Feature photo by David Douglas Duncan. Used with permission of the Harry Ransom Center.
At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, police riots erupted across the city in response to anti-war demonstrators. In this piece, Arthur Miller reflects on the aftermath of the riots and describes a candlelight walk and vigil that he took with other Democratic delegates on the night of August 28th, by Grant Park to the Conrad Hilton Hotel. In many ways, his keen observations on the nature of violence, the failures of the political party machine, and the act of protest speak directly to the present day.
There was violence inside the International Amphitheater before violence broke out in the Chicago streets. One knew from the sight of the barbed wire topping the cyclone fence around the vast parking lot, from the emanations of hostility in the credential-inspecting police that something had to happen, but once inside the hall it was not the hippies one thought about anymore, it was the delegates.
Violence in a social system is the sure sign of its incapacity to express formally certain irrepressible needs. The violent have sprung loose from the norms available for that expression. The hippies, the police, the delegates themselves were all sharers in the common breakdown of the form which traditionally has been flexible enough to allow conflicting interests to intermingle and stage meaningful debates and victories.
The violence inside the amphitheater, which everyone knew was there and quickly showed itself in the arrests of delegates, the beatings of newsmen on the floor, was the result of the suppression, planned and executed, of any person or viewpoint which conflicted with the president’s. There had to be violence for many reasons, but one fundamental cause was the two opposite ideas of politics in this Democratic party.
The professionals—the ordinary senator, congressman, state committeeman, mayor, officeholder—see politics as a sort of game in which you win sometimes and sometimes you lose. Issues are not something you feel, like morality, like good and evil, but something you succeed or fail to make use of. To these men an issue is a segment of public opinion which you either capitalize on or attempt to assuage according to the present interests of the party.
To the amateurs—the McCarthy people and some of the Kennedy adherents—an issue is first of all moral and embodies a vision of the country, even of man, and is not a counter in a game. The great majority of the men and women at the convention were delegates from the party to the party.
Nothing else can explain their docility during the speeches of the first two days, speeches of a skull-flattening boredom impossible to endure except by people whose purpose is to demonstrate team spirit. “Vision” is always “forward,” “freedom” is always a “burning flame,” and “our inheritance,” “freedom,” “progress,” “sacrifices,” “long line of great Democratic presidents” fall like drops of water on the head of a tortured Chinese.
And nobody listens; few even know who the speaker is. Every once in a while a cheer goes up from some quarter of the hall, and everyone asks his neighbor what was said. For most delegates just to be here is enough, to see Mayor Daley in the life even as the TV cameras are showing him to the folks back home. Just being here is the high point, the honor their fealty has earned them.
They are among the chosen, and the boredom of the speeches is in itself a reassurance, their deepening insensibility is proof of their faithfulness and a token of their common suffering and sacrifice for the team. Dinner has been a frankfurter, the hotels are expensive, and on top of everything they have had to chip in around a hundred dollars per man for their delegation’s hospitality room.
The tingling sense of aggressive hostility was in the hall from the first moment. There were no Chicago plainclothes men around the Connecticut delegation; we sat freely under the benign smile of John Bailey, the Democratic National Chairman and our own state chairman, who glanced down at us from the platform from time to time. But around the New York delegation there was always a squad of huskies ready to keep order—and indeed they arrested New Yorkers and even got in a couple of shoves against Paul O’Dwyer when he tried to keep them from slugging one of the members. Connecticut, of course, was safely machine, but New York had great McCarthy strength.
The McCarthy people had been warned not to bring posters into the hall, but at the first mention from the platform of Hubert Humphrey’s name hundreds of three-by-five-foot Humphrey color photos broke out all over the place. By the third day I could not converse with anybody except by sitting down; a standing conversation would bring inspectors, sometimes every 15 seconds, asking for my credentials and those of anyone talking to me. We were forbidden to hand out any propaganda on the resolutions, but a nicely printed brochure selling the Administration’s majority Vietnam report was on every seat.We were the crowd in an opera waiting for our cue to shout in unison when the time for it came. First depression and then anger began moving into the faces of the McCarthy people.
And the ultimate mockery of the credentials themselves was the flooding of the balconies by Daley ward heelers who carried press passes. On the morning before the convention began, John Bailey had held up 22 visitors’ tickets, the maximum, he said, allowed any delegation, as precious as gold. The old-time humor of it all began to sour when one realized that of 7.5 million Democrats who voted in the primaries, 80 percent preferred McCarthy’s and/or Robert Kennedy’s Vietnam positions.
