By: Jeff Rodriguez, GFW PRSA Historian
August 1968: There is no sure-fire way to win a Presidential election. But there is a pretty reliable method for losing one, and it was clearly demonstrated 50 years ago this month when Democrats gathered in Chicago to nominate their Presidential candidate. Conventions are supposed to help bring the party together, but this one was a political — and PR — disaster.
To be fair, 1968 was a tough year for everyone. MLK and Robert Kennedy both had been assassinated, and the Vietnam War was tearing apart both the country and the Democrats. Many delegates arrived in Chicago angry at the party, and they were joined by an “army of protesters” outside. Nervous city officials responded by surrounding the convention hall with steel fence and barbed wire, and the main doors were bulletproofed. As CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite said, the hall resembled a police state.
Most people have heard about the “riot” instigated by the Chicago Police; on August 28, tempers flared and the cops began clubbing protestors, journalists, even passers-by — “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence,” as an investigation later reported. The media — those still standing — covered much of it. The New York Times called it a “pitched battle,” Newsweek called it “The Battle of Chicago” and The Washington Post called it “an atmosphere of hatred.”
But for Democrats, the scene inside the hall was just as significant. Angry delegates booed and yelled at each other and at least one delegate, with cameras rolling, was forcibly removed by security officers. Then when NBC’s Dan Rather attempted to interview the delegate, he was grabbed and pushed down, bringing a new definition to the idea of “on the ground reporting.” And when a Senator spoke out against the police violence, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was seen on camera yelling something he later claimed was “You faker.”
There is disagreement about how much long-term damage the convention did to the Democrats, but here are two telling stats. First, in 1964, LBJ won 61 percent of the vote; four years later, Hubert Humphrey got less than 43 percent. Second, while Democrats had won eight of the 12 previous elections, they lost seven of the next 12. Probably not the best metrics.
No doubt the Democrats who gathered in Chicago that summer were hoping for some “in-conventional” thinking, but the riots and inner conflict were a bit more than they had bargained for. And as every PR pro knows, if you want to beat an adversary, the first step is to not beat on each other.