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The Real Action in '68

The revolutionaries inside the convention didn't get much ink.

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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 Robert Kennedy.

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 them—until, 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. Bode—who a quarter century later would be dean of the Medill School of Journalism—gave 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 pieces—the "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 speech—she 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 world—all 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 Houlihan—and for that matter, Eddie Burke, today Chicago's most powerful alderman—Barry 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 believe in.

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 says—the 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 administration.

"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.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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