The violence in the hall, let alone on the streets, was the result of this mockery of a vast majority who had so little representation on the floor and on the platform of the great convention. Had there never been a riot on Michigan Avenue the meeting in the amphitheater would still have been the closest thing to a session of the All-Union Soviet that ever took place outside of Russia. And it was not merely the heavy-handed discipline imposed from above but the passionate consent from below that makes the comparison apt.
On the record, some six hundred of these men were selected by state machines and another six hundred elected two years ago, long before the American people had turned against the Vietnam war. If they represent anything it is the America of two years past or the party machine’s everlasting resolve to perpetuate the organization. As one professional said to me, “I used to be an idealist, but I learned fast. If you want to play ball you got to come into the park.”
Still, another of them came over to me during the speech of Senator Pell, who was favoring the bombing halt, and said, “I’d love to vote for that but I can’t. I just want to tell you.” And he walked away. Connecticut caucused before casting its vote for the administration plank. We all, 44 of us, sat in a caucus room outside the great hall itself and listened to Senator Benton defending the bombing position and Paul Newman and Joseph Duffey attacking it. The debate was subdued, routine.
The nine McCarthy people and the 35 machine people were merely being patient with one another. One McCarthy man, a teacher, stood up and with a cry of outrage in his voice called the war immoral and promised revolution on the campuses if the majority plank was passed. Angels may have nodded, but the caucus remained immovable. Perhaps a few were angry at being called immoral, in effect, but they said nothing to this nut.
But when the roll was called, one machine man voted for the minority plank. I exchanged an astonished look with Joe Duffey. Another followed. Was the incredible about to happen?
We next began voting on the majority plank, the Johnson position. The machine people who had voted “Yes” on the minority plank also voted “Yes” on the majority plank. The greatness of the Democratic party is its ability to embrace conflicting viewpoints, even in the same individuals.
Having disposed of Vietnam, Mr. Bailey then suggested the delegation take this opportunity to poll itself on its preference for a presidential candidate, although nominations had not yet been made on the floor of the convention. This, I said, was premature since President Johnson, for one, might be nominated by some enthusiast and we would then have to poll ourselves all over again. In fact, I knew privately that William vanden Heuvel, among others, was seriously considering putting up the president’s name on the grounds that the Vietnam plank was really a rephrasing of his program and that he should be given full credit as its author rather than Humphrey, who was merely standing in for him.
But Mr. Bailey merely smiled at me in the rather witty way he has when his opponent is being harmlessly stupid, and Governor Dempsey, standing beside him behind the long table at the front of the room, assured all that as head of the delegation he would see to it that in the event of a nomination on the floor of any candidate other than Humphrey, McCarthy, and McGovern, we would certainly be allowed to change our votes.
Immediately a small man leaped to his feet and shouted, “I nominate Governor Dempsey!” The governor instantly pointed at him and yelled, “Good morning, Judge!” This automatic reward of a seat on the bench, especially to a man obviously of no distinction, exploded most of the delegation—excepting the indignant teacher—into a burst of laughter and the governor and his nominator swatted at each other in locker-room style for a moment. Then seriousness returned, and resuming his official mien of gravity, the governor ordered the polling to begin.
The nine McCarthy delegates voted for McCarthy and the rest for Humphrey, and there was no doubt of an honest count. It may be a measure of the tragedy in which both factions were caught that when, later on, the governor was handed teletyped reports of the Michigan Avenue riots, his face went white, and he sat with his head in his hands even as it became clearer by the minute that Humphrey and the administration would be victorious. After two nights on the floor, whatever trends and tides the TV commentators might have been reporting, one felt like a fish floating about in still water.
Nothing had been said on either side that aroused the slightest enthusiasm. The water above was dark, and whatever winds might be raising waves on the surface did not disturb the formless chaos, really the interior leaderlessness of the individual delegates. We were the crowd in an opera waiting for our cue to shout in unison when the time for it came. First depression and then anger began moving into the faces of the McCarthy people as the speeches ground on. Some of us had campaigned all over the state and the nation to rouse people to the issues of the war, and in many places we had succeeded.
There was no trace of it here and clearly there never could have been. The machine had nailed down the nomination months before. We had not been able even to temper the administration’s Vietnam plank, not in the slightest. The team belonged to the president, and the team owned the Democratic party. As I sat there on the gray steel chair, it was obvious that we could hardly have expected to win. Behind Connecticut sat two rows of Hawaiians. Middle-aged, kindly looking, very polite, eager to return a friendly glance, they never spoke at all.
