Originally published on November 2, 1968
This is a memoir of the Democratic Convention of 1968 from a participant who knows infinitely less about a great deal of it than any American who owns a television set, being the report of a delegate from the 20th Congressional District of New York.
But it is also about the infinitely more I know now about the political process than I had ever known before or will ever know again, because the week before, I was only a journalist commissioned to describe politicians, and I can feel myself already becoming only that again.
I ought to commence by saying how I happened on this scene. “I am, and my father was before me,” John Ruskin began, “a violent Tory of the old school — Walter Scott’s school, that is to say, and Homer’s.” I then am a violent Whig of the old school — Lord Byron’s school, that is to say, and St. Thomas Aquinas’s, being for whatever is the opposite of Ruskin’s most sincere love of kings and dislike of everyone who attempted to disobey them. I am for Doctor Spock against the Department of Justice; and I am for Ernesto Guevara — or anyway his ghost — against the Central Intelligence Agency.
But, just because I have been thus cursed by the violence of the part of me that thinks, I have always tried to be blessed by the passivity of the part of me that acts. Mine has for years been a life dedicated to no civic activity except striving to protect this country from being managed by persons like William F. Buckley Jr. and myself.
I was called from this quietude by a national contagion and a private pique. We are likely to remember the last four years of our history most for having been shaken by persons ashamed of their country, in movements with symbols as diverse as Barry Goldwater and Eugene McCarthy, George Wallace and Martin Luther King. We live among union men who no longer listen to George Meany, Democrats who no longer listen to President Johnson, Negroes who no longer listen to Roy Wilkins.
The humiliated-citizen part of me turned to Senator McCarthy because he stood for the Commons against the King when no one else in the Commons would. And the part of me that gives way to private pique turned against Sen. Robert Kennedy, whom I had liked almost more than any public man I have ever known. My reasons were all those of the time and circumstance in which he declared for president. In my rage, I quite forgot how much I liked him; and now I can only say that my judgment in this case seems to me correct but not right, a profound difference.
I was asked to run as a McCarthy delegate from the West Side of Manhattan. I should not have accepted if the chance had not offered itself to run against both President Johnson and Senator Kennedy. Then Senator Kennedy was murdered, and I did not care any longer whether I won or lost, being only ashamed of all rages at anyone. But Senator McCarthy moved his mysterious way upon the waters; I was elected; and, after a while, the thing began to matter to me again. And at the convention I learned to my surprise that, if Robert Kennedy had lived, he could have been the nominee and I should have voted for him. To you who saw it, the convention must have seemed terribly squalid; to me, knowing no more of it than a soldier on patrol would know about his campaign, it seems instead a tale of high romance lacking only the one ingredient high romance needs, a romantic hero.
It happened to my surprise that my way of finally discharging my duty as a delegate was to be discharged as a bailee from the Central Police Station in Chicago. A sergeant said that evening that he hoped that being arrested hadn’t been too bad.
“No, sergeant,” I replied, “I haven’t had as much fun as I’ve had this week since I was ambushed in the Philippines.”
Sunday, the Night Before
It began with finding the New York McCarthy headquarters and asking Sarah Kovner, the executive director, where I should go for my delegate’s credentials. Mrs. Kovner answered that I was to find Frank Rossetti, the New York County Democratic leader, who was receiving visitors and distributing credentials in Room 2143 upstairs in the Sheraton-Chicago.
It was, I said, always fun to talk to Frank Rossetti.
“Now, look here, Murray Kempton,” Mrs. Kovner said. “You could be funny yesterday. You can be funny next Friday. But you’re not going to be funny this week. You go right up there and all you say to Frank Rossetti is that he is dead as a leader if he doesn’t vote for McCarthy.”
I had first met Mrs. Kovner as Sarah Schoenkopf perhaps eight years ago; she had been a copy girl on one of the too many journals that have bought my bread. My feeling for her then and since may be described as one of increasing affection and decreasing condescension. She was a Reform Democrat then and remains one; although the life of struggle against the regulars has softened her tongue, it has not diminished her determination. But all the while, in our different lives, my friends, such as they were, had been among those who had the political jobs and hers among those who wanted them, which does after all describe a fundamental difference between senior reporters and copy girls.
But Sarah had never had the physical proportions or the psychological disposition to be any sort of shrew; and, with the years, I had grown rather fond of her without taking her very seriously. But now all that was changed; Sarah was my leader, and I knew she ought to be. And so I went upstairs and, feebly to be sure, told Frank Rossetti that he was dead as a leader if he didn’t vote for Eugene McCarthy.
A week or so before, I had said a carelessly admiring word about Richard Nixon, and my wife had said, “Murray, you are not a serious man.” I had been indignant then, but now I knew she was right, and I was indignant no longer. I thought of writing a postcard just to say: “You are right, my love, I was not a serious man. But I am this week at least. I am taking my orders from Sarah Schoenkopf.” But that would have seemed to her another poor joke.
Sarah had instructed me that I was free until the New York McCarthy delegates caucused at 11 o’clock that evening. So I could be an observer for a while and see what the world was seeing of the great stage of history. I went, with my son David who is 17, to a candidate’s forum and looked down from a great distance upon Senator McCarthy. I learned only that his hair is thinning at the top and I had great trouble explaining why he meant so much to me, not knowing then how well the next four days would explain it for me.
And then it was time for the first caucus of the New York McCarthy delegates.
It ought to be explained how we felt, many of us, there at the beginning, if only because such thoughts seem such strangers to me now. Before Senator Kennedy’s death, the New York Democratic Party had been made up of many regulars, a few liberal insurgents and a very few leaders who were Kennedy loyalists but otherwise regular in all things. When their great chief died, the leaders of his home guard had chosen the allegiance that seemed best to each: John Burns, the Democratic state chairman, had declared for Vice President Humphrey, and John English, the party’s Long Island chairman, had declared for Senator McCarthy, bringing himself and perhaps six other delegates.
Now, it might theoretically be assumed that the McCarthy delegates should have been grateful for any allies we could get, but in fact the more sophisticated among us commenced with no more, and in some cases less, trust for a Kennedy delegate on our side than we felt for a Johnson delegate against us. The more sophisticated you were (sophistication at the start of a national convention being very little more than the ability to identify some other delegate’s county leader), the more reasons you imagined for distrusting John English.
I for one thought that the Kennedy people could bring nothing but quarrel and recrimination with them, and that we should all be better off if they would just draw in their pickets, dismantle their artillery, and retire to the passive rectitude of their great wound. And there were less intimate reasons why we New York delegates who had always been for Senator McCarthy should seem inimical to John English and the troops he had brought with him.
Just our presence was a revolutionary affront. One hundred twenty-three of New York’s 190 delegates are elected in party primaries, the other 67 being picked by the state committee — that is, the party leaders. Senator McCarthy had elected 65 delegates in the June primary. His had not been a cause to attract practical men of experience; so many of our delegates — and I include myself in all important respects — had only the vaguest notion of how the party system functions, seven of our number even being divines of variant ordinations.
Such upthrusts of the ignorant bring wild alarm for property holders. No regular leader had been more rudely jostled by our irruption than John English. Eugene Nickerson, his Senate candidate, had lost the primary to our Paul O’Dwyer; all his delegate candidates had been beaten; he had been further affronted when Allard Lowenstein, the earliest organizer of the McCarthy disturbance, had won the congressional nomination in one of English’s own districts.
McCarthy’s primary showing had, of course, given his followers the excuse to demand that their power be recognized by the regulars in selecting the 67 delegates-at-large. The party leaders of the metropolitan counties were the only ones who needed even to listen to that claim; together they had given us 21 delegates-at-large, most of whom could call themselves supporters of Senator McCarthy while being otherwise loyal to the county leaders in all things.
And so I sat down at this caucus of my fellow travelers, where too many of those I assumed I could trust were strangers to me and too many of those I felt I ought to mistrust were all too familiar. In those circumstances, I was grateful at least to see as presiding officer Paul O’Dwyer, New York’s Democratic candidate for the Senate.
I have often meant to ask Paul O’Dwyer whether in early youth he had come across some teacher who had expounded Roman virtue, but I would probably have learned nothing, for I suppose that the wax has long forgotten the seal.
He was the brother of William O’Dwyer, mayor of New York (1946–1950). William O’Dwyer’s career was shadowed at its end by the sort of scandal that is more gossip than matter. Paul remained so proud of his brother that once, years after the fall, he jumped to his feet, said, “That’s all, sister,” and ordered a reporter out of their office just for asking William O’Dwyer if he thought history had now vindicated him. The memory of this breach of Paul O’Dwyer’s deepest habit — which is his manners — was still vivid in her mind a few weeks ago; and I could answer only that we had all admired Robert Kennedy for being so loyal to his brother, but that anyone could be loyal to John Kennedy, and it took a great gentleman to be not just loyal but so fiercely loyal to a brother in whom strength and weakness were as mixed as in William O’Dwyer.
