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Former Congressman Reflects on Chaotic '68 Convention

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Former Congressman Reflects on Chaotic '68 Convention

Former U.S. Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (WBEZ/Tony Arnold)

This week we've been collecting stories of the stormy 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago from different perspectives. We're getting the point of view of police officers, protesters, delegates and journalists. But while violence raged on the streets, Democratic Party leaders were trying to get down to the business of nominating a presidential candidate.

The name Dan Rostenkowski is familiar in Chicago political lore. He was a powerful congressman who rose through the ranks of the Democratic Machine. Much later in his long career in the House, Rostenkowski served prison time for corruption. Recently, he invited me to his home on the near west side to talk about a part of his story that isn't so familiar.

ROSTENKOWSKI: I got a call from Carl Albert.

Albert was a congressman from Oklahoma. In 1968, his job was running the Democratic convention. But on this day

ROSTENKOWSKI: I got a call from Carl Albert to go to the convention hall because he was not feeling well and bring the convention to order.

So Rostenkowski says he hopped in a police squad car in downtown Chicago and went from Balbo Drive near Grant Park, where a lot of the protests were happening, and headed down State Street to the intersection of 42nd and Halsted to the International Amphitheater.

ROSTENKOWSKI: And I brought the convention to order and managed to maintain order in the convention hall. But it wasn't disorderly.

News accounts from the convention floor paint a different picture. CBS reporter Dan Rather had a rather famous run-in with security while trying to get an interview.

RATHER: Take your hands off of me. Unless you intend to arrest me, don't push me, please. I know you won't, but don't push me, take your hands off me unless you plan to arrest me. Rostenkowski had his own way of dealing with unruly delegates.

ROSTENKOWSKI: If you had people acting disorderly, you didn't activate their microphone.

Much of the trouble came within the party ranks over what stand to take on the Vietnam War. Then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey had the backing of many Democratic leaders to be Commander in Chief. Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy was running as an anti-war candidate.

ROSTENKOWSKI: I remember Geney, a terrific guy and an outstanding mind.

Rostenkowski met with McCarthy a little before the convention started in a hotel.

ROSTENKOWSKI: I walked in his room and he's lying on the bed. I said, 'Gene, what the hell's going on outside?'

Rostenkowski told him McCarthy supporters were throwing sopping toilet paper out of high rise windows and couldn't he do something to make them stop.

ROSTENKOWSKI: And he said, 'Danny, it's the only army I got. I'm not a member of the Daley organization. I don't have any Democrats for me,' he said, but, 'It's the only army I got.'

McCarthy ended up losing the Democratic nomination to Humphrey. And 40 years later, Rostenkowski still has a different view of McCarthy's army than the senator.

ROSTENKOWSKI: Young, rambunctious, bearded revolutionaries.

He says he didn't really hear much about what was going on in the streets of Chicago while the convention was taking place, but he was convinced

ROSTENKOWSKI: Their tactics were illegal.

Rostenkowski says things were so bad, he remembers President Lyndon Johnson wanting to come to the convention, but Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley discouraging him.

ROSTENKOWSKI: And Daley said, 'No, Mr. President, I don't suggest that you do that,' because we didn't really know what would've happened had President Johnson come to the convention.

Rostenkowski describes scenes of protesters spitting in the faces of officers and staying in the parks after curfew.

ROSTENKOWSKI: I remember being in the Conrad Hilton Hotel when people were taking bags of excrement and rubbing it into the carpets.
ARNOLD: The way that you're talking, I'm wondering, do you think that the way that history's remembered this convention, do you think it's been unfair to the police?
ROSTENKOWSKI: You can't deny some of the police overreacted. But I think what hasn't been suggested is what provoked it.

And Rostenkowski says what provoked the chaos, both inside and outside the convention, were the TV cameras. That people were performing for the media. And he says once the convention was over, Congress passed resolutions praising the Chicago Police Department for doing a good job protecting delegates. Still, Rostenkowski says the city got a black eye for its troubles.

ROSTENKOWSKI: They weren't good times for Chicago.

But he adds, he doesn't know of another city that would've handled things as well as Chicago did.

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