On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Looking Ahead to 2024: Conventions, Caucuses, and the Balance of Democracy,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman positioned next year’s 2024 Democratic National Convention in Chicago with two other Windy City political conventions: President Lincoln’s triumphant 1860 Republican National Convention and the cataclysmic 1968 Democratic National Convention. Another Chicago-based Convention came in 1996, when a Democratic party searching for a moderate identity confronted the legacy of the violent 1968 event.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was a particular political nadir in a year full of them. The litany is likely familiar: First, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek reelection due to the wrenching pain of the Vietnam War. Then, surging presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated immediately after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. And, amid it all, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was also brutally killed in Memphis. 

In August, a fiercely divided Democratic Party met in Chicago. As powerful party delegates nominated LBJ’s comparatively pro-Vietnam Vice President Hubert Humphrey – who had declined to run in any primaries – Chicago police officers battled with protesters on the streets outside; more than 600 protesters were arrested, while 250 combatants on both sides of the scrum were seriously injured.

In the aftermath of the battle, eight of the protest planners, including Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) co-founder Tom Hayden, faced conspiracy charges in federal court. The tense, often-theatrical trial of the “Chicago Eight” (Seale was ultimately tried separately, leading to the more-famous “Chicago Seven” sobriquet) captivated the nation until its 1970 verdict. The defendants were acquitted of conspiracy but found guilty, in most cases, of crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot. 

Almost 30 years passed before the Democratic Party returned to Chicago for a Convention. In 1996, however, incumbent President Bill Clinton took the plunge. Unlike in 1968, when Humphrey’s comparative pro-Vietnam posture was out of step with the increasingly antiwar party, the Democrats of 1996 were largely embracing a centrist posture. The move away from progressivism was designed to counter the 1994 midterms, where a right-wing insurgency effort orchestrated by Representative Newt Gingrich led to the Republicans taking both the House and the Senate.

In January 1996, Clinton famously declared during his State of the Union address that, “The era of Big Government is over.” Just four days before the Convention began, on August 22nd, Clinton acted on his declaration, signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a welfare reform bill negotiated with Gingrich that capped lifetime welfare benefits at five years and narrowed eligibility for benefits. 

These moves toward the center were also influenced by the very real threat of Republican presidential candidate and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who surged in the polls after the Republican National Convention in July.

Into this climate of decided moderation came the surviving, graying, largely mellowed-out members of the “Chicago Eight” and their allies. Hayden still served as their unofficial spokesperson, though he arrived not as a dissident, but as a powerful California State Senator, a Convention delegate, and an ex-husband of Jane Fonda. 

Hayden had preemptively met with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in June, two months before the Convention, to formally bury the hatchet from 1968. Daley’s father, Richard J. Daley, had been Mayor during the earlier Convention and Hayden during his trial had repeatedly accused the elder Daley of ordering the police to attack the demonstrators. 

During the press conference, Hayden cheekily invoked his trial: “I’ve traveled across state lines to conspire with Mayor Daley about the convention this summer.”

The younger Daley, a Clinton-allied Democrat, also brought levity and forgiveness to the meeting. “There’s no lingering animosity between his family and my family whatsoever,” he assured the press. 

Some of Hayden’s former antagonists still sounded a bit bitter. “It’s funny he’s back in town—I hope he’s grown up,” Thomas Foran, the one-time U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Hayden, told the Chicago Tribune in an article about the Hayden-Daley summit. “He married Jane Fonda and got a pretty good settlement from the divorce. So I guess that’s pretty mainstream.” 

Hayden was not done with his reconciliation tour. On the eve of the Convention, as Clinton headed toward Chicago on a train called the “21st Century Express,” Hayden and the liberal magazine The Nation co-hosted an event at the 4,000-seat Arie Crown Theater called “Return to Chicago 1968/1996.” Tickets were $15 and available on Ticketmaster. 

Hayden and his co-defendants spoke at the bash, offering a mix of continued activism and more worldly concerns. Bobby Seale offered a stirring call to action, saying, “We are here; we are involved…the struggle continues.” But Seale, donning a www.bobbyseale.com hat, also talked about his cookbook, “Barbecue’N with Bobby,” which was being turned into an interactive CD-ROM and was available on the website he wore upon his head.  

Dave Dellinger, by far the oldest of the defendants at 81, remained defiant in his remarks, suggesting 1996 was an even less just time than 1968. “Things have got worse, there are more rich people controlling the society now than in ’68,” Dellinger dourly declared. 

