E.J. Dionne Jr.: Can we escape 1968?
CHICAGO — “Get the thing straight once and for all: The policeman isn’t there to create disorder,” said the late Mayor Richard J. Daley in explaining the riots in the streets of his city in the summer 1968. “The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
Daley’s verbal jumble became the butt of jokes and the source of claims, inspired by Freud, that Da Mayor had unintentionally blurted out the truth.
Yet he may also have been an accidental prophet. The chaos on the streets of Chicago during the Democrats’ catastrophic national convention 50 years ago this week lives on not only in memory, but also in our fractured present.
In clashes played out across the country on television, Chicago’s police clubbed and arrested youthful demonstrators gathered to oppose the Vietnam War. Members of the media got caught up in the melee, too. The phrase “fake news” would have resonated with Mayor Daley who said as much without using the words.
What occurred inside the convention hall added to the vertigo. Democratic party leaders, despite primaries showing strong support for the antiwar candidacies of Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene J. McCarthy, instead nominated Hubert Humphrey. He was Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president and a liberal hero now rendered into an establishment stand-in by his refusal to break with his patron on the war.
That all this was happening after a season of national horror with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK created an end of times feeling. Was this what the beginning of Armageddon looked like?
We have preserved the disorder of that moment in a culture war that seems to have no expiration, in divisions along the lines of class and race, in confrontations over the proper role of law enforcement, and in conflicts within a Democratic Party that never fully recovered from the wrenching schism opened by the Vietnam War.
As Norman Mailer wrote in his classic “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” about the two national conventions of 1968, “The grand Establishment of the Democratic Party and its society life in Washington would soon be shattered — the world was shattering it.” And shattered it was, a reality noticed by a governor of California elected only two years earlier named Ronald Reagan.
For some younger Americans, the ’60s inspire nostalgia. But for more of them, in my experience, they inspire an entirely understandable impatience with the baby boom generation — my generation — that continues to play out the conflicts of its youth even as newer voices strain to be heard in the din of old songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or Country Joe and the Fish.
There have been many attempts to put both the 1960s and the 1980s, bookends of the same struggle, behind us. Barack Obama frequently expressed impatience with the chains this past latched on to our politics. He tried to honor the best of the ’60s, the triumph of the civil rights movement especially, while seeking to turn our sights forward to the coming half-century rather than backward.
Trump’s election upended Obama’s efforts and brought us right back to the Sixties. Here was another aging baby boomer. He was on the conservative side of most of the old fights — but not all.
As Todd Gitlin, a veteran of the New Left, noted recently in an interview in The Nation, Trump embraced a particular version of (male) sexual liberation that was also product of the era. Trump’s 1960s Playboy philosophy has been subjected to necessary and scathing criticism from women. As the author of one of the best books about the sixties, Gitlin understands just how complicated their legacy remains.
There are reasons why this past is still so alive to us, even to the many born long after the battle of Grant Park in Carl Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders.
The most important was offered by Michael Kazin who, like Gitlin, is a former New Left leader turned scholar. The simple fact, Kazin observed in The New York Times, is that the wars of the 1960s, particularly around culture, have yet to yield a winning side. If anything, Trump’s rise reopened questions we had hoped were at least partially settled, especially around race. Like it or not we need to fight these battles until they’re won.
But we can’t keep living in the past. Doing so blinds us to the challenges of the present and leads us to squander the opportunities of the future. We have worked hard to preserve the disorders of 1968. We have to stop.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.