr. Schuker
was President Clinton's special assistant for national security
affairs and now runs a consulting firm in Washington whose focus is
public diplomacy. Houlihan worked in Bill Singer's 1969 aldermanic
campaign, and in 1972 he himself was elected to the Illinois House.
Today he's the Cook County assessor.
The convention ended by rejecting the peace plank and giving McGovern
146 and a half votes for president and Humphrey 1,760 and a quarter.
McLennon remembers heading out to the parking lot with other McGovern
workers to catch a ride downtown. Someone asked Singer, what now, and
he answered, "I don't know. But I'm going to beat Daley."
Singer had begun organizing Indiana for Kennedy even before Kennedy
announced, and he'd expected a job in Washington with the new Kennedy
"I'd never thought about local politics," he says now. "Alderman was
the furthest thing from my mind. I was young, full of stuff, but I
was thinking about things much more cosmic than picking up the
garbage. [But] these guys had steamrolled over everything we stood
for. To vote down the peace plank and nominate Hubert Humphrey was to
me a total betrayal of everything that had gone on in the primaries."
Suddenly local politics seemed the way to go. As an alderman he and
Jesse Jackson bounced Illinois' Daley-led delegation from the 1972
convention that nominated McGovern. In 1975 he challenged Daley for
the Democratic nomination for mayor. In a four-man race, Daley beat
him two-to-one. Singer later made his peace with the organization. As
a lawyer, lobbyist, and Democratic Party fund-raiser, he walks the
corridors of power.
Abbie Hoffman died in 1989 and Jerry Rubin in 1994, still covered
with old glory. Beyond once nominating a pig for president, try to
name their accomplishments.