Paul O’Dwyer had chosen to be a reformer in New York City politics, with all the general misfortunes a man must endure when he puts principle above convenience. He got reform nominations of two sorts: those for secure offices that were beneath him, like a seat in the City Council, and those for offices that seemed beyond the power of any rebel to reach. His nomination for the Senate by the McCarthy group came under the latter job description. When he won, those who had cherished him for years awoke — at just the same time as those who had never heard his name — to discover that he was someone to be taken seriously as a politician.
And then he did what I should think no sensible — by which I mean ordinary — politician would do when luck had cast up to him an opportunity so eminent. He simply informed the Democrats that he would not forgive Mr. Johnson his war or support Mr. Johnson’s candidate in November. So he was with us still, when he should in common sense have been with those regulars whose help he needed.
The caucus commenced with the platform. Allard Lowenstein detailed the floor fight we were to make for the Vietnam War plank that had been agreed upon by Senators McCarthy and McGovern. A while later, Eleanor Clark French, our representative on the party platform committee, escaped her labors to tell us cheerfully how nice it was to be back with people from New York, and that she could not believe that there were such reactionary people as there are on that committee.
Somewhere early on, David Livingston, president of District 65 of the retail and wholesale workers’ union, captured the floor to say that the Vietnam plank did not go far enough, and that we must stand for what we really want, which is to tell the convention that the war is brutal and horrible. Livingston had summoned up the key and the tone that used to signal the appearance of the Stalinist in the public debates of my boyhood. Professor Sidney Hook had informed me by Multilithed letter that Communists were scheming to capture the McCarthy movement; and now — though it has been a long time since I exercised the smallest dependence on Professor Hook in my struggle for the light — long-forgotten warnings and buried animosities stirred as Livingston sat down. First the clergymen, then our share of the Kennedy legatees, then the snobs, and now perhaps. the Stalinists: Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, oh Lord, and by Thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.
Beyond all the mischiefs to be imagined from the workings of such sects within, there was the innocence of the whole body without. Some of us still seemed to think it possible for any one of us to arouse the National Convention of a great political party just by finding a microphone and shouting, “Mr. Chairman, on this question …” Even those of us who knew more than that had not yet crossed the shadow line that separates those who have a part to play, however mean, from those who only watch. When we talked to each other, the subject was usually one of those rumors that wander on the outskirts of conventions and do the service of raising illusions in the audience that the thing that is inevitable is only one of several possibilities and that the audience should therefore keep watching to see whether what has already happened is going to happen. Mayor Daley of Chicago had made his contribution to these exercises that afternoon by adjourning the Illinois caucus and announcing that he would not announce its choice for President until Wednesday. Now, in our meanderings, a delegate demanded that we resolve to protest the security system which threatened to make the convention hall a jail; and Robert Silk, my alternate, answered that any protest like that would affront Mayor Daley, upon whose kindness we might be able to depend when the roll call came. I remember thinking how sensible that warning was, sure as I was that we should be very careful of Daley’s feelings, which solicitude from the rebels was probably what the mayor had in mind when he announced delay and allowed us to infer hope.
At last, very late, we moved from the many things about which we could do nothing to the few about which we could do something, although naught to our profit. That night, New York’s delegates could be roughly distributed as: Johnson Party, 86; McCarthy Party, counting bequests from the Kennedy estate, 86; parts of the Kennedy estate that had fallen to Vice President Humphrey, 18. Kennedy’s bereaved household troops represented less than a sixth of the whole state delegation; still their 29 votes, properly deployed, could control its organization in alliance with either faction they chose. Having no present, they cared only about the future; State Chairman John Burns wanted therefore to be elected chairman of the delegation, and John English to be elected Democratic national committeeman from New York, the essential outpost for keeping a guerrilla force in being until 1972 and the only long-term office at the delegation’s disposal.
John English needed all 86 McCarthy votes to assure the Kennedy estate the tenure on this property; and, as I sat down remembering all the spite between us, if there was one gift to which I was determined not to contribute, it was this one to John English. Delegate Alex Rosenberg came over with an escape device. It was a disgrace, he said, that the Democratic Party did not have a single national committeeman who was a Negro. He proposed to nominate Percy Sutton, borough president of Manhattan; would I second him? I agreed with enormous relief. If your only reason for opposing a candidate is a personal one, it is necessary to announce a high principle, and what defense can a white man offer when another white man accuses him of not being colored?
Percy Sutton’s name was thereupon put in nomination, and it was at once announced that he would decline in favor of John English. I had been afraid so. Percy Sutton is a person of considerable parts and elegance, and he is constantly being offered either nomination for a job no Democrat can win or a chance to lead minority factions hoping to confuse the majority by forcing it to crush a charming Negro. No man in our politics therefore knows how more swiftly and courteously to elude swords pointed in his direction and honeyed as nominations.
Someone then nominated Eugene Nickerson, Nassau County Executive, who also declined in favor of English. Sutton persisted in his graceful evasions, and, writhing, we turned to Allard Lowenstein, who had already offended John English by defeating his candidate in a congressional primary. A search for Lowenstein was approved.
By now there was no one left on the floor but the middle-aged. We have read a long time about the Communist device of capturing organizations by coming to their meetings early and staying on after everyone had gone home. But I know now that this is not a tactic but a habit; I and these memorials of my youth had long ago abandoned everything about the Communist life except its inertia; we always stay late, because we are, on the one hand, people who never leave so long as anyone is left to listen to us, and because, on the other, it takes us so long to make up our minds. We would wrangle on until dawn and then accept John English.
Lowenstein could not be found; someone suggested that he ought to be nominated anyway. But now I was looking at John English, standing at the side, his hair brush-cut, his broad face as agreeable as if he had slept all night, so different from us yet now so surprisingly acceptable. The motion to draft Lowenstein just lay there; and we gave in; we McCarthy delegates had given the Kennedy estate the only office in our power. His heirs and not ourselves would lead the long war inside the Democratic Party that would begin when this battle was lost. And it did not seem a bad idea at all.
We were in bed for three hours and returned to consider the punishment of John Burns, who wanted to be chairman of the delegation, but who had announced his support for Humphrey. State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, by contrast, had sworn himself uncommitted and promised to be fair to us; the recommendation was that we support him. I rose to object. I did not, I said in effect, know any man who would not declare himself fair if you asked him, and I wondered whether we would not be better off with Burns, whom we knew at least and to whom we would not need to be introduced if an emergency came. My objection was dismissed, and we all went upstairs to the Grand Ballroom and the whole New York State caucus.
I was not again to take the floor for the rest of the week except once when I was asked and once when there was no one to speak for me. For I was becoming a delegate, a function too utilitarian to have much room even for habitual self-display; and, thereafter, if I had what seemed to me a sound idea, I would try to find a good speaker to present it. For my normally languid nature was beginning to be possessed by the coldness of the fanatic, the clarity of the tunnel-visioned, the concentration on the immediate that may or may not be possible only to a man who knows on Sunday that he will be hanged on Thursday — all the virtues that are alien to my normal self. In short, I was going a little mad and I could understand the clear minds of the mad; I knew now that, although Don Quixote may have been deluded when he thought the windmills were giants, he must have fought them coldly and alertly as a soldier with a lance has to fight a giant.
Madness is not an attractive virtue. That would be my last real caucus with the New York McCarthy delegates; another would be called for Tuesday, and I would go to sit down and see some stranger, no doubt perfectly reasonable, in the chair explaining how to demonstrate on the floor. “Who’s that jerk?” I asked my neighbor. “That’s my father,” he answered, and I mumbled some fragment from my former sanity and departed, having learned that to be mad is also to be bad and dangerous to know.
After my strictures on Levitt, my son said that it was extraordinary what close attention everyone paid when I spoke. He had been sitting too close to me to know the reason; those fixed gazes had not been attending to wisdom but only straining to hear a voice that is inaudible beyond the first two rows. Upstairs, in a little while, this disability would prove of strangely comic service.
The New York caucus room was impassable with wives, children, seekers for the void that generally lies at the core of secret meetings, and other inadmissible bodies. John Burns had commenced to look like the host at midnight who has a sick child upstairs and is too polite to mention it. He said first that the caucus was closed to all except delegates and alternates, then tried a roll call, surrendered, and at length requested that the room be cleared so that we could all start over again and have our credentials checked.
I was sitting on the steps waiting for this process to thin, and Herman Badillo came over and made me a proposal. Badillo was one of the two New York members of the credentials committee, whose charge it is to hear the complaints of persons claiming discrimination in the selection of delegates from the several states. The committee’s fundamental task is to adjust the Democratic Party’s egalitarian pretensions as conveniently as it can to the rights of property holders.
The managers of the convention were directors of a bank in whose vaults were stored those myths that the Democrats so desperately hope are not yet too worn to pass one more time as currency. One of those myths is the notion that used to comfort us all — that the Negro has a full voice in the politics of the North and none at all in the politics of the South. The dramas of the credentials committee are therefore played out against a chorus of outcries of southern Negroes attesting themselves deprived of their fair place in party affairs. In Georgia, for example, the credentials committee had to choose between a delegation chosen by Gov. Lester Maddox, plainly the legal proprietor, and Julian Bond, whose moral posture was as blinding as his position in law was dim. The committee majority had sought its balance by proposing to seat half the delegates sent by Lester Maddox, the lawful owner, and half those brought by young Bond, the moral claimant.
