1968’s infamous Chicago riot saw democracy pushed forward with a police baton…it was also my visceral introduction to American politics.
My introduction to politics, American-style, was really brutal.
It was 1968 in Chicago. On a big screen, at a convention centre, they were showing an emotional tribute to Bobby Kennedy who had been assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen two months earlier.
In the front row, the all-powerful and ruthless kingmaker, Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, was making a throat-cutting gesture and demanding the film be shut down. It was.
Welcome to the Democrats national convention, August 1968. My first taste of a US presidential campaign.
Earlier that day, Mayor Daley had arranged for our Press bus to be diverted through a Daley-friendly neighbourhood where they booed and threw stones at us. All because, the night before on CBS, the revered Walter Cronkite had described the local coppers’ response to protests by hippies and yippies as ‘a police riot’.
That part I well remember. The national guard had been called out and I saw a young, pimply-faced, guardsman poke a bazooka through the driver’s window of an agitated young woman.
Trendy American poet Allen Ginsberg was sitting in a park ohming away (as they did in the late 60s) and the streets were full of riot police in incongruous baby blue helmets. There were virulent rumours that the yippies were going to put LSD in the Chicago water supply.
The foyer of the local Hilton hotel, where most of the media pack was staying, smelt like farts because protesters had planted stink bombs everywhere. Outside I spotted two things: A wall of coppers heading towards us with riot shields and batons, and those baby blue helmets, and a ladder leading up to the hotel balcony.
As I shinned up the ladder to safety, a male voice shouted ‘NBC only’. I said ‘Hinch, Sydney Morning Herald’ and kept climbing as the wall of cops passed below indiscriminately wielding their batons.
Also on The Big Smoke
- If you need a friend, get a dog: Trump’s NATO treatment is par for the course
- Linotype, fax machines and ashtrays with doors: Musings on six decades in the press
- Musings on that Peking Duck I ate before my arrest (and other morsels)
- Reflections on witnessing the final performances of Sinatra, Pavarotti and Kristofferson
That’s one of a collection of presidential election memories that float to the surface as we head into the final months of the 2020 vote to see if Donald Trump gets ejected from the White House in November. I remember a moment in the 1972 campaign when the Democrats hapless candidate George McGovern stood outside The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
It was 1 am, hours behind schedule, having missed the news cycle, which epitomised his lacklustre campaign.
McGovern talked about ‘men in rubber gloves’ breaking into the Democratic Party HQ in the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. It was the first public mention of the Nixon dirty tricks team which ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation and started a never-ending spate of Something-gate scandals.
The rumour I heard at the time was that Nixon’s grubs were looking for compromising photos of Maureen Dean, wife of White House lawyer John Dean, who became the whistleblowing witness who revealed Richard Nixon’s secret and damning White House tapes. ‘Mo’, as the beautiful blonde wife was known, gained international fame (notoriety) as she sat dutifully behind her husband throughout his bombshell testimony that forced Nixon out of the White House.
In the weeks ahead, as the state primaries loom, you will regularly hear about ‘the snows of New Hampshire’. For decades, it was the state that held the indicative first primary election. Ed Muskie’s campaign collapsed after he burst into public tears when the rabid local paper attacked his wife as a wanton lush.
McGovern talked about ‘men in rubber gloves’ breaking into the Democratic Party HQ in the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. It was the first public mention of the Nixon dirty tricks team which ultimately led to his resignation and started a never-ending spate of Something-gate scandals.
Eugene McCarthy, campaigning against the Vietnam War, polled well there in 1968 and contributed to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election. My favourite New Hampshire memory involved bouncing along on a media bus, in the snow, outside Manchester.
One of my favourite American columnists, Pete Hamill, was on board. His girlfriend generously got off and bought us a pizza and beers. Her name was Shirley MacLaine. Well, I was impressed. I hadn’t been in the US that long not to be starstruck.
Years later, I would sit in a Melbourne audience with our Foreign Affairs minister Andrew Peacock as the actress/comedienne promised on stage to ‘give him a foreign affair he’ll never forget’. And she did. The name McGovern should feature in this current American election.
It is why I tweeted recently that if the Democrats choose Bernie Sanders as their candidate then Donald Trump is assured of a second four-year term in the White House. Americans will never elect a ‘socialist’ or anyone perceived to be even close to one.
George McGovern was way to the right of Sanders but he got thrashed by Richard Nixon. He won only one state, Massachusetts (thanks to the Kennedys) and Washington, DC (thanks to black voters) in the whole country.
There’s a touch of that these days in Australia. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating managed to nudge Labor back towards the centre to claim Liberal ground and they won. Again and again. In May last year, the voters told Labor they had moved too far left. And they lost. Albo, take note.