When it came time for any vote, their aisle man picked up his phone, listened, hung up, stood, and turned thumbs up or down. The brown faces watched his hands. So much for deliberation. It was not quite that crude among the others, except for Illinois, but Illinois did not need thumbs. Illinois had somehow located the fact that we McCarthy people of Connecticut were occupying nine seats in the same row, and Illinois stared at us from time to time with open, almost comical, ferocity.They were lemming-like, clinging to one another in a mass that was moving toward where the leaders had pointed. And then, suddenly, there was a passion.
Every time I turned to my left, I found the face of a man who might have been a retired hockey player. He sat staring at me through close-set eyes over a strong, broken nose, his powerful hands drooping between his knees, his pointy shoes worn at the heels, his immense neck bound to bursting by a tiny knot in his striped tie. Once I tried to give him a smile of greeting, a recognition of his interest. He gave nothing, like a watchdog trained to move only on signal.
There was this discipline but there was no leadership. None of the Humphrey people ever argued with me when I said they were sinking the party by hanging the Johnson position on the war around Humphrey’s neck. None ever had a positive word to say about Humphrey himself. They were beyond—or beneath—discourse, and if by some miracle Humphrey had let it be known he was now in favor of an unconditional halt in the bombing they would have been as perfectly happy to applaud that stand as the opposite. They were lemming-like, clinging to one another in a mass that was moving toward where the leaders had pointed. And then, suddenly, there was a passion.
Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio got to the podium and began, like the others, in a rhetorical vein. Something to the effect that his teacher in school had taught him that history was a revelation of the past, a guide to the present, and a warning of the future. The delegates resumed their private conversations. But suddenly he was talking about hippies in paired contraries. Not long hair, he said, but long thought; not screaming in the streets but cleaning the streets; not . . .
Leadership, quite unannounced, had arrived. All around me men were turning to this clear voice on the platform. His list of mockeries of the errant generation mounted and grew more pointed, more vicious, more mocking, and applause was breaking out all over the floor, men were getting to their feet and yelling encouragement, and for the first time in two days there was electricity in the crowd, a vibrant union of mind, a will to act, a yea-saying from the heart. Men were hitting each other on the back with elation, fists were raised in encouragement, bull roars sounded out, and an ovation swept over Hays as he closed his papers and walked off.
It was a congregation of the aged, men locked into a kind of political senility that was roaring its challenge across the six miles of superhighway to the ten thousand children just then gathering for the slaughter opposite the Conrad Hilton Hotel. The old bulls against the young bulls under the overhanging branches of the forest. Then it struck me that there was no issue cleaving the convention; there was only a split in the attitude toward power, two mutually hostile ways of being human. The Humphrey men were supporting him not basically because he was right but because he was vice president and the candidate of the president.
In any ten of them there will only be two or three at most who are themselves convinced that we should be in Vietnam, that if necessary we must fight on for years, that lamentable as the civilian casualties are they are justified by the need to protect democracy and the Thieu–Ky Government, and so on. This minority is passionate, it is deeply afraid that the communist powers, if they win in Vietnam, will flood over into Hawaii and ultimately California. But the others are supporting authority which happens at the moment to be fighting the war.There were two Americas in Chicago, but there always are. One is passionately loyal to the present, whatever the present happens to be; the other is in love with what is not yet.
Congressman Don Irwin of Norwalk, for example, is a principled supporter of the war and for him it is righteous, to the point where he openly says his position will probably defeat him the next time he runs. He is a man in his forties who smiles constantly and in a group quickly loses his voice from laughing so much, a common vocal problem with professionals, the accepted social greeting being laughter. They shake hands and laugh.
It is not unnecessary, it is not merely a tic but a working out of conflict, for many of them have had terrible political battles against one another and have come close to insulting one another in various log jams, and the quick laugh is a signal of mutual disarmament, a warding-off of violence, for many are physical men quick to take umbrage, like their forefathers who more than once beat each other senseless in the halls of Congress.
There were two Americas in Chicago, but there always are. One is passionately loyal to the present, whatever the present happens to be; the other is in love with what is not yet. Oppressed by the team spirit all around me, I thought of a morning in Moscow when I was passing under the walls of the Kremlin with a young interpreter. I said that there must have been some terrific battles in those offices the day they decided to get rid of Khrushchev. The young man refused to join this idle speculation: “We don’t think about what goes on in there. It is not our business. They know what they are doing.”