With the proper mix of piety in such violations of reason, the credentials committee can expect awards as hilarious as this judgment from a historian in attendance:
Since the credentials committee is the official complaint booth of the powerless, it is the custom of advanced and progressive parties like New York’s to allot their places on it one to a Negro and one to a Puerto Rican, just as advanced and progressive labor unions always appoint a Negro director of their Civil Rights Department.
Chairman Burns had appointed to credentials Mrs. Hilda Stokely, a Johnson Negro, and Herman Badillo, a Kennedy Puerto Rican. Mrs. Stokely is an old-fashioned lady of the sort that only the old-fashioned Negro community seems any longer capable of producing in the mass; she accepted what the committee majority wanted.
But Herman Badillo is a conspirator. He is a paladin of Puerto Rican politics in New York. He had voted with the minority of the credentials committee that wanted to cast out all the Maddox Georgians and also to seat a group from Texas that claimed that Gov. John Connally’s regular delegation had too small a quota of Negroes and Mexicans. Now he sought New York’s vote for his position.
“Will you make the motion to support the Texas protest?” Badillo asked. “You’re not in politics and you don’t have to worry about reprisals from the president.”
Rational objections poured forth from the ruins of my reason. I told Badillo that he knew as well as I that the only case against the Texas regulars was that only 9 percent of their delegates were Negroes or Mexican Americans, two groups that together constitute 27 percent of their state’s population. Neither of us had any reason to doubt that as good a case could be made against Illinois, let alone New York; and I could not, with any imitation of conscience, stand up and move the application of a standard for Texas that no one would demand of Illinois; and then, without pausing for breath, I told Badillo that I would make his motion.
By now the aisles were clear, and Badillo opened the business by asking New York to support Julian Bond against Lester Maddox unanimously. And Julian Bond appeared, vividly evoking the tenderness of that time when we had all loved the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, until Stokely Carmichael proclaimed how much he hated us; of all Julian Bond’s obvious virtues, none seemed more compelling than the simple one of his not being H. Rap Brown. He had carried us back to that Arcady of the ’50s when life offered us no choice more complicated than whether a young Negro of impeccable mien should be admitted to the University of Alabama. At the sight of him, ingrained respect for the property rights of other regulars quite abandoned our minds;
Stanley Steingut, the party leader in Brooklyn, took the floor to move, “out of sense of honor,” that New York do anything at this convention that young Mr. Bond might ask of it. The caucus acclaimed itself of that mind. We had arrived at one of those high moral moments in northern political organizations when someone need only say, “The black and Puerto Rican delegates demand that we endorse cannibalism,” and the regulars would give him the resolution, so long as it carried no provision for bodies.
The time came for Texas. Herman Badillo served forth his poor case and nodded to me, and I moved that New York support the protest against the Connally delegates, having enough vestige of grace to commence with, “It is a complicated question but …”, and enough of propriety to be certain someone on the other side would have the sense to object. But they all sat there exhausted from excessive indulgence of virtue and unable perhaps even to hear me; and the New York Johnson delegates sat unanimously pledged to vote against Johnson in the president’s own state.
We could move then from the trivial business of the sacred to that essential business of the profane, the election of the officers of our delegation. Comptroller Levitt, having won all our 86 votes, could not find a single vote among the regulars who constituted his own family, and had to withdraw. John Burns was therefore elected chairman by semi-acclaim.
At last, then, the convention hall. Its managers had placed New York (too much McCarthy) and California (much too much Kennedy) at the back of the hall where their schismatic yawpings would not disturb too much the orthodox congregations to the front. From where I was, the formalities were accessible only in broken fragments; very early the anticipation that I could really listen had to be abandoned, even though now and again some expression, either outrageous or inspiriting, would pass from the platform into my subconscious and then burst upward to stir me to outrage or approval. That first night a voice said, “Four years ago, our platform promised …” and some bell within me signaled that some confession was coming, and I roused vaguely to recognize Secretary of Urban Affairs Robert Weaver, who was proceeding to testify that we Democrats keep our promises; and the interior monitor turned off, and I was deaf again and thenceforth.
Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii appeared a dimly embodied distant shadow, and commenced his keynote speech, and I ventured to depart these torpidities in search of a beer and ran into Secretary of Labor Wirtz, that cherished survivor of a more attractive time. “How do you like Danny’s speech?” he asked. I said I took it as one more piece of evidence of my experience that the one political institution likely to be to the right of a conservative party out of power is the liberal party in power, at which the Secretary looked so wounded that I hastened to the pressroom to find and read Senator Inouye’s speech. Its text confirmed most of my prejudices, but a few graceful sentences, standing lonely like willows overlooked by a bulldozer, suggested that Secretary Wirtz might have been the father of some first draft horridly mutilated.
I was embarrassed, and, more than that, surprised that the old words like commitment, dissent, the true dimension of the challenge limped across the pages like convict strangers, hoarsely attempting to communicate with me. Had I so lost my feeling for the great issues that I could no longer even understand the great clichés?
So back I went to that killing floor: Governor Hughes was up and ready to deliver his credentials report. Jesse Unruh moved on behalf of California that the subject be laid over until the next afternoon so that Julian Bond could prepare himself for the debate. The chairman rejected that suggestion and made plain management’s determination to entertain no delays; Unruh appealed and the first roll call was ordered.
“Jesse’s just trying to mess up the convention,” Richard Goodwin explained happily. Herman Badillo suggested that Julian Bond would expect New York to vote for postponement. But now, though, the regulars had begun to understand that they were out of step with the dancing master; Mayor Daley’s Illinois voted 118 to 0 against the Unruh motion, and they knew that, trivial as the issue was, there must be some outrageous deception if Daley had voted one way and they were committed to vote the other. Chairman Burns was beset by regulars demanding their right — having voted once, drunk with virtue, to vote again sober with realism.
“This is procedure,” Frank Rossetti growled. “We didn’t promise him anything on procedure.” In the silence that followed this definition of the difference between matters of mere substance and matters of real consequence, John Burns turned to Monroe Goldwater, the New York organization’s legal counsel. What, that old gentleman wondered, was the degree of our commitment to Julian Bond? Absolute, the McCarthyites replied; and absolute it was; in the flight of Stanley Steingut’s hyperbole we had so bound ourselves that Julian Bond need only send a request that New York immolate itself upon the floor in his cause, and we could have no option in honor but to send for the matches and the gasoline cans.
I, being of no further service in the chorus of mutterings for justice, commenced wandering the floor again, coming upon Mayor Daley just as he woke up former Sen. Paul Douglas to cast his vote. I returned to find Monroe Goldwater talking to Julian Bond, who had come to thank New York for its useless but ornamental gift.
“On this business of delay,” Mr. Goldwater was asking, “did you want us to vote for that?”
“We didn’t care about that much, one way or another,” Bond replied.
And then at once, as though from the very floor, there sprung up the two Negro regulars in the delegation, short men and heavily circular ones, and they began pushing young Julian Bond. “Boy,” said one, “don’t you do that again. You keep in touch with us, do you hear? You better straighten up, do you hear?”
Julian Bond brilliantly abstained from saying “Don’t call me boy”; he looked straight at Mr. Goldwater:
“Mr. Goldwater, I’m very sorry about the misunderstanding. I’m sure we can find ways to be sure that it doesn’t happen again. I don’t think New York has been very much hurt.”
Mr. Goldwater smiled and said he didn’t think so either. Gentleman had called to gentleman across the doorkeepers; the thick black hands fell away from Julian Bond’s jacket. Mr. Goldwater observed that now it was time to vote on Julian Bond’s demand for all the Georgia delegation; did it seem to him that New York owed him 190 votes for that, too?
“Mr. Goldwater,” Julian Bond answered. “I can’t say whether it comes within your commitment or not.” And then he explained his case, and said he was sure New York would know what it ought to do, gravely said goodbye, and shiningly departed. Mr. Goldwater turned around and told John Burns that we were committed to give Julian Bond all of New York’s votes.
George Miller, a supporter of President Johnson, asked how we could have been so low as to pull anything like this off on them.
“But, George,” I replied with sudden illumination, “if my second serve comes into your court and you put it in the net, that’s not my ace; it’s your error.”
I had learned something I had never known. Politics is a game like weekend tennis, and it is decided not by its placements but by its errors.
All delays having been voted down, first Texas, then Georgia, was put to the question, and the evening’s last roll call began. The crash of the great state organizations came down on Julian Bond, and, at every intonation, you could feel the infinitely long night falling at last upon that Democratic Party whose rule over our affairs we had come to take for granted as permanent. There is a moment in our politics when a faction takes command of a major political party before carrying it to catastrophe; and, when it does, its signal is to assert itself as a majority for what is loosely called reactionary.
