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The Bitter Legacy of LBJ | The Nation

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The Bitter Legacy of LBJ

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In 1968, to the dismay of protesters anguished over Vietnam and the assassinations of Kennedy and King, Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey. Then the cops came.

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Carey McWilliams
Carey McWilliams was editor of The Nation for twenty years (1955-75) and wrote numerous books on California. He died on...

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At the stroke of midnight Wednesday, the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey for the Presidency, but if they did not elect Richard Nixon to that office it was through no fault of Lyndon Johnson, Mayor Daley, or the happy nominee. What they have done to their party remains to be seen. Humphrey's nomination came as no surprise to anyone here, although his vote was somewhat larger than had been forecast. From the outset he had the nomination sewed up. There was no need for Daley's rigging operations, which were carried out in full public view, with the President's approval and with no protest from the nominee. Nor was there need or justification for the fantastic police and security measures which in effect called for the violence they were supposed to prevent. And there was no justification whatever for the brutality which the police inflicted on demonstrators, visitors, newsmen and even some delegates.

The Chicago police are a special breed. My guess would be that they weigh on an average about 50 or 60 pounds more than the average for New York's finest. Even before the trouble started, it was clear that they were spoiling for a fight, and not merely with yippies and hippies. They were uptight, period. Police, National Guardsmen and federal troops probably outnumbered demonstrators. One Chicago newsman estimated 20,000 for each side.

The effect of this awesome demonstration of military and police muscle was to create an atmosphere so hateful and oppressive that it drew a mild protest even from joyous Hubert. At the same time it was clear that any of the candidates could have been assassinated with relative ease, precisely because of the confusion, the general milling around and the excessive show of force. Newsmen usually enjoy a degree of immunity from police brutality, but not in Chicago, not at this convention. Secret Service and uniformed police appeared on the floor of the convention and at various state caucuses; at least two delegates were forcibly removed from the floor by the police. The assaults on newsmen naturally assured the widest possible publicity; the press and the media always become aroused about police brutality when it is directed against their representatives. Never before, at any convention, have newsmen been treated as they were here. "Apparently the police don't understand the English version of 'press,' " wrote Mike Royko, the popular columnist for the Chicago Daily News. "They seem to think it means 'Hit me, please' or 'Smash my camera, please.'"

Federal authorities were concerned from the outset about the measures Daley had ordered. Most of the delegates resented these measures but took no action to repudiate them. An enormous audience, in this country and abroad, watched the disgraceful Chicago street scenes. If Daley had wanted to get the Democrats off to a bad start in this year's convention, he could not have done any better than he did. Richard Nixon, like Daley, is a "law and-order" man, but he is not likely to pass up the opportunity to make political capital of this disgraceful exhibition of police assault. The image conveyed by the media of the "pacification" carried out by Mayor Daley's "special forces," including firemen and personnel from the Chicago Sewer District, was grotesque, surreal and reminiscent of Stormtrooper tactics in Germany of the 1930s. But oddly enough the street action was largely unrelated to what the delegates were doing; as delegates, they were not intimidated. Many of them seemed to feel that however distasteful the outside action might be, it did not directly concern them, although 1,761 delegates voted to accept Johnson's protégé and program. It was Johnson who gave the convention to Chicago, as a reward to Daley for services rendered; and it was Daley who directed the police action, the pattern for which had been established during the peace demonstrations of April 27 [See "The Battle of Chicago" by Joseph L. Sander, The Nation, May 20]. The TV-viewing public naturally related the street scene to the convention coverage; most delegates did not.

After the first few roll calls on the credentials fights, it was clear that there were simply not enough votes at the convention to block Humphrey's nomination. It was also clear that the size of the Establishment vote was not due to Humphrey's popularity--he cut a sorry figure here--nor was it due to any weaknesses in the opposition candidates. It stemmed rather from what might be called "the structure of the situation."