But everywhere I went I also met young—and not so young—Russians who knew it was up to them to make the future of the country, men and women who wanted a hand on the tiller. But there they have no legal means of putting new ideas forward; here we do. Or did. The underlying fright in the Democratic convention, and the basic reason for the violence on Michigan Avenue, was that perhaps the social compact had fallen apart.
As one TV correspondent said to me as we stood watching the line of troops facing the hippies across the boulevard from the Hilton, “It lasted 200 years. What law says it may not be over? Maybe we’ve come to the end of the string. Those kids,” he went on, “are not bohemians. Most of them aren’t what you’d call hippies, even. There are a lot of graduate students in that crowd, medical students, too. They haven’t dropped out at all. Somebody upstairs had better start asking himself what they’re trying to tell the country.”
To me, standing there at four in the morning with the arc lights blasting the street and no one knowing when the police and the troops would again go berserk, the strangest irony was that the leader they had come to hate, the president, had months ago removed himself as being too divisive. And yet all the force of the state was in play to give that president what he wanted in the convention. The whole thing might have been understandable if the country were in love with its leader. What, I wondered, was being so stoutly defended on this avenue?
The question itself only added to the general surrealism. In the main CBS workroom behind the auditorium, I watched a row of five TV sets. NBC was showing the attack by the club-swinging police, the swarming squads of helmeted cops, and one heard the appalling screaming. Next to it, CBS was showing the platform speaker inside the auditorium and the applauding delegates.
Next to CBS was ABC, with close-ups of bleeding demonstrators being bandaged. Then a local station showing a commercial, Mister Clean having his moustache rubbed off. The last was another local station whose screen showed some sort of ballet.
In one of the corridors a young man stopped me, holding the microphone of a portable tape recorder up to my mouth. He came from the University of Chicago’s radio station. We quickly agreed the whole spectacle was a horror. “How can you have anything to do with this?” he asked. My answer, which I found embarrassing at that moment, was that I had hoped to change it and that it might be changed if people like me tried to move into the party in a serious way rather than only during presidential campaigns.
“But how can you have any faith now in this kind of democratic politics?”
He was intelligent and eager and angry, and I thought I had misunderstood him. “What would you put in its place?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know. But not this.”
“But what, then? One way or another people have to delegate powers to run the country, don’t they? This is one way of delegating them. Right?”
“You mean you believe in this?” he asked, incredulously.
“Not this. Not this gang, no. But. . . .” I broke off, aware now that it was not merely the antics of the convention we were talking about. “Do you mean that the more intelligent should rule? The more idealistic? Is that it?”
“Well, not this,” he repeated, his anger mounting.
“But what are you going to substitute for this?” The crowds were pushing us to one side and then another. The announcer on a nearby TV set was yelling a description of the battle on Michigan Avenue. “Are you just going to substitute intelligent people telling the others what to do instead of the others telling the intelligent? Isn’t that the same kind of violence we’re going through right here? What are you going to put in place of this?”The underlying fright in the Democratic convention, and the basic reason for the violence on Michigan Avenue, was that perhaps the social compact had fallen apart.
The look in his eyes amazed me. He seemed never to have considered the problem. It was unbelievable. He was ready, it seemed, for some kind of benevolent dictatorship. If this, this hall full of middle-aged men who had yelled their pleasure at the condemnation of the young—if this was democracy, he hated it, and that hatred was enough for him. We were being torn apart now by the crowd. I called to him as he moved away, “That’s the problem, don’t you see? What do you want? It’s not enough to hate all this!” But he was gone.
Life is always more perfect than art. The endings and codas it provides to experience always tell more of the truth than any construction on the stage or in a book. At about two in the morning, after the fighting on Michigan Avenue had quieted, about five hundred delegates under the impromptu chairmanship of New York’s Paul O’Dwyer decided to hold a march past the scene of the carnage.
We gathered a few blocks from the Hilton, many of us holding lighted candles, and moved in near silence, some singing softly, toward the battleground. Police, who had been alerted to our plan, sat in squad cars on the avenue, none getting out, for we were official delegates and not to be pushed around, or not yet anyway. The night was lovely; all the stars were out. Chicago looked beautiful. A block from the Hilton we were stopped by a police captain. He was six-and-a-half-feet tall, wearing the blue crash helmet whose edges were lined with gray rubber, a hinged Plexiglas face shield pushed up. I have never seen such eyes or a smile so fixed and hard. The procession halted, and O’Dwyer stepped forward to parley.
“Now, what is it you want to do, gentlemen?” the officer asked.
O’Dwyer said that we intended to walk past the hippies, who were still congregated in the little park across the street from the hotel, past them and the line of soldiers and police facing them.
