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The Chicago convention -- a loss amid chaos

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Welcome to Chicago
The Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago in August 1968. Demonstrations and violence erupted outside the convention over opposition to the Vietnam War.
Image courtesy of the University of South Carolina Libraries

Eugene McCarthy arrived in Chicago on Sunday,  Aug. 25 to the cheers of thousands of supporters who gathered for an airport rally. Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas, the first and only senator to formally endorse McCarthy, made the introduction. 

"Eugene McCarthy, that tall American from the tall north woods, has won this campaign in the hearts of the American people already," Yarborough said.


"We now come to Chicago for the final test of the Democratic Party," said McCarthy. "And I suppose there's no better place or more difficult place in which to test it than here, under the watchful eye -- with the mayor of Chicago watching over all of us." 

The convention opened Monday under oppressive conditions. Tension was building between police and the thousands of anti-war protesters who had gathered in the city. 

Humphrey and Muskie
Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination for president on the first ballot. He chose Edmund Muskie as his running mate.
Photo courtesy of the Humphrey Forum

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley ordered the police to deal harshly with the protesters. 

McCarthy visited with several state delegations early in the week. He made his last appeal for support during a forum organized by California Democrats.

"Your responsibility is to make this determination as to which candidate can take the issues that you're interested in and best carry them to the people of this country for a judgment. And in that spirit, I rest my case with you. Thank you," McCarthy said. 

McCarthy told a reporter later in the day that Humphrey had the nomination locked up. In a 1969 oral history interview, Sen. Ralph Yarborough said he and other McCarthy supporters were devastated when they heard the news.

"If there is any way a politician could liquidate himself faster, that was self-immolation. He set the torch to his political hopes," Yarborough recalled.

On Wednesday, convention delegates nominated Hubert Humphrey on the first ballot. Humphrey received 67 percent of the vote. McCarthy received 23 percent. 


"Mr. Chairman, most delegates to this convention do not know that thousands of young people are being beaten in the streets of Chicago," one attendee announced from the crowd. 

In another oral history interview, McCarthy campaign worker David Mixner recalled the scene on Michigan Ave., just outside of McCarthy headquarters in the Hilton Hotel.

Chicago Police come at crowds with nightsticks and tear gas as they try to break up protests during the the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. Chicago Police come at crowds with nightsticks and tear gas as they try to break up protests during the the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.
AP Photo/Chicago Daily News, Paul Sequeira, file

"They blocked off all four other exits, I mean like a bullpen at this intersection, so the crowd could not exit anywhere," Mixner said. "And in from South Balbo came a charge of police, marching like storm troopers -- that's the only adequate description and it's not hyperbolization -- right into the center of the crowd, right through, turned in each direction in the crowd and started clubbing people." 

McCarthy stayed in his hotel most of the week and never went to the convention hall. He watched the violence on the street below his suite, then helped out in a makeshift hospital set up in his campaign headquarters. 

The convention concluded Thursday after Humphrey named Edmund Muskie his running mate.


Earlier that day, McCarthy had addressed his supporters at the Hilton Hotel. 

"I may be visibly moved. I've been very careful not to be visibly moved throughout this campaign. You people keep on this way, I may as they say, lose my cool," he said. 

McCarthy on the stump
Although McCarthy was highly regarded by anti-war activists, he was unable to gather enough support from the rest of the Democratic Party to win the nomination.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries

McCarthy later crossed the street to speak to the demonstrators assembled at Grant Park. 

"I'm happy to be here today, for this meeting of the government and people in exile," McCarthy said to loud applause. 

"We're going to continue to carry the issue to popular judgment, and hope that will come to bear upon the nominees of the two parties who are on the record subject to some kind of influence," he continued, "but not within the parties necessarily.  But we're going to try to influence them as they go along. But my position is that I do not endorse either one of them." 

McCarthy left Chicago a defeated candidate. His nine-month crusade was over.