Rennie Davis, a resident of Boulder, Colorado, appeared in a sleeveless denim shirt, and spent a significant portion of his remarks hawking a special water he was distributing called Merlin that he claimed contained a “discovery gene” that appeared in times of great cultural change, like the Renaissance. “It regenerates the whole body – bone, cartilage, synapses,” he insisted. “I’m very lit,” Davis continued. “In two or three years, you will be lit, too.” 

Mayor Daley made a quasi-surprise appearance, continuing the gentle tone he had cultivated in his earlier meeting with Hayden. “However unwelcome you might have felt 28 years ago, you are welcome today,” he told the crowd. Daley also offered a gentle reminder to avoid too much backwards-looking mea culpas: “We can’t bring back Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it…The challenges of today are too great to keep fighting the past.”  

Former progressive New York representative and Equal Rights Amendment advocate Bella Abzug spoke in favor of women’s rights. The recently-deceased whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg spoke, as did social historian Studs Terkel

Activist Stew Albert, an unindicted co-conspirator in the “Chicago Eight,” trial, took on an ambivalent tone about the direction of the Party and American dissent writ large. “Last time I was in Chicago in 1968 I got my head split open,” he recounted. “I come here today and shake hands with the mayor. It’s an interesting experience. I don’t know what it means. It’s good to see old friends, a continuity between generations, and I guess that means something,” 

Another strange intergenerational mashup: Writer Norman Mailer, who covered the 1968 Convention in his book Miami and the Siege of Chicago, sat in the audience; he was covering the event for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s magazine, George

The event also featured quite a bit of music. The cast of a local revival of the musical Hair performed “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In,” in full hippie regalia. Stephen Stills and Graham Nash performed “Teach Your Children” and Nash’s anguished “Chicago,” written as a support track for the defendants back in 1971. And Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne dueted on the protest song “Crow on the Cradle” (“Your mother and father will sweat and they’ll slave / To build you a coffin and dig you a grave.”)

One of Hayden’s main purposes for the event was to lobby Daley for the creation of a gazebo-centric memorial for the 1968 unrest at Grant Park. When Daley saw the model, he offered a dryly noncommittal response: “It’s a concept.” 

The event got a significant amount of national news coverage, particularly coming amid a slew of other eve-of-Convention narratives. The general response was cynicism at the toothlessness of the once-radical group.

Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan summed up his impressions from the various speeches at the event: “A lot of the New Left outsider-bomb tossers of ’68 are New Middle insider-networkers now.”

In the The Washington Post, political journalist E.J. Dionne more explicitly blamed a certain retrospective obsession with the 1960s, which he argued had become shorthand for a tangled web of disparate issues and priorities. “My hunch is that we’d all be better off if we could say a final goodbye to the ‘60s,” Dionne suggested. “Living in the past is a bad idea, and the whole concept of ‘The Sixties’ is a mess of contradictions. The counterculture, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the quest for gender equality were discreet parts of a complicated whole. Your stance toward the ‘60s depends on how you weigh each of those separately, and also on which you count the most.” 

Once the Convention got underway, the “centrism” conversation continued unabated. In his acceptance address, President Clinton – off the train at long last – reasserted his plans to cut taxes and to continue to reform welfare. Then-Senator Biden gave a short speech praising the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, both for its assault weapons ban and for the 44,000 new police officers that the law put on the streets – without, he stressed, any new taxes. 

There were also moments of collective, decidedly non-radical cultural expression, including the now-iconic collective dancing of the Macarena and the original Rent cast’s Convention-closing performance of “Seasons of Love.” 

On The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer during the first night of the Convention, progressive activist Robert Borosage commented on the underlying reason for all of the centrism and the show of united force at the Convention. “Our differences, while significant on many different things, are much less than our differences with the threat, the quite clear and present danger posed by Gingrich and Dole,” Borosage highlighted. “That’s why you see this sort of eerie unity in this convention because people understand the stakes this fall are very high.”

Clinton was handily re-elected in November 1996, and the debates over the loss of progressivism in the Democratic Party – and the looming specter of 1968 – soon gave way to far more heated battles over the Lewinsky Affair. 

The negotiations between the one-time outlaw Chicago defendants and the Party mainstream, however, reflects a continued tension that will likely rise again when the Democrats return to Chicago next year. 

For a snapshot of the Clinton administration’s 1996 policies, check out President Clinton’s campaign book, Between Hope and History: Meeting America’s Challenges for the 21st Century.

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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