Julian Bond had a dubious claim indeed on all the Democratic Party’s seats for Georgia. But rights and wrongs aside, our voters do cherish the myths of liberalism. Then the announcement of sentence went up at last: Georgia regulars, 1,413; Julian Bond, 1040 1/2. It was a little closer than we had a right to expect; still, Humphrey was going to be nominated.
California began shouting “No, no”; then there began the chant of “Julian Bond, Julian Bond” in hoarse tones imitating portent. When the chant was picked up by New York, it did not seem my own kind of theater, and I was silent.
But then my discontented eye fell upon Monroe Goldwater — thrusting his hand forward and chanting “Julian Bond, Julian Bond, Julian Bond.” Mr. Goldwater is 82 now, and he was the law partner of Edward Flynn when the Bronx was as rigidly Flynn’s as Ciudad Trujillo was ever trujillista. This night he had voted for a complainant Negro against an owner of property, a thing he could hardly have done often before, since that side of that kind of case does not often come to his office. Mr. Goldwater stood there — at 3:45 in the morning back home — and he growled the defiance of the lost cause and the fallen flag.
To the many, conventions must seem a very squalid chore; but to the few, if they wait long enough, conventions can bring those special moments of epiphany that Webster defines as “a manifestation, especially of divinity.” Monroe Goldwater, oldest of all the regulars, had come to his epiphany. I left it to him who had deserved it to serve out the chant, “Julian Bond, Julian Bond,” and went home.
The transcendent occasion of Tuesday’s caucus was to be the appearance of Humphrey and McCarthy and McGovern in competition for our already closed minds; but they had gone to California, and they would never get to our part of the field, because we fought there most of the day, having no time to pause and pass in review before our commanders, being too busy — on one side the regulars in order of battle, on the other we, scuffling at once to bleed them and to stay in being another afternoon. It was not a battle about which anyone except ourselves was ever likely to know.
The caucus’s first business was to elect a National Committeeman, the only trace we could leave behind us, and therefore one the regulars were determined to obliterate. They moved to postpone that selection until Friday, when the vice president would be the Democratic nominee and his wishes would be New York’s duty. Our side objected and the roll call began, the decisive test of whether John English would survive in the hills. If the election were held that day, he would win; just as surely, if it were deferred until Friday, he would lose. My name was called to vote early, and I wandered over to sit among the regulars with William McKeon, who used to be the party’s state chairman.
McKeon voted to elect the committeeman this day, and then he said, “You’d better win this one, because I have to switch on the next.” Billy McKeon was a Kennedy legatee fallen to Mr. Humphrey; he was sworn to vote for the vice president’s choice for National Committeeman; he could do no more than give John English his only real chance. At the end of the roll call, an immediate decision had been decreed — by just 15 votes and inestimable subtleties in minds like Billy McKeon’s. John English was thereupon nominated and elected, 108 to 80 1/2, with Billy McKeon faithful to the forms of his new allegiance, but all other Kennedy legatees announcing for English, and even a few regulars indulging the opportunity to imply their independence by supporting the winner in a case where their votes against him would be useless.
And then the Johnson party brought up its guns: There would be no chance to hear the candidates today; even so, it was moved that, without waiting for them further, the delegation be polled and its choice recorded at once and the vice president’s 104-to-86 majority officially revealed.
It was a device promising Humphrey no important gain and us McCarthyites no particular loss except whatever small headline the delegation remained capable of producing; and it was directed more at the Kennedy heirs than at us, the phantom of Sen. Edward Kennedy being the only shadow left across Mr. Humphrey’s path.
But it had become essential to us to buy all the time we could before that phantom had to be laid to rest. Clarence Jones moved to table any immediate roll call on presidential candidates. That seemed so useless a gesture that Congressman William Fitts Ryan was already at work on another resolution saying that, in mere courtesy, we should delay choosing among the candidates until we had heard them all. Ryan’s motion to delay a vote seemed to have no more plausible chance of prevailing than Jones’s bare motion to table, although it did have the ornamentation of an argument. We seemed to have no resource left except to use up all the delays provided by procedure.
The tally on the motion to table opened among these gloomy reflections; and, while it pointed toward its unavoidable end, Jerry Bruno came over to see William Vanden Heuvel. Jerry Bruno had managed Sen. Robert Kennedy’s upstate office; he had fallen, after the disaster, to Vice President Humphrey’s troop, and he was committed to vote with them now. Still, he said to Vanden Heuvel, he had a contract with three upstate-county chairmen to give him a vote apiece on any one roll call he asked for it on; did Vanden Heuvel think that this was a time to call all that in? Vanden Heuvel thought it was, time being all he had. Jerry Bruno went back to his side of the hall; and I was mildly surprised when three votes normally alien to us were called out on our side. Secretary Ben Wetzler announced that we had voted 96 1/2 to 92 1/2 to put off the roll call on candidates one day more, and by then we could feel the depletion of the regulars’ heavier pieces. We could come down from the hills, briefly and safely reckless, and engage them on the Vietnam plank.
Both the majority and the minority had made those concessions designed to appease the great middle body. And the differences between the two positions were not startling, although Theodore Sorensen, for the minority, made a cogent effort to make them seem so, as Wilson Wyatt, for the majority, made a painful effort to make them seem not. It was a curious debate. Jules Feiffer drew hair on the head and chin of Mr. Humphrey on one of Mr. Humphrey’s brochures, wrote “Ché Lives” under it, and, laughing, we passed that around.
But a silence had descended upon the regulars; no professional among them would care to speak out for Mr. Johnson’s war; his defiant spirit had life and echo only from Tom McSpedon, a delegate from Yonkers: “Why don’t you stand up for America? You got no guts.” The regulars did not stir or even seem decently ashamed of not stirring. After the debate ran down, Matthew Troy asked me to vote for the antiwar plank. Matthew Troy is the city councilman from Queens and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, although it has always been hard to believe so while looking at him; the standard-bearers for unpleasant people are quite often rather pleasant themselves, an irony of experience to which I owe some of my failed seriousness. Still, Matty was the prime organizer of those “Support Our Boys” displays that are unique among our ceremonials for being the only parades in which the marchers beat up the bystanders; and now he was soliciting my support for the creeps, the Congs, and the mincing epicenes. But the wild interior laughter of his apparition could hardly be heard in the crush; the vote for the antiwar plank was 116 to 24, and we rose and cheered.
“I just cast one vote my wife and children won’t complain about,” said Moses Weinstein, the Queens leader. And so, I answered cheerfully, had Matty Troy.
And then I knew what had happened. It was not we who had won but the ghost of Robert Kennedy. All we had done was faithfully, even commendably, play our parts in a novel that had been robbed of its hero. And, without that hero, we had provided nothing more consequential than a momentary embarrassment to what was established and would be preserved to collapse before Mr. Nixon. Every little surprise of the day — the calling to the letter of contracts held in reserve by the Kennedy people, the timely evasions of the spirit of contracts assumed to be held by the Johnson people — was the way in which these things are done, and they all had been done for a Robert Kennedy who would never be there. This was just the way it would have happened: all over Chicago, delegates turning desperately — whether at Damascus or Waterloo, who could say? The old men going down, the revolutionary hero rising up. The hero is not that perfect piece of goods that alone suited my old self. I used to complain that Robert Kennedy contrived so well to suit both the blacks who hate the whites and the whites who hate the blacks, being, I would say, at once the backlash and the black-power candidate, the beloved of all who cry harshly and gesture wildly. But now I understood how helpless we were without him — this candidate of Matty Troy and Julian Bond, this healer who wounded, this pacifier who outraged. And this was when he would have taken control; I sat in a room filled with every element of his nomination except the nominee: I see Batista, I said to Billy McKeon, but we have no Castro.
There would be nothing more for us beyond that afternoon; we had, as so often before, won victories of a strange and almost portentous splendor, and they would be followed tomorrow by the triumph of the conquered.
I felt as though I had come from a village to some huge, unfamiliar city. At lunch, most of its inhabitants complained about Senator McCarthy, who had failed to ignite the California caucus. I could not, at the moment, think about McCarthy — he seems about that time to have stopped thinking about himself — last night having been for credentials, tonight being for the platform, and any thought of tomorrow being only a distraction from today. Did the mind of the slate-fitter on the roof of Chartres run much to God or the Virgin or the Saints, let alone Blanche of Castile? I felt removed from all cloud-conquerors and even more removed from that self that would too soon return to nice, scornful appraisals of their style of flight. I clung just this little while to my village; to its obscure quarrels and unnoticed resolutions, to all that was left to me of a time like the one for which Robert Oppenheimer confessed himself “homesick” — the transient but unforgettable occasion of “artists concerting their skill, and of men of learning content with anonymity.”