From the outset, Senator McCarthy, as an outsider challenging the leadership of his own party, was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of building delegate support for his movement. This 'weakness was remedied to some extent when Senator Robert Kennedy entered the race. But as Senator McCarthy said in an interview yesterday, Senator Kennedy's death meant that "the control of the convention wars was in the hands of the regulars." McCarthy was constantly asked if he would support "the nominee of the convention." But since he was the initial challenger of the Administration, he could not give a direct categorical answer, and that kept him consistently in the role of the outsider who, in the eyes of many delegates, was running against the party, not with it. Senator Kennedy was not in that position, nor was Senator McGovern, who came on strong here at the convention but who entered the race too late to be able to carry his candidacy to the delegates in any systematic manner. The last-minute efforts to engineer a draft of Senator Edward Kennedy did not help the opposition. With the bulk of his active supporters aligned with either McCarthy or McGovern, most delegates gave little credence to the rumor that he might be drafted.

Senator McCarthy was deprived of the issue on which he might have won--that is, "the Johnson issue." In retrospect, it is clear that there was more and stronger sentiment against Johnson than there was against the Vietnamese War. The President offered a perfect target for McCarthy, and if he had not withdrawn, the structure of the situation would have been quite different. His departure not only changed the nature of McCarthy's problem but also took some of the edge off the Vietnamese issue. No longer was McCarthy the David who had dared to challenge Goliath. After March 31, he was a contestant in a struggle for power. In such a situation, and notably in a convention setting, candidates must exhibit a will to win. But McCarthy managed to convey the impression here, as throughout the campaign, that winning the big prize was not his main concern. This casual attitude put off many delegates, but not enough to have made a significant difference in the final balloting. Away from the convention, McCarthy's style and manner were assets, but delegates expect be importuned by candidates who really want to win.

A major weakness of the opposition was its failure to penetrate the key industrial states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the case of Illinois, Daley was a major factor, but the basic explanation is that the leadership of organized labor, including Walter Reuther, was committed to Humphrey in all these states. As McCarthy put it, "Those old labor people...just dug in and put their heads down, like buffaloes. You couldn't budge them." In the key states of New York and California, sentiment against the Vietnamese War was so strong that the leadership of organized labor was to a large extent frozen out of the delegations. There is strong anti-war sentiment in the Midwest, too, but it was not organized in a way that might have offset labor's rock-hard influence with the party's organizations in the selection of delegates. Senator Robert Kennedy could have made a strong bid for organizational and labor support in these Midwest states; McCarthy could appeal only to the people. Not only was the labor leadership able to play a key role in delegate selection in these states but it was represented by 201 delegates in a labor caucus from forty-three states. In brief, the opposition strength in such states as California, New York, Oregon, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts could not offset Humphrey's support in the South, the border states, some of the Western state, and the big industrial states of the Midwest.

In Chicago, as at Miami, the convention nominated its leading organizational candidate. But the opposition in Chicago, unlike that in Miami, offered a real challenge in the key symbolic issue of Vietnam. The vote on the minority report on Vietnam--1,0411 for, 1,567 against--demonstrates the strength of the opposition. Paradoxically, opposition to the war is stronger among the Democrats than among the Republicans, but the Democratic Party must be charged with major responsibility for escalation and a special responsibility for the deceptive campaign of 1964. No doubt the Republicans will exploit popular opposition to the war, but they will not mount the kind of attack that was set forth in the minority plank that was offered in Chicago. Humphrey's friends are saying, of course, that he will now move in the direction indicated by the McCarthy-McGovern-Kennedy opposition. But he has publicly reaffirmed his support of the Administration's position. He owes his nomination to those elements in the party most closely identified with the established leadership. At Philadelphia in 1948, Humphrey was booed by the Dixiecrats; here at Chicago, in 1968, he was forced to rely on their support. His backing came essentially from Dixiecrats, the leadership of organized labor, the few old-line bosses left in the party and the entrenched leadership.

