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The whole world is watching ... (still

How politics, protest and the media have changed since the 1968 Democratic National Convention

The footage is permanently etched into America's collective consciousness: Some 10,000 students and other young activists stage an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. More than twice as many law enforcement officers in helmets and riot gear move in with batons and begin bashing heads, flinging protesters to the ground, kicking them, beating them, bloodying them, spraying tear gas, and hoarding them into paddy wagons.

The 1968 DNC was one of the nation's worst domestic P.R. nightmares: law enforcement, out of control, turning on the nation's youth like rabid dogs. All the while, TV cameras from the Big Three networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — rolled, funneling those images into living rooms across the country and beyond.

The whole world was, indeed, watching.

When the Democratic National Convention meets in Charlotte next month — 44 years later — the whole world will be watching again, in ways no one imagined during those fateful summer days in Chicago.

(Photo: Chicago History Museum Collection)
  • (Photo: Chicago History Museum Collection)

Meet the new media, same as the old media

John McCain's biggest liability four years ago wasn't having Sarah Palin on the ticket — it was being Internet illiterate. When it comes to modern technology, Obama vs. McCain in 2008 was like Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 all over again.

"I don't e-mail," McCain told The New York Times four months before the 2008 election. "I've never felt the particular need to e-mail." By August of that year, a headline at Salon.com screamed, "Internet dunce: Why the Arizona senator, who can barely Google, is not the chief that an increasingly technological world requires."

It was sealed. Young Barack H. Obama had defeated his Republican challenger in the tech games just as handily as the young John F. Kennedy had done to his Republican challenger, Richard Nixon, nearly half a century earlier.

In the 1960s, television was the great new social media platform. Sure, radio had been bringing American families together around the technology table since the 1920s. Even the new TV had been hobbling along for about a decade. But it wasn't until the early '60s that the massive potential political power television afforded became apparent. We could now see what was going on behind the chatter of a newscaster, and the images we saw changed our minds about key issues.

That happened in a big way early in the decade, when Americans watched the cool and confident Kennedy, flashing his shiny Colgate smile, trounce his fidgety, sweaty, pasty-faced Republican opponent, Nixon, in a televised debate. Those starkly contrasting images helped the young senator from Massachusetts barely squeak by Nixon in the 1960 election.

Over the next eight years, television would bring the horrors of Vietnam home; it would show racist Southern cops blasting water hoses and setting dogs loose on vulnerable, unarmed African Americans; it would bring the bloody carnage of political assassins into our living rooms.

Together, as a nation, we watched Kennedy die, we watched his killer die, we watched his brother die. We immediately experienced the aftermaths of the assassinations of two civil rights leaders. In the years between JFK's election and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, our living rooms were absolutely inundated with bloodshed, death and destruction.

Meanwhile, political spin doctors were taking notes.

By the time of the 1968 DNC, television was a fully developed, road-tested and ready-to-roll new media platform, and the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, hoped to utilize it to showcase his city's muscle and achievements. Of course, the young demonstrators with Students for a Democratic Society (SDA) and the Youth International Party (the Yippies) wanted to utilize it to showcase their political clout. And the TV networks wanted to showcase their new bells and whistles. It was one big recipe for conflict.

(Photo: Chicago History Museum Collection)
  • (Photo: Chicago History Museum Collection)

"You'll see all the exciting and important events of the day on our 90-minute special," ABC teased in an Aug. 26, 1968, ad in the Chicago Tribune. "You'll hear the provocative opinions of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. And throughout the day and evening, whenever events warrant it, we'll break in for live coverage. That's what's unconventional about it. ABC News' attempt to make the convention as interesting as possible for you and, just possibly, more meaningful, too."

Television then was what Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are today. Like TV in 1968, the Internet has been around for years now. It's helped elect one president and put a spotlight on at least two major global protests: the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. But only now, just in time for the 2012 DNC in Charlotte, has the Internet — and all its bells and whistles — become a fully developed, road-tested and ready-to-roll new media outlet. For this year's DNC, an entire Charlotte-based organization of young new media entrepreneurs, the PPL, has set up a headquarters for bloggers and social-media reporters to convene and cover the convention.