The convention gathered again that evening for seven and a quarter hours of dedication to the most grave and ancient of things, chaos, night, and dullness. I had promised to give up my delegate credentials awhile to Robert Silk, my alternate, so I wandered among the bazaars off the floor, coming across Robert Boyd of the Knight newspapers, who said that his publisher had seen Senator McCarthy that afternoon and that the Senator had said that he could not possibly win, and that the Chicago Daily News would be proclaiming this concession within the hour. A girl bystander put her head against a door and began to cry; nothing in my mulish insularity came up with either the impulse or the words to console her; crying, in the first place, was for Wednesday and, in the second, my only thought was that McCarthy had been honest a day or so too soon; the vote on Vietnam was coming up that night, and we might have gained a vote or so from the pretense that Mr. Humphrey had an opponent still on his feet.
Miss Aretha Franklin opened our proceedings by singing The Star Spangled Banner; a young man in our train said that, if he were black, no one could get him to sing that song in public; and I growled back that, if he were black, he wouldn’t be that stuffy about anything that paid union scale. A Negro is somebody who gets one chance at a job for every three we get; he doesn’t have our options.
It turned out to be a night for me and the convention to wander to no detectable purpose; around midnight I came upon the mayor of Chicago. Adlai Stevenson III was kneeling beside him in earnest converse, looking the way bond servants must have when they wanted passers-by to know that they were, anyway, tutors. Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News introduced us. The mayor asked how things were in New York, and I told him in all the petty detail that no one else had cared to listen to all afternoon; I had finally come upon someone as incapable as I of resisting accounts of inconsequential intrigue. There began to stir in me intimations of awe, for this was someone mad for the rest of his life while I was mad only for an occasion; he was the permanent of what was only the transient in me, my coldness a trick of the will, his the marrow of his bone. I congratulated him for having made so good a soldier of Paul Douglas; and he laughed effortlessly and freely, knowing it to be a compliment; the mayor is a rather pleasant-looking man when things are going as he wishes. And I understood that we were only sports and that he was history; Stalin must, I suppose, have had much the same effect on Communists.
“What do you think you all will do on the platform?” I wondered. Mr. Johnson’s draft platform had just been distributed. The mayor picked it up and concentrated on the cover, which said: THE PLATFORM OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY, AS PRESENTED TO THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION, CHICAGO, 1968, in silver letters. Then he turned it over and looked with the same care at the back cover, which was blank. Then he laid it down. “I think we’ll go with it as it is,” he said, and after a while I arose and excused myself from history.
Back at New York, we waited for the platform, and the evening exhausted itself with the dispute over the credentials of the Alabama delegation and labored off to some nonsense about granting the Young Democrats the recognition their generation deserved. “They’re trying to wear us out,” one of our young men complained.
“They want us to vote on the platform at two in the morning when nobody will see it on television.” The notion that anyone on any side knew what he was doing was too outrageous to let pass without some objection; it was we, after all, I said, who had insisted on all these credentials fights; and it was the last of our credentials fights that had consumed the session with a roll call both interminable and foredoomed; our error was nobody else’s placement.
At last poor Hale Boggs blundered onstage, smiled tentatively upon the beasts awaiting, and made ready to introduce the platform. It was well after midnight; we had two hours before us, but I remember hoping very much that we would do the business now, television being in another country and the only issue left to me being some assurance that its allotted evil be confined to each day. How the rest of us felt I do not know; I left one delegate crying out a demand that the debate on Vietnam be deferred not one minute longer, and I returned in two minutes to hear him shout, “Let’s go home.” In any case, at our distance, any shout of ours was irrelevant; Hale Boggs had retreated; and, in his place, Mayor Daley rose up to rasp that the galleries were trying to take over this meeting, and that he was ordering the delegates to go home. And I saw all at once how repellent history is, and silently rejoined the resistance to it and went home to sleep for four hours, not knowing at the time that this was just about all I should have in Chicago.
My grandfather had engraved on my grandmother’s gravestone: SHE HATH DONE WHAT SHE COULD, and I remember my aunt laughing many years later about what a stiff compliment that was, great as was the love it tried to express. This morning it seemed the grandest compliment in the catalogue. Our odd lot of the innocent and all-too-knowing, of the untried and the damaged had indeed done what we could; and now nothing practical was left.
When Matty Troy asked me to vote for the antiwar plank, I had replied that I was bound to vote for it if no one else in the room did, sent as I had been by the only congressional district this side of Albania where the name of Joseph Stalin still evokes some reverence. I did not say this to mock my constituents, but only to set them stiffly apart from Matty’s; there was, in truth, growing within me a sense like holy obligation to them and beyond them to the institution of the convention, this butt for the derision not just of all observers but of its own and very self. A little while ago Mayor Daley and I had laughed about how easy the poor beast was to manage, the mayor and I, Olympian slob and attendant slob, indulging together the vice of gods, which is contempt for men. For two days I had seen delegates prodded, pushed, stopped, and all but frisked by security guards, almost never protesting, no more able than Mayor Daley to recognize themselves as members of a parliament, a curious parliament to be sure, but enough of one to render their persons, if not sacred, at least above continual stoppage by the king’s men. What remained of their dignity had this morning become oddly precious to me, just because there was so little of it. This was the day we were going to lose, and I began to think of voters of the 20th Congressional District — or more precisely to imagine them — sitting all those miles away feeling themselves cheated, and I knew that my duty ran not just to my ballot but to some gesture of their reproach and their promise to return and try again.
Then it turned out that packages as curious as the one in which McCarthy had been conveyed to this convention carry unexpected resources: Theodore Bikel volunteered to lead us all in song after we lost the vote on the antiwar plank, and that settled very comfortably the conflict between my nature and what I thought I ought to do.
Coming into the hall, I saw John Burns at our standard, touching my sympathy even more than usual; I saw the prospect before him, the appalling embarrassment of our deportment, the weary effort to protect us from the wrath of the guards. I said to him that I would not boo or cry out but that I had a contract to sing with Bikel. Then I sat down, as insurance of my good conduct, next to Benjamin Buttenwieser, limited partner of Kuhn, Loeb & Company, who was reading The Wall Street Journal. I had never known Ben Buttenwieser — while revering his wife, the lawyer Helen, as shield of the outcast — and there existed, on my side at least, the eternal diffidence between the debtor and the creditor class. If there was anyone in our company who could be trusted to be as stuffy as I wanted to appear for the occasion, Ben Buttenwieser was my model.
Hale Boggs began reading Mr. Johnson’s Vietnam plank and paused a moment, overcome possibly by the horror of what his wife and daughter would say to him at dinner; and from our seats delegates started to arise, and, leaning fiercely forward, brandished rags painted STOP THE WAR and began to chant. I winced and looked at Ben. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his banner, climbed on a chair, and chanted too. He sat down to meet my stricken eyes. He said something like damned war; even our plank is inadequate; we ought to get out now and pay these poor people indemnity. Ben, I said in sincere alarm, think of the Establishment; his answer was a growl about whether Helen ever thought of the Establishment and he climbed back on his chair and went on chanting.
So now I was all alone; the model for my manners had been carried away from me and was wriggling, so far as a Kuhn, Loeb partner can be said to wriggle, in his epiphany.
Alone, I broke my contract with myself and John Burns. Something on the platform said, “Thank God for Mayor Daley,” and then I booed. I did not know what Mayor Daley was doing, being cut off in my village from the great city outside, but instinct cried out that if it were something that could be praised along with the war in Vietnam, it must be quite awful indeed. I asked someone who the speaker was, and he identified Congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio.
Now I had covered Wayne Hays with some attention when he was harrying Adam Powell, and I reflected that Adam Powell gets the enemies he deserves. But I had no more recognized Hays than I had recognized Inouye; you could not tell the faces on the platform without the sort of checklist of sins and virtues the Recording Angel must have learned by now to use; these were types, Humours, with only the last feature on each face that the caricaturist would have had to leave — the neck of Daley, the slack mouth of Wayne Hays, the engravement of all the occasions of tragedy announced on Pierre Salinger, the wound to his self esteem that his Democratic primary had done to Wayne Morse. I did my best to follow what they were saying; still I was surprised to find, when I came upon various limbs of it embalmed in the Times a while afterward, that it had been quite a brilliant debate. No matter that; its end was appointed.
While we waited for the secretary to announce the roll call, the mayor’s band played the Air Force hymn, the Marine hymn, the artillery hymn, and all the rest, making Mr. Johnson’s point with an emphasis that Mr. Johnson’s speakers had not often dared give it. There was one omission in this medley to stir the blood of patriots; and I sent Bikel the suggestion that, when we began to sing, we should open with “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” Then the vote was proclaimed, and there rose from the left of me the music of “We Shall Overcome” and I understood why the choice was Bikel’s by right; the professionals do not play jokes.