The cliché comment on this convention is that the New Deal coalition, which kept the Democrats in power in all but eight of the last thirty-six years, is now breaking up. Much more to the point, however, is the fact that the elements for a new coalition exist within the party. McCarthy brought many of these new elements into the party--young people, the younger, better educated, new-salaried middle class, the expanded educational elites, et al.

The mass of Negroes may be disaffected with both parties, but it is certainly a pleasure to listen to roll calls in which Mississippi votes against the unit rule. In this connection the black caucus nominated an impressive candidate, Rev. Channing Phillips, and served notice that it no longer respects, if it ever did, the established party leadership.

Julian Bond, in the bifurcated Georgia delegation, and Fanny Lou Hamer, in the Mississippi delegation, symbolize the "New Politics" that is emerging in the South. The number of Negro delegates, 241, was higher than ever before, and the tide of opposition to discrimination against Negroes, Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans is running strong, is growing and is irreversible. In addition--and this is one of the major achievements of McCarthy's candidacy--the party has begun to reform the convention system and to give individual voters a better chance to influence decision making through meaningful political action.

It is these currents, including the strong opposition to the war, which underscore the serious consequences that may result from the majority acceptance of the Johnson legacy. The forces of the "New Politics" were strongly represented at this convention. Under the leadership, for example, of Jesse Unruh, a new-style boss who has learned something about the New Politics, the California delegation held only open caucuses as did many other delegations, and the McCarthy-Humphrey-McGovern debate before the Californians was a model of its kind.

Listening in on some of the state caucuses, I was impressed by the desire of delegations to win the right to more meaningful participation in political decision making at every level. The Wisconsin delegation is a fine example of the New Politics. As Miles McMillin of the Madison Capital Times said to me, most of the Wisconsin delegates "came out of nowhere." Few of them have had prior political experience, but it has not taken them long to learn the techniques. Today this delegation constitutes the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Vietnam is the issue, as one delegate put it, which "brought us together." A professor led the discussion of the reports on Vietnam, and the chairman, Donald Peterson, a businessman, performed like a veteran. Jay Sykes, a newcomer in politics (incidentally a Nation contributor), played a key role in McCarthy's victory in Wisconsin. At the caucus on the Vietnam planks, a pleasant, middle-aged housewife foreclosed what might have been some disruptive heckling from a minority by her mild but firm insistence that the delegates stick to the issues.

The Democrats cannot afford to permit these new elements to leave the party; they hold the key to its future--if it has a future. Despite the rigging, wire-pulling and other Daley tactics--with the big man signaling his wishes to various chairmen on the floor--and despite the size of the Humphrey vote, one sensed the existence just beneath the surface of a strong political insurgence which could not break through, in part because it did not quite know how and also because the old hands were still operating the controls. In 1972 it could be a different story. Because this potential exists it is a national misfortune that the party did not repudiate Johnson, as the people had done. The party is now stuck, if not with him then at least with his legacy: a gravely weakened party structure, the possibility of a walkout of those elements most needed to reorganize and revivify the party, and the awesome burden of defending the Johnson Humphrey record on Vietnam. By failing to repudiate the Johnson legacy, the Democrats have not only improved Richard Nixon's chances of winning in November, they have also gravely hobbled Democratic nominees in every state.

John MacLean of the Chicago Tribune reports that when Hubert Horatio learned that he had been nominated he jumped to his feet and started clapping his hands. "How about that?" he shouted as he threw his arms around Mrs. Fred Harris, chairman of the United Democrats for Humphrey, and kissed her. When the image of his wife flashed onto the colored television sets in his suite, he said, "Mom, I wish you were here now." He turned then to a roomful of friends, aides and newsmen, and his voice quivering with elation said, "Look how pretty she looks" (as indeed she did), and leaned over to kiss her image on the set.

Elation at such a moment is to be expected, and from such a man as the nominee it is certain to be mawkish, but on this occasion Mr. Humphrey radiated a joy that was in bizarre contrast to the wicked excesses occurring on the streets beneath his window.

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