In today’s special edition of the Congressional Quarterly distributed at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, E&P Editor Greg Mitchell recounts his first experience at a national political gathering: the violence-wracked 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
The story also appears today in a special convention section at the Romenesko site at www.poynter.org.
My first job in newspapers came at the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette as a summer reporter in the late 1960s.
My mentor there was a young, irreverent City Hall reporter named John Hanchette. He went on to an illustrious career at other papers, and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent for Gannett News Service. With Hanchette, I covered the notorious 1968 Democratic convention. To get to Chicago I took my first ride on a jetliner.
To make a long story short: On the climactic night of Aug. 28, Hanchette and I ended up just floors apart in the same building: the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. I was in Senator Eugene McCarthy’s headquarters and Hanchette was in one of Gannett’s makeshift newsrooms. Probably at about the same time, we pulled back the curtains and looked out our separate windows to see police savagely attacking protestors with nightsticks at the intersection directly below.
Besides writing his own stories, Hanchette was expected to “run” copy from longtime columnist Dave Beetle to GNS at the convention hall. Also on hand in that room was the GNS fashion writer, who was composing a piece on Muriel Humphrey’s wardrobe. Hanchette recalls Beetle didn’t seem that impressed until tear gas started seeping into the room through the vents. Then Beetle said, “Hmm, this may be serious.”
Like me, Hanchette headed for the streets. By that time, the peak violence had passed, but cops were still pushing reporters and other innocent bystanders through plate glass windows at the front of the hotel. While I screwed up my courage and crossed to Grant Park where the angry protest crowd gathered, Hanchette hailed a gypsy cab and headed for the convention hall out by the stockyards.
When we returned to Niagara Falls that Friday, we each wrote columns for that Sunday’s paper. I described the eerie feeling of sitting in Grant Park, with machine guns on Army Jeeps pointed at the crowd, and thousands around me yelling at the soldiers and the media, “The whole world is watching!” — and knowing that, for once, it was true.