I first heard “We Shall Overcome” so long ago that I remember it as “We Will Overcome” because, in the beginning, it was sung by persons not noticeable enough for a grammarian to explain to them those nice distinctions of conjugation between shall and will. But I had sung neither version, at least in company, for reasons of decency taught me by another worldly man. When Pope Pacelli was dying at Castel Gandolfo, an Italian count went about his daily water-skiing in the lake below the papal residence. Coming ashore, he was met by journalists putting as much reproach as they could into their respect for his rank. “Gentlemen,” he answered them, “it is not fitting for a man who has lived his life as I live mine to take part in prayer for the Pope.” But now I sang the song, not as my own, but as the song of young men in jail against the war, and of other young men on corners, the song of the scorned and the humiliated, mine for this once and then only on a credential from all the lost constituencies. A sweetness strange in me and as strange in this place seemed to hang all around; I floated and swayed in hazy summer air, reaching for Ben Buttenwieser’s hand as I would have reached just this once for Mark Rudd’s, this being a moment not of defiance but of promise. Then those long dreamy five minutes were over and I left and went upstairs, where New York was finally caucusing to register its votes on presidential candidates.
I walked up with Moe Weinstein. “Did you see who was singing ‘We Shall Overcome’? Matty Troy! And when I think what that guy’s friends have done to me in my district!”
The caucus voted 96 ½ for the vice president to 87 for Senator McCarthy, with a few scattered to Senators Kennedy and McGovern. Now that we could no longer do them even paltry damage, the regulars had begun quite horridly to hate us. Congressman James Scheuer exerted a special privilege to complain of scurvy treatment by the Chicago police and introduced a resolution demanding reforms in procedure that would guarantee that no Democratic delegate be treated this way again. “No, no, no,” the regulars cried, hideously. “Support your local police,” Theodore Bikel cried mockingly. And we all disbanded with averted eyes as if from some cheap hotel, guilty haters turning out to be as furtive as guilty lovers.
Afterward I said to Stanley Steingut that I thought Scheuer’s motion might have been better served if he had just looked at the regulars and said to them, “Gentlemen, how many of you can be sure that one of your children is not out there being hit by a policeman?” Stanley Steingut answered, “If any kid of mine got hit by a cop, I know it would be his fault.” Now, if there is one thing I know about Stanley Steingut, it is that he would do his feeble best to strangle any adult who touched a child of his.
I remembered having one more contract to offer. It had occurred to me, somewhere back in our lost innocence, that the properly contained gesture of the McCarthy delegates might be to wait, each in his particular delegation, until his vote had been cast, and then leave. By now I knew that it was no more possible to make a dignified and noticeable exit from this place than it would be from the Vincennes, Ind., bus terminal. Still there survived a vestige of this image reduced in proportion but inflated in grandeur: Arthur Miller and Paul Newman were delegates from Connecticut. What if they would walk out once their state had voted and I could find, say, Sander Vanocur and suggest that it might be worthwhile for him to interview them for NBC on the way out? So I found Arthur Miller and braced him with the contract. He answered that he had not yet made up his mind whether or not it remained his duty to work within the system; I accepted this as a polite but just estimate of my notions of theater, and we drank beer, filling me with the discovery that the best companions have the tragic sense of life.
My comrades and I had come to my village of New York at least with some sense of place, many of us having consorted or disputed with its regulars well before this; a man can make his way, however modestly, in villages he can persuade himself he grew up in. But the doings of Arthur Miller’s Connecticut had been far beyond any experience of his. Nobody there even seemed to know who he was. No mythic figure alive is, of course, less inclined than Miller is to bring his godhead into the conversation. I thought with pity and sadness of all our other delegates who must be sitting as helpless strangers all around the hall. But even in his isolation, Arthur Miller had developed a kind of fondness for his Connecticut neighbors, and one of his reasons for not staging a grand exit was not wanting to embarrass them.
On the first television screen I saw outside, there was the sight of Delegate Alex Rosenberg, my neighbor, being thrown by two guards out of my own quarter of New York, summoning me back to the room I had just quitted. Whatever was happening on the street outside [the violence of which we learned later] was seeping its baleful infection inside to all of us; we had become, I am afraid, quite hysterical.
What was public about the rest of the evening is lost to me. We spent it reading bulletins brought in from the streets, and wandering out to caucuses, past television sets lurching with images of clubs and heads. We held meetings to exchange unformed and hysterical recommendations, once passing a resolution to proceed at once downstairs and set up so barbaric a yawp that Chairman Albert would have to entertain a motion for a roll call on adjourning until the next day. That last seemed to me the worst idea I had ever heard or even thought of. We were taking part in an obscene movie calculated not just to degrade but actually to inflame its audience, and the less we did to slow it down, the sooner it would end, the screens go blank and an incitement to riot and slaughter be removed. But the resolution to disrupt appears to have been forgotten by the time we returned to the floor; some guardian angel had been obliterating every bad decision we made all week, before we had time to act it out to disaster. So the business got done, with minimal nuisance from us. I had meant to walk out as soon as New York was called; but then Mr. Humphrey was proclaimed the nominee, and I realized that, at some point in the mingling of our private nightmares, my vote had been announced and I had not even heard it.
Back then upstairs in the caucus room, we listened on the loudspeaker to Senator McCarthy talking to the reporters downtown. All I remember about that was the pride and gratitude I felt for someone who had come to pitch 9 innings and whom we had taken through 15, talking at the end not about himself but about the wounded. Richard Goodwin and Allard Lowenstein talked about our future in speeches that were remarkably moving, just for being so contained and so passable when parsed. Then — the beat of hysteria being exhausted by now — it was suggested that we march past Mayor Daley’s house and on to the Hilton, carrying candles as a silent reproach. By the time we were out of the hall, a representative of the city of Chicago was waiting outside to tell us: 1) that there was a city ordinance against parading past the mayor’s house; 2) that the Hilton was eight miles away; and 3) that buses were waiting to take us to some place “outside the riot area,” from which we could walk to the Hilton. We got on the buses. “Remember,” said Patrick O’Neal, “if they hand you a bar of soap and say it’s a shower, don’t take it.” A policeman clambered up to say that our route had been changed again “because of riot conditions,” and I surrendered to the vision of being dumped in Gary, Ind., and to thanks to the Lord for Mayor Richard Hatcher.
But we were deposited, rather decorously, at Michigan and Randolph, very close to the Art Institute, and stood with our candles, as chaste as seniors singing their farewells in the twilight; it was starting to occur to me that, when a man commits himself to demonstrating for one day in his life, he had best know the risk that he might have to demonstrate sine die and indefinitely. Paul O’Dwyer announced that Arthur Miller and I had been appointed to draft a resolution; I found Arthur Miller, who was no more able to think of a resolution than I. We told Paul as much, and he smiled and was unable to think of one either. I allowed a suspicion to enter my mind and grow to a certainty: anyone with the range of Paul O’Dwyer’s spirit has numberless souls, inimical to one another, in his care; he had to worry not only about our heads but also about the immortal souls of policemen, which had quite enough to answer for without having further objects of temptation thrown up to them. He wanted us to go home, and the natural successor to any resolution on anything is a motion now to adjourn. I agreed with him, but no inspiration came to our assistance, so we sang a while longer and then formed to march to the Hilton.
On the way I thought of the proper resolution — a poor thought, forgotten now — and ran forward, calling “Paul O’Dwyer, Paul O’Dwyer.” I found him dealing with a police inspector with that mystical mixture of kinship and authority possible only for one Irishman immediately identifiable to another Irishman as having, at an early point in life, on pure principle, refused the king’s shilling. I knew at once that there was nothing I could contribute to this communion; turning away, I slipped and looked back, on righting myself, into the face of the enemy — a wide-eyed boy in the helmet liner of the National Guard. I said, very seriously, that I was sorry to be keeping you up so late, son, and Arthur Miller and I went in search of something to eat. Even the meanest holes were shut and we walked back past the Hilton. A young man was standing in the entrance; he looked much too respectable to be a delegate to a Junior Chamber of Commerce convention; a patch on his head had been shaved, and there was the cross of a bandage upon it.
“And just when do you think,” Arthur Miller said, “the Conrad Hilton will be headquarters for a Democratic Convention again? The phone will ring; a voice will say that this is the Democratic National Committee and the manager” — he was starting to shake with laughter — ”the manager will get his gas mask out of the drawer, cough, and say, Mr. Conrad is out of the country and Mr. Hilton won’t be back for a month.”
We parted, weeping with laughter. There was no way to the Sheraton-Chicago except walking down Michigan Avenue, whose resident devil maintains his effect of crowds angrily roaring on both sides of you even at four in the morning. I felt again how I love this evil city, which has always given me more of life than anyone has a right to expect in any four-day segment.
There was an envelope at the desk inscribed to Hon. James MurrayKempton. The letter inside said: “Hope you can join us for brunch in the Humphrey Hospitality Suite. Thursday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tally-Ho Room, 9th Floor. We look forward to seeing you!” I would have to be downstairs in the morning to say goodbye to my friends on their way upstairs to the ninth floor.
Thursday, the Day After
And now the thing was finally done; no constituent could complain if I played no part in choosing a vice president; my son and I had a day to ourselves, beginning with a long slow breakfast, and then maybe the Giants on television or the Art Institute possibly, and then an evening watching television. We went to the Hilton on the chance of finding Senator McCarthy. In the lobby we looked at the Daily News: David Dellinger proposed that 500 delegates march to the amphitheater this night, demanding admittance with countless protesters behind them. I could conceive of no chapter in the annals of human freedom quite so exotic as myself advancing behind banners, claiming my right to penetrate an assemblage that I didn’t want to attend and for which I had my card of admission in my pocket.
