On August 25, Democrats will gather in Denver for their nominating convention. Ironically it comes precisely 40 years since the party opened it's 1968 convention in Chicago. The 1968 convention was the most significant in my lifetime - until now.
The Democratic Party and the nation paid a horrible price for what transpired at that convention, a price we may be about to pay again.
The Democratic convention this August faces many of the same issues as Democrats face in 1968. Change vs. same-old, same-old. Machine politics vs. people politics. The will of the people vs. the will of party insiders. They are all in play again.
I only mention this because the players are already setting up their plays for the August show down in Denver. Hillary Clinton has made it clear that, if Obama wins enough delegates to match her, she and her party surrogates will demand that delegates from Florida and Michigan be seated, even though she had agreed with the party's decision months ago to ban them if they moved their primaries up. They did anyway and their delegates were decertified. Now that she won Florida she wants to change the rules.
If that fight breaks out on the convention floor this August, get ready for trouble. What kind of trouble? Big trouble. That's what kind of trouble.
A brief history is required. Bear with me. Because, it's that important.
Choosing a Presidential nominee in 1968 was particularly difficult for the Democrats. As today a profoundly unpopular war raged (in Vietnam.) President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had repeatedly escalated US involvement in Vietnam, had come under so much pressure from anti-war Democrats that he decided not to seek re-election.
Robert Kennedy was a controversial upstart, anti-war candidate hated by Johnson and unpopular with party leaders who saw him as too ambitious and too young. But Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, nearly three months before the convention.
Senator Eugene McCarthy, D-MN, stepped up his aggressive anti-war campaign, calling for the immediate withdrawal from the region. Kennedy's former supporters flocked to McCarthy.
On the other side was the Democratic Party bosses' choice, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Thanks to the oddities of Democratic primary rules back then, Humphrey did not participate in any primaries but still controlled enough delegates to secure the nomination if he wanted it. Unfortunately Humphrey had been an early supporter of the war and currently mirrored Johnson's strategy of continuing the war while trying to convince North Vietnam to negotiate a settlement. Anti-war Democrats had heard enough of such, "give-me-a-hamburger-today and-I'll-pay-you-tomorrow, nonsense. They weren't buying.
McCarthy's announcement re-ignited the hopes of a new generation of voters and political activists. A former academic and Washington outsider, McCarthy's nickname became "Clean for Gene," leading many students to cut their hair off and shave their beards and mustaches.
McCarthy's principled stand on the war faced it's first, the New Hampshire primary. Hundreds of students rushed to New Hampshire and campaigned door-to-door for McCarthy. McCarthy won a startling 42% of the vote, something that greatly upset and stunned party loyalists.
Meanwhile behind the scenes Vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey had been negotiating for delegates in non-primary states. The fix had been put in already by party bosses. Humphrey "won" the nomination in Chicago on August 25-29, 1968. Three-thousand anti-war demonstrators stood outside the convention hall in shocked rage. To add insult to injury the delegates to the Democratic convention voted down a Vietnam peace plan by a 1500-1000 vote. (You see, even 40 years ago, Democrats lived in fear of being painted as "weak on national defense," by their Republican opponents. If a few thousand more US soldiers had to die for Democrats to look tough, so be it.)
So, despite strong showings in the primaries, McCarthy was able to gather only 23 percent of the delegates -- thanks to the control over the delegates wielded by state party organizations. While Humphrey, was not clearly an anti-war candidate, some anti-war Democrats backed Humphrey hoping he might succeed where Johnson had failed in extricating the United States from Vietnam -- just as today some Democrats hope that Hillary, who was for the war before she was against it -- might just figure out how to extricate us from Iraq.