But the iconic images of police violence at the Chicago convention — an official government report called it a “police riot” — also reflected a political misstep: Democrats had lost control of their convention and of how Americans experienced it. Today the effects of the coronavirus pandemic raise the question of whether the parties can control how Americans experience a very different sort of convention.
In 1968, both parties’ convention planners shared one goal: the maintenance of complete control over how the media covered their live events. In the network era, conventions were still a place of real drama and intrigue — policy decisions were made, platforms were debated and nominees were not preordained. Nonetheless, like today, the parties still staged their conventions for TV cameras.
The parties wanted enough disagreements to show that the political process was real — democracy in action. Yet if disagreements were too strong, and this was captured by the networks, a party might appear too divided to win or to govern efficiently.
In 1964, the Democrats had staged their show for TV much more tightly than the Republicans, who had nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater and could not control the ecstatic enthusiasm of some of his most right-wing supporters. The roles were reversed and amplified in 1968, with the GOP managing much tighter control and the Democrats failing miserably.
Coverage of the GOP convention in Miami opened with a profile of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s wife, Happy, showing her casually strolling past a Calder sculpture on their 4,000-acre family compound. NBC next covered Nixon’s arrival, as a chaste chorus line of flight attendants welcomed him with not-too-high kicks.
Anchorman David Brinkley commented on the magnificent beachfront resorts, gushing, “There’s a hotel down there, Chet [Huntley, his co-host], that spends $2,000 a week for whipped cream!” A reception at the Americana Hotel featured “huge mounds of shrimp.” The GOP didn’t specifically want to portray itself as the party of luxury, but this sort of breathless coverage portrayed the experience as a fun affair, a win for Republicans.
Nixon seemed very likely to win the nomination, but he continued aggressively to woo Southern delegates privately in his hotel suite, offering them coffee, sticky buns and reassurances about decelerating school desegregation and picking a Southern running mate and Supreme Court justices. The platform committee came up with a Vietnam plank wishy- washy enough that both moderates and hard-liners could support it, with no messy disagreements on the convention floor. The arguments all happened behind the scenes.
On TV, everything was cheery and orderly. The only surprising moment was the nomination of unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew for vice president.
A three-day riot just a few miles away, which left three Black citizens dead at the hands of Miami police, should have marred the proceedings. But it didn’t. The conventioneers barely acknowledged it was happening, and the networks mistakenly saw the crisis as completely unrelated to the event. It’s not that the newsmen were pro-Republican, per se. They simply covered the media event that the GOP had staged for them.
In Chicago, both Mayor Richard Daley and the Democratic Party machine attempted a similar level of control but failed miserably. Daley had turned his city into an armed camp, and television coverage opened with details about the installation of barbed wire and the numbers of National Guardsmen on-site. Delegates resented the heavy-handed on-site security and spoke out against it in interviews with network correspondents. They printed “Stop the War” signs on used newspapers and smuggled them in, folded up in their clothing and purses.
An electrical workers strike wiped out much of the phone service and, most crucially, made live television outside the convention hall impossible, an unbearable situation for the professional newsmen, which pleased Daley mightily.
Chicago also lacked the glamour and luxury of Miami. Daley had forced most of the bars near the convention site to close, and the only on-site food was hot dogs. Even worse, the convention was a few blocks from the stockyards, and the stench of offal and manure was pervasive. Before ascending to the podium, speakers were sprayed down with insect repellent to ward off flies.
The networks covered these failures as ably as they had covered the GOP success.
Police brutality in the streets is remembered as the most important crisis in Chicago (and it did ultimately crush the party by showing it as out of control, giving Nixon’s “law-and-order” candidacy a massive leg up). But drama unfolded inside the convention as well.
First, disenfranchised Black delegates wanted to displace “regular delegates” from numerous Southern states. Yet only Mississippi challengers won a full place at the table. When Georgia challengers were allowed only to share half the votes with the delegates selected by segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox, the hall exploded with anger. Both CBS and NBC cut to a young Black delegate attempting to set his credentials on fire. The chairman could not restore order, and the chaotic meeting was adjourned at 2:45 a.m. The cameras caught it all.
Next on the agenda was the Vietnam plank and the nomination. Vice President Hubert Humphrey did not arrive with the nomination completely sewn up, though the networks’ calculations pointed to his nomination as likely. Still, Humphrey had not run in a single primary, Sen. Eugene McCarthy was a highly regarded peace candidate and there was an energetic movement to draft Sen. Ted Kennedy, brother of the slain Robert Kennedy, who had been a strong contender before his assassination. The majority of delegates went for Humphrey, but TV sets were flooded with images of earnest homemade posters boosting other candidates (“Draft Ted!”), sealing the impression of a party grasping at straws.
The party establishment also won on the issue of Vietnam, defeating the antiwar plank by a roughly 1,000 to 1,500 vote. Defeated doves responded by donning black armbands to mourn their loss. They further seized the optics of the situation, telling reporters that the Vietnam vote proved a substantial percentage of Democrats would not support a candidate tethered to Johnson’s war strategy. The morose delegates correctly predicted victory for Nixon.
The party appeared to be spiraling on national TV. This all happened before the famous police attack in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, now immortalized by the protesters’ chant: “The whole world is watching!”
As America’s truncated online conventions loom large, many journalists say this signals the final nail in the coffin for the old system, that this year we will not see the “spectacular” promotional events of former days. But observing that no balloons will be dropped in Joe Biden’s basement misses the point completely.
Over the past 50 years, political business has receded before the business of image building at the party conventions, but that has been an underlying concern since TV coverage of them began in 1948. And in 2020, the Democrats are already succeeding where the GOP is failing, because by eliminating large gatherings and reducing travel demands, they are showing how seriously they take the coronavirus pandemic. As President Trump and his planners, conversely, scale down their convention and shift course seemingly from day to day, they appear to be floundering.
The 2020 conventions should be seen less as a divergence from the regular way of doing business than a culmination of that approach, in which total control has finally, theoretically, been achieved. One suspects that planners are still debating about a balloon drop wherever Trump gives his acceptance speech, but if it happens, it will feel as hollow to many viewers as the drop for Humphrey did for TV viewers 52 years ago. Contrary to all the “RIP conventions” rhetoric, there is every reason to predict that the hybrid live-recorded event that the Biden team is planning will indeed be spectacular — a spectacle not of a mass gathering of politicians and supporters but of people who are together apart and masters of their own image-making.