Senator McCarthy was in the lobby; I asked if he might have time for us; Norman Mailer was there too; wearily, McCarthy swept us all up in his bag of social obligations and said, all right, come up to the room in half an hour. And Norman said that he could use the interval; he had a proposal to make to me. We all went to the Haymarket Room, Mailer, my son, Robert Lowell, and I, and were served beer by a waitress in thighs. Norman began his proposal by saying something irresistibly brilliant about the condition of men.
He went on to say that we must answer Daley. We must make the ante higher. “Why is it,” he said to me, “that I have never hit you? It is because you represent the face of decency.” I thought, first, that he might have chosen a better example, second, that such distinctions among faces cannot have inhibited Norman at every moment in his prior experience, and, last, that I must explain to my son that the recognition that you are in the presence of a truly great man is not hampered but completed when you understand that you can laugh at him a little. I said none of these things and went on listening. We must raise the ante, Norman continued; we must make him hit the face of decency. Since I happened to have been assigned the face of decency in this discussion, my normal response would have been to decline the nomination; but the cold madness of the delegate was encroaching again upon my interior, so I merely asked “How?” Norman answered something to the effect that he had told the protesters yesterday that they should not march unless at least 200 delegates had the kidney to go with them. There would be a caucus of McCarthy delegates this afternoon — my guardian angel, having released me for rest and recreation, had until now protected me from knowing about any such thing and thus being torn between duty and pleasure — Norman’s proposition was that I go with him to that caucus and introduce him and that he would ask for 200 delegates — no less, and, if it turned up less, no march. I understood then that Norman was my better in everything that could be imagined, except that I was four days, which means light-years, older than he in those ballrooms where delegates meet. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated, Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen was set upon by a flock of clerics cawing that this was a moral issue. And Senator Dirksen freed himself and said, with the pride of Richelieu: “Gentlemen, I am not a moralist. I am a leg-is-la-tor,” and escaped to work out the sinuosities of his scheme to pass the law. I was not a wandering prophet; I was a delegate. “Norman,” I said, “I am a delegate and I have learned things I did not know and will too soon forget. I know that when a delegate rises to say that he will go only when 199 other delegates go, he has not introduced a resolution; he knows, and they know, that he has found the exit.” He might get 198 but, I was sure, he could be certain that neither he nor they would be embarrassed by the discovery of the 199th. “All I could do for you as a delegate would be to open by saying that I think that this is one thing that some of us ought to do, and that I have decided to do it even if no one else does. Then we should need another speaker and, if the thing builds, he can introduce you and we might get 200.” I knew the other speaker almost without thinking; I had already recognized the Rev. Mr. Richard Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor from Brooklyn and a delegate, as one of those persons into whose quiet mind the urge to bear public witness comes where only the temptation to sin comes to the rest of us.
Norman said that if I would go alone, I had more guts than he did. And I wondered again, as I often have, how insubstantialities like guts can worry men so much more intelligent than I. I remember the war and its few patrols, and that acceptance of death that occasional soldiers know just once or twice and real soldiers know many times before it kills them. I remember coming out of the hills in that state of peace possible only to a man when he has known the enemy, and assured that I would never again fear gunfire. Then I was asleep in my tent, and some lonely Japanese Betty came over and began firing those silly white tracers and I, with nothing to fear, ran panting, almost gibbering, from tree to tree. The one thing that guts is not is a quality that can be depended on. That is why it is useless continually to test it, because there is always a time when it fails almost anyone. Bravery is irrelevant; unless you have the dangerous good fortune of not knowing you are in danger, the trick is to anticipate; as often as not, you will act badly any time you are surprised. Dignity, not courage, is all anyone can hope to keep; how odd that Norman should so little understand his life as not to see that one of its more significant achievements has not come from its tests of his bravery but from its continual salvage of dignity intact. I spared him these pomposities and simply explained that my estimate of the terrain was much more complacent than his; we were in what my experience suggested was the postlude of riot, when the indistinguishable forces of order and disorder were exhausted and in need of some fraudulent rite of purification; my assumption was that to enter the delegates into the situation would provide the excuse for such a rite and that we should have a most comfortable evening. At the hotel later I found my notes on Norman’s proposition; they read “1) common public decency ante higher 2) 200 delegates march amphitheater”; never had a lesson of the master been so basely transcribed or, I’m afraid, so summarily dismissed as of no use for its circumstances.
Going back down Madison Avenue, we came upon Tom Braden, once of the CIA and now one of Robert Kennedy’s bequests as a California delegate, standing with his arms folded, looking, like Cortés, toward the Art Institute; how marvelous, I thought, even here, to maintain the posture of a man who, though fallen into California, would never let a stranger doubt that he had gone to Dartmouth and who was still, at the same time, a delightful fellow. He asked if I was going to the convention. I said I was commencing to think it might be more useful if delegates would do what they could to stand between the police and the protesters; and I was of a mind to go into the streets.
“Sounds right, put like that,” Braden said.
At the caucus I performed lamentably, in part because I am a lamentable performer even when aroused, and in part, I am afraid, because something inside me wanted me to be worse than usual. For one thing, Paul O’Dwyer had to be on the other side, for reasons I knew to be the best ones. He was a candidate for the Senate; and, even though he would not endorse Mr. Humphrey, this meant that he had to be a Democrat through November. It was his job to stay in the party and do what he could. And that meant that he must go to that night’s session; he could manifest his objections on the floor, but he was not entitled to demonstrate them in the street. Beyond that, he would not feel entitled, as I remained sure I was, just to sit passively in his hotel, withdrawal being against his nature.
We all met in that same ballroom where we had wrestled the regulars so long. The Reverend Mr. Neuhaus was where I had expected him to be, near the platform, ready to speak the tongues I had known his particular angel would inspire in him. We consorted together; and then since O’Dwyer’s particular angel had other commitments than mine, I felt it best not to trust Him for any contract not stipulated in advance; Paul O’Dwyer might not notice Neuhaus and me beckoning for the floor, so I went to him and asked that our names be inscribed to speak.
When our time came, Paul O’Dwyer had explained why he thought we should all go to the floor. I said that I did not think I could, because it would only be to play jokes on poor Mr. Humphrey. But what I might be able to do was to honor the commitment of my constituents to peace and order, which meant standing between the two hostile camps. I should go and try to do that even if no other delegate did. Or, if I didn’t say just those words, what I did say was as limp. I ended by saying that I understood and honored Paul’s position, but — and I hesitated, struggling to find some substitute for an expression I had never thought to use and then giving up and saying it:
“I think the time is here, now, for every one of us to do his own thing.”
No flames danced in the back of the room when I finished; I felt the comfort that attends respectable failure in something you did not want to do, but I also felt very tired. I should not wait for Mr. Neuhaus to speak; as for Mailer, I doubted he would ever get his chance; he could only be summoned on a rising note of passion, and who could raise a pitch from the flat I had set? I told Mr. Neuhaus that he could find me in Room 1917 — you know, “October” — and went up to lie down and look at television, seeing for the first time Sen. Abraham Ribicoff looking down upon Richard Daley, as some magnificent old Whig might have looked down at a king, and here was a man who I had thought never felt deeply about anything but traffic safety. This of all politicians to be Algernon Sydney at the scaffold? “Grant that I may Dye glorifying Thee for all thy Mercies; and that at the last Thou hast permitted me to be Singled out as a witness for Thy truth; and even by the Confession of my Opposers, for that OLD CAUSE in which I was from my youth engaged, and for which Thou hast Often and Wonderfully declared thy Self.” Oh epiphany, epiphany, wherefore come thou never to me?
Neuhaus came in after a while — there was no need to ask how the meeting had gone, thank heaven — and for two hours I bored my son and annoyed Mr. Neuhaus with peevish impertinences about the inconvenience of our collaboration, and expressions of deep desire that we would have no flock except ourselves and that therefore I could make my excuses. I liked him immensely for abstaining from either quarreling or agreeing with me, and I am sure that his Christian struggled with the temptation to dislike me and lost. Then from downstairs Dixon Bain, a New Jersey delegate, called to say that our fellow marchers were waiting.
On the street outside there was a small company of delegates, which I did my best to reduce by demanding that everyone swear that he did not bear a fake credential, but only two confessed they did and dropped out; that was not enough; we should have to go. Dixon Bain had been told that Dick Gregory would lead a march to assert the right to demonstrate outside the Convention Hall; he was to start in 20 minutes; that was our place of duty then.
