Ted Van Dyk: How the Election of 1968 Reshaped the Democratic Party

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Van Dyk's memoir, "Heroes, Hacks and Fools," was published earlier this year by University of Washington Press. He advised Democratic presidents and presidential candidates from the early 1960s to 1992.]

It was 40 years ago that the most disastrous modern-day national political convention convened in Chicago. The 1968 Democratic convention contributed to Richard Nixon's victory that fall and, in turn, the prolongation of the Vietnam War. It also set the Democratic Party on a course that it has yet to correct.

From 1964-68 I was an assistant and adviser to Hubert Humphrey, the eventual 1968 Democratic nominee. Humphrey entered 1968 trying both to maintain loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson and to work within the Johnson administration toward a negotiated peace in Vietnam.

When Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy chose to challenge LBJ's renomination on the war issue, Humphrey was politically trapped. His core liberal constituency began defecting to McCarthy and Kennedy. After Johnson unexpectedly decided not to seek re-election on March 31, Humphrey temporized about his own candidacy for nearly three weeks.

Martin Luther King had been murdered earlier in the month. Debate about Vietnam had become shrill and divisive. Humphrey told me he was temporizing because he intuited that "terrible, wrenching events are just over the horizon. I do not know what they are. But, if I run, I sense that I will be engulfed by them." Humphrey did finally declare his candidacy and, as he anticipated, was soon overtaken by such events.

The most jarring was the June 5 assassination of Robert Kennedy, on the night of his California primary victory. Humphrey had wanted a Kennedy victory to remove McCarthy from the contest. ("Robert Kennedy and I understand each other and will support each other, no matter who is nominated," he told me. "If McCarthy remains in the race he will plague both of us all the way to Chicago.")

Humphrey thus was left without real competition for the nomination, but facing a party torn by frustration on the war issue. (McCarthy ceased campaigning after Kennedy's death and had too few delegates to mount his own alternative candidacy in Chicago.) He attempted to seize the initiative by issuing his own independent Vietnam policy statement, but Johnson bullied him out of it.

FBI and Secret Service reports told us that organized disorders would be staged in Chicago. We expected unorganized protests as well. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley requested federal troops be sent to Chicago. When Attorney General Ramsey Clark turned him down, Daley said Chicago police would keep order their own way. They did.

At the convention itself, negotiations with McCarthy and Kennedy forces, represented then by Sen. George McGovern, appeared about to result in an acceptable peace plank. But Johnson intervened in the Platform Committee and among Southern and border-state delegates to block that plank. Humphrey and his running mate, Sen. Ed Muskie, left Chicago with their party more divided than before the convention, and without a penny in their campaign treasury.....

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