"It's becoming clear that up-and-coming politicians can't ignore Twitter and online media any more than Kennedy and Nixon could avoid television in the '60s," Adrian Petrescu, chief technology officer of San Francisco-based TwitSprout, wrote last summer as the U.S. began gearing up for this year's presidential campaign. "Inevitably the ones who use it (and its data) best will be the ones who succeed."

And the whole world will be watching.
— Mark Kemp

By covering the Chicago '68 story, he became a part of it

Philip Meyer was walking across the Harvard University campus to his hotel room in March when students began pouring into the square from their dorm rooms, cheering and screaming. President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced he was dropping out of the election.

Philip Meyer
  • Philip Meyer

In April, the leader of the civil rights movement was gunned down in Memphis. Then in June, a promising young presidential candidate was assassinated on live television just after winning the California primary.

"That was one heck of a news year," Meyer says. "1968 was a journalist's theme park."

Then 37, Meyer was conducting research at Harvard to gauge the effects of Martin Luther King Jr.'s pacifist message on the African-American community. After King was assassinated, Meyer was assigned to cover the '68 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. He wasn't too excited about what would happen inside. Though Johnson — an unpopular pro-war candidate — had dropped out after Sen. Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primaries, the president's right-hand man Hubert Humphrey had entered the race. With Johnson and delegates behind Humphrey, the vice president had enough momentum to forgo the primaries. He was a shoe-in as the nominee.

The predictable outcome inside the convention made for boring TV. Newscasters read the daily paper aloud on air to kill time. The real action was unfolding, as it so often does, on the streets.

By 1968, the Vietnam War had been going on for 17 years, the longest combat in U.S. history. College students and hippies thrived on anti-war rhetoric, and none were more theatrical in their expression than the Yippies. Led by activists Abbie Hoffman, Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan and Paul Krassner, the Yippies were a counterculture group that grabbed the most headlines leading up to the convention. Abbie, a media darling, would often talk to reporters in exaggerated accents. Rumors had swirled around Chicago that the group was going to pour LSD into the city's water supply. At the convention, the Yippies advanced a pig — Pigasus the Immortal, they called him — for president.

Mayor Richard Daley, the most noted Democrat in the country, ruled the Windy City with an iron fist. He thought that by denying the Yippies a protest permit they'd avoid the convention. He was wrong, but he was still prepared. Under his "shoot-to-kill" orders, about 28,000 Secret Service, National Guardsmen, Army troops and local police tore through crowds of protesters outside the convention.

"Police were attacking demonstrators with clubs and tear gas," says Meyer, who had purchased binoculars to watch. Standing on the sidelines, Meyer was gassed twice. Some even seeped into the Conrad Hilton, the headquarters for the Democrats and the press.

In those five days, 120 officers and 100 protesters were injured, and Chicago police reported 589 arrests. Innocent bystanders, including doctors and journalists, had been beaten. A cop punched CBS News correspondent Dan Rather in the stomach.

After the convention, Meyer was on his way to the airport when he noticed a crowd had gathered in Grant Park. He asked the taxi driver to stop. McCarthy, an anti-war candidate who impassioned the youth generation, was consoling a crowd of followers a few hundred deep.

"It was a very emotional moment," says Meyer, the only reporter at the impromptu meeting.

Meyer finished his career in North Carolina, as a professor emeritus at UNC Chapel Hill. He still has the notes he took from the convention, even the binocular case with the Secret Service security sticker. Over the phone from his home in the Triangle, he reads McCarthy's speech from the notebook he had that day in Grant Park.

"I'll not compromise, I'm not departing from my commitment to you, nor are you departing from your commitment to me. And so we'll go on in the same spirit. Let us go on from here to do the things we can do and not worry about the things we can't do."
— Ana McKenzie

Mobile to mobile

Democrats: download these mobile applications to your smartphones and stay up to date on convention happenings — or to simply take a swing at Romney's face.

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DNC 2012
Official convention mobile app from Charlotte in 2012 Host Committee
Free
Available on Android and Apple iOS

my2012 Charlotte
Contains city guide by Yelp, streaming convention news from Bloomberg, more
Free
Available on Android, Apple iOS, Blackberry

The Democrat Loop
RSS reader app offers latest news from the Democratic party
$1.99
Available on Android and Apple iOS

Obama vs Romney - Fight for the White House
Choose your candidate and battle to win the Oval Office
Free
Available on Apple iOS

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To see an extended version of this timeline, with videos, click here.

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