“I see,” said the officer. “All right, then. Just keep it orderly and quiet. We are here to protect lives and property. Keep it orderly and keep moving.”
We moved, and as we approached the hippies who had crowded to the edge of the park to see this strange, apparitional procession, they began whistling, and some said, “It’s a wake, a funeral for the Democratic party.” We kept coming, and some of them began to get the point. Cheers went up. We exchanged the V-for-victory sign. There was laughter and someone began to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
The line of soldiers stood expressionless, holding their rifles up to bar us from the hotel across the street, some of them looking at our candles as though they were in a hallucination. Nothing happened. In a while, the silence returned to the avenue again. The conversation between us and these kids was neither more nor less interesting than any such conversation on any street anywhere.
Next afternoon, I went to a TV studio to join a telecast being beamed by Telstar to England. I had been told to get there no later than three o’clock because the program was being sent live and the Telstar time was open only from 3:30 to 4. I had had to commandeer a taxi with a Time-Life sticker on the windshield, there being no free taxis or buses because of strikes. Breathless, I ran in at 3:10 to find that the other participants had not arrived. But the moderator, Byran Magee, told me to take it easy.I remember quite clearly a time when something like this would not have been credible. Now everything is possible, anything at all, and that is where we’re at.
“We are going to tape it and send it by plane to London, so there’s time now. You see,” he said, raising one eyebrow, “the United States Government has preempted the Telstar, due to the Czech crisis. No one believes it, of course.” In a few minutes, Pierre Salinger and former ambassador to Poland John Gronouski arrived. They knew nothing of the preemption. Once again Byran Magee said he did not believe the excuse for the preemption. Gronouski had no opinion, but he did not look happy.
We proceeded to discuss the convention, the riots and Chicago, but someone had turned out our star just as someone had made it impossible for the TV people to shoot outside the International Amphitheater on simultaneous hookups. Checking into this scandalous censorship, this heavenly blackout, I discovered later that it was not true. According to BBC in London, there had been no interruption in Telstar’s availability. How and why Byran Magee had been misinformed I do not know, but the interesting fact remains that he, Salinger, Ambassador Gronouski and I never questioned that the government had indeed tried to block this telecast.
The point is, that I remember quite clearly a time when something like this would not have been credible. Now everything is possible, anything at all, and that is where we’re at. I left Chicago while the final session was going on. What the new candidate might or might not say seemed the last thing in the world to concern oneself about. And this, because the authority, the leadership was not in him. It was not in anyone whose face was visible in Chicago. It was in the president, and he was only an unseen presence whom no majority man on that platform dared contradict or too openly obey.
I wondered who would eat the president’s birthday cake, now that he had decided it was too dangerous to appear—in one of his own cities, and in his own convention. I stood in the airport with 30 or so other passengers waiting to board the plane, which, quite symbolically, had had to be replaced with another because of a faulty oil warning light.
We waited an hour. A long line of draftees appeared, kids in shirtsleeves, carrying valises, chattering like campers, walking five abreast down the corridor. A few Negro boys were scattered in among them, and as one Negro passed he turned to the watching passengers and called out, “We’re off to defend your country. Your country!” And another Negro boy just behind him held out his hand: “Got some pennies, anybody?” The passengers said nothing, their faces registered nothing.
During our telecast, Ambassador Gronouski had said that Hubert Humphrey could not be blamed for what had happened in Chicago. Pierre Salinger said he could be, that he was the leader and could at least have dissociated himself from a riot of police. Ambassador Gronouski said Hubert Humphrey had a good rapport with youngsters. I said it was time to stop talking like this. Mrs. Humphrey had announced she was going to visit all the new youth-aid projects, including the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Where had these people been living? What had to happen before the powers realized they were not living in this time and in this place?
On the wide lawn behind my house at five o’clock in the morning the stars hung as bright and orderly as they had over Michigan Avenue. The sun rose on time. The morning paper said that a poll showed that the majority of Americans sympathized with the police. It was not a surprise. Not in the least.
The voice that might have spoken both with authority, respectability, and confidence about the honest despair of a generation of Americans had never been heard in Chicago. Within a day I was being asked from London to organize a protest against the jailing of writers by the Russians in Prague. Prague, perhaps the freest city, the most hopeful and experimental in Eastern Europe, was being cleansed of the enemies of the people.
“The Battle of Chicago: From the Delegates’ Side”by Arthur Miller, first published in The New York Times Magazine and currently collected in COLLECTED ESSAYS. Copyright © 1968 by Arthur Miller, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.