The name Gregory brought the day’s first joy to my heart; he is a companion who delights me. But I knew that one of his jokes on US is to do everything five minutes early because WE think THEY are always late, and I told Neuhaus that my son and I would go ahead and try to hold Greg up until the delegate battalion could be assembled. So we almost ran to the Hilton, coming at last to a ragged band headed south. I cried “Greg, Greg” and found the head of the column at last. He walked in deep converse with bearded pards. “Greg,” I said. “Hi, baby,” he answered distractedly. I introduced my son. Greg smiled at him. “Greg,” I said, “just what do you want us delegates to do?” “Baby,” he replied, “Later? Later? OK? I got problems to talk about.” That was it. There were Greg’s pards, in variants of the costume one of my sons had told me is called “Hollywood African,” a few other blacks in front, and behind them strays of the grays of David Dellinger’s mobilization, come to show themselves against the good advice of their leader. Television has made actors of all rebels; I had been conscripted into the theater of the streets. Its various troupes — the delegates, the blacks, the young grays — had nothing in common; they had, in fact, every reason for dispute; America is a two-party country in which two, three, or four different repertory companies perform their dramas at once on the same stage. We were lucky to have only three. I walked south with Dixon Bain in the column of actors from other productions. Tom Buckley from the Times noticed the black flag of anarchism bobbing ahead, and wondered if I were sure I wanted that in the line. I started to answer that a flag good enough for Prince Peter Kropotkin was certainly good enough to walk with me — why do I invariably choose heroes of high birth, if I’m a real Whig? — and then came the thought that this answer was not the point. Above all things, believe though I might in every subversive challenge it represented, this was not my march. It was the right to march, not the idea for which anyone might march, that was my mandate that night; and I had a duty to the 20th Congressional District, in these hours just before it released me, not to assume any wider mandate from it. The point had to be that I would do the same thing for Lester Maddox.
We had arrived at 18th and Michigan, where the guard and the police waited to say we could not go farther. The delegates had all found us and efficiently lined up behind Neuhaus and me, since, for reasons obscure but connected with the failure of its beginning, ours was known as the Neuhaus-Kempton group. Such then was my last caucus; and, when Gregory went forward to get himself arrested and the Rev. Mr. Neuhaus to treat with the police, not knowing the procedure for getting arrested in Chicago as well as Gregory, I found myself stranded as its leader. Gregory’s blacks were juking in front of us; and Dellinger’s strayed grays were no doubt preparing some manifestation behind us; and there fell upon me the sickening dread that at least two of our repertory companies were about to start their productions while ours, the amateur one, could not even think of its script.
I saw a tall young man in a kente and hair not so much natural as in the state of nature, and I felt achingly the need for an immediate bridge now to Jeune Afrique. I said “Excuse me” to him, and he came over, and I said that I knew a young reporter he would call a brother and that he had the closest to a natural hairdo a man could wear and still seem promising to The New York Times. The reporter’s name was Earl Caldwell and I had seen him around a little while ago; could he be found? Earl Caldwell was delivered with courtesy and dispatch on that poor description to a stranger, and I asked him if he could keep within sight, consonant with his job as a journalist, because we might need an interpreter with the brothers. Earl consented; but I was starting to feel the need less: Man had begun to seem to me altogether wonderful if you and he can just stay offstage together.
And then a young man in shirtsleeves appeared with a bull horn. “I am a delegate to this convention, and I will tell the delegates what we are going to do.” I started yelling at him that he was not a delegate to this convention, that I seemed to be the leader of the delegates for this occasion, heaven help them without Neuhaus, and that I hadn’t the remotest idea what we were going to do, and we failed to communicate at that squalid level for a while, and Jeune Afrique came over to restore our manners and I explained that we’d just have trouble if that kid raised his bull horn and started off on a speech again, and I wondered if the brothers could just roust him, very delicately. Jeune Afrique did not need to do that; he simply mixed a contrivance of slight menace with the authority of being its object’s elder in being oppressed, and the young man went peaceably back to a place among the delegates. Then Neuhaus returned at last, welcomed as no servant of the Lord often is, and said we should advance to confront the guard. There was nothing to do but get arrested, which took an unconscionably long time, during which we sat down symbolically, and then got up, because Gregory’s pards felt that it was about time to go into their performance and that we ought to stand and afford them free passage. I wanted to thank Jeune Afrique but he was chanting sightlessly, being needed no more for works and being freed for faith. A National Guard lieutenant colonel finally read his office over me, and I was moved, correctly but not cordially, into the wagon. Its bag was a mixed one of delegates and stray young people; riding over, the young called out “Free Vietnam” to the invisible streets outside. “Free assembly,” I ridiculously croaked.
In my usual job, you come to think of policemen as very much the same; when you are under arrest, they turn out to have quite extraordinary range. I should say that I met three nice cops for every nasty one; what surprised me was how far our permissive society has gone even with cops: A pleasant one feels free to be unusually pleasant and a mean one feels free to be unusually mean, neither of which tones is exactly what the book must command for treatment of that offender against society who is also its ward.
“Give me everything you’ve got with a sharp point,” the one who searched said. “One of you peace lovers put out an officer’s eye with a pin once. Do you know that?” He found a token that somebody had slipped me a long day ago and that I had put in my pocket without even looking at. It turned out to have the likeness of Martin Luther King on it; and he threw it to the floor. “Martin Luther Coon,” he said, grinding it with his shoe; “you all come from the same bag.” To my shame I did not make reply and only shuffled along, which is why it is so necessary never to be surprised. Yet, after this caricature, the trip to the Dark Tower, while tedious, had illogical moments of good manners. “What is a distinguished-looking man like you doing being arrested?” one of the booking detectives asked. I had no answer; the question, kindly meant, could only make me understand that I was getting old.
But, after a while, these desultory excursions into the study of policemen were driven away by the revelation of the other persons who had been arrested that night. The journey crept along in the company of The Professor of Physics at Stevens Institute and The Personnel Director of the Perth Amboy Hospital, The Telephone Company Lawyer, and then it would end in the waiting outside Riot Court, the Dark Tower itself, with the finding there of Harris Wofford, the President of A New York State University, of The Man from The New York Times and, unknown but commanding, a solitary figure, young but of a distinction that made me instantly conscious of the difference between the cut of his cloth and mine. I approached his presence and deferentially put the question. “My name is George Walton,” he answered. “I was youth chairman of the Rockefeller campaign in Kentucky. I came here for the platform hearings. And …” I excused myself. No matter. The final crown of our company was The Rockefeller Man from Kentucky.
What could have brought them here in police custody on this night when Mayor Daley and I both listened to Vice President Humphrey intone a prayer of St. Francis, the mayor in his hall and I, in one of his detention rooms, listening to a radio, free of the vice president, because free of any bitterness toward him.
I knew why I was here; I had taken a contract. But what brought them, these safe men who had never before been arrested and probably never would be arrested again? It must be this night of all nights; not just the night of the Defeat of the Antihero for the McCarthy delegates among them, or the Death of the Hero for old friends of Robert Kennedy among them; but the indefinite suspension of their assurance of the virtue and redemption of America. The means of grace and the hope of glory had been taken away, because, after all, America had been their real God. And this night, otherwise inconsequential in our dreadful recent history, was The Night They Knew It.
But I could almost feel each of them, in his private heart, tending all afternoon toward this least dignified of places as the only one where they could be sure of being alone with their dignity. For them to have been in public that night would have been to rail or make bad jokes there; they had gone to the patrol wagon for privacy.
We stood about and talked among ourselves as men unused to arrest probably do; Dellinger’s stray young grays, who had been there before and would be again, slept on the floor. I felt quite tender about them, because I had noticed that although they sometimes carry signs bearing the device of some four-letter word or other when they are on-camera, they do not write dirty words on the walls of detention rooms. Do they, among other reasons, go to jail for privacy too?
There is very little to the rest. We went on talking; The Man from the Times came out from the Dark Tower and said this was a rough judge; he had been told to stop slouching. (I cherish The Man from the Times, but, in fairness to the judiciary, he does slouch.) My name was called; I entered the Dark Tower. And there, as usual with me, the first sight, instead of the Beast, was the warm bright greeting of William Fitts Ryan, my congressman; the convention was over and he had generously come down to be my lawyer. Bill Ryan unsheathed his congressional identification card, and gave rein to his imagination for hyperbolic explanations of the distinction of his client; the judge struggled to the summit of whatever foothills of grace are afforded by night courts, and I was set loose.
Back at the hotel I was surprised to find my son awake and waiting. I had said goodbye to him just before I followed the Reverend Mr. Neuhaus up to the police barrier, not even bothering to tell him to go home because I knew him to be so sensible. But he had stayed around, while I was safe with the peace officers, and a guardsman had hit him on the fingers with a gun butt. He seemed very happy with the evening; I prayed that he would be soon again his old sensible self. My son said that the Tribune had an editorial saying that we were all a bunch of Commies, leftists, and other agitators. Sounds like a fair description, I answered.
“You were right,” he said, “and O’Dwyer and the people who went to the convention were wrong.” I thanked him, and thought of a proper answer only later. It was, “No, Davy, the good thing is that, for once, nobody was wrong.”
At the airport I looked at the Americans around me; had we really, all of us, the same faces of the lost, shuttling between the unknown city of Basic and the unknown city of Cursic, back and forth, back and forth? Suddenly I remembered that I had been supposed to see my candidate 20 hours ago and had forgotten even to telephone to apologize.