Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Quest for a 'New Day for America'

"[M]ay we ... just quietly and silently — each in our own way — pray for our country? And may we just share for a moment a few of those immortal words of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi — words which I think may help heal the wounds and lift our hearts? Listen to this immortal saint: 'Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light.' Those are the words of a saint. And may those of us of less purity listen to them well. And may America tonight resolve that never, never again shall we see what we have seen."

Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Chicago, Aug. 29, 1968

Hubert Humphrey faced a difficult task 45 years ago tonight. In hindsight, it was probably an impossible one.

By nature a man of peace, the vice president had to deliver his speech accepting the Democratic Party's presidential nomination against the backdrop of chaos in the streets of the host city, Chicago, and the broader backdrops of a war in Vietnam that was growing increasingly unpopular and a crime–plagued nation.

"After its days of turbulence and excitement," wrote historian Theodore H. White, "no speech could have pulled the Democratic convention together except a masterpiece ..."

Humphrey, White observed, tried to do the impossible — rewrite his speech (which had been crafted in the weeks and months leading up to the convention) in the days and hours before he was scheduled to deliver it. The "Happy Warrior" wanted to offer a message of healing and unity, not merely rehashes of old talking points.

But even before the turbulence of Chicago, that was something that was easier said than done, given the fact that, as the vice president, Humphrey was expected to be supportive of the administration — even though he disagreed with the administration on several aspects of the conduct of the war. So, too, did many of the delegates — and millions of Americans watching on TV.

After the clashes between demonstrators and the Chicago police earlier that week, the task became even more daunting, but Humphrey knew that both the delegates in the convention hall and Americans watching on TV would expect to hear him speak about peace in a context that encompassed not only the war but deteriorating relations between and respect for fellow Americans.

"A man of more native eloquence than any of his advisers," White wrote, "Humphrey might, had he had time, have created the required masterpiece. But he had no time."

Ah, yes, time. It was running out on the Democrats. And Humphrey did not produce the necessary masterpiece.

In August 1968, Gallup reported for the first — but not the last — time that the share of Americans who responded "no" when asked if the United States had made a mistake sending troops to Vietnam was less than 40%.

Three years earlier, the share of Americans who said "no" to that question was 61%. The pro–war administration of which Humphrey had been a part for more than 3½ years was losing ground on war and peace — and that issue, more than anything else, would decide who won the election.

It was the growing opposition to the war that had sparked the riots in the first place. One can only wonder how much worse they would have been if Lyndon Johnson had been in town to accept the nomination. But he had withdrawn from the campaign in March, making it necessary to nominate someone else, and the logical someone else was Johnson's second in command.

But Humphrey's convention was being tarnished by violence in the streets. Was there anything he could say to erase that image from the voters' memories?

Humphrey had chosen as his second in command Ed Muskie, senator from Maine, and Muskie did his best to energize the delegates.

But Humphrey, who called for a "new day for America" in his speech, awoke the next day to more of the same.

"Whatever hope there was ... rested on the belief that words can soothe, that words can heal, that words carry a message," White wrote.

Actions speak louder than words, my mother told me when I was small, and the actions in Chicago spoke louder than any words Humphrey could speak.

At some point in the predawn hours of the final night of the convention, something apparently was thrown from one of the floors of the hotel where Eugene McCarthy's campaign operation was based — which led to an inevitable clash between the students who made up most of McCarthy's staff and the Chicago police, who were understandably weary from a week of confrontations and, apparently, acted independently of any chain of command.

What America saw on its TV screens was more of the same — young people being beaten by police — and America's voters would decide that they wanted a change.

"[W]hen Humphrey's campaign began with a sickening lurch," wrote historian William Manchester, "his admirers despaired."

Perhaps they knew what was coming.

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