Days of Rage: David Axelrod Looks Back on Chicago '68
Published August 23, 2018
Published a month ago
Best-known today as the chief architect of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, David Axelrod was, in his own words, a 13-year-old "political junkie" in 1968, mesmerized by the events convulsing America and the world: assassinations, riots, an escalating war in Vietnam. Then, late in a summer that had whipsawed between hope and rage, the Democratic National Convention kicked off in Chicago on August 26.
The raucous scenes unfolding inside and outside the convention hall over four days thrilled and appalled young Axelrod, sharpening his already intense interest in politics. "I'm moved to watch conventions today," he told FOTO, "even the archaic rituals — the roll call, the acceptance speeches — because it's possible that the person delivering that speech … is going to make profound decisions that will affect the lives of so many people."
Here, 50 years later, Axelrod speaks with FOTO about how the tumult that played out in Chicago still resonates in today's polarized America, and how the drama of those four days shaped his own path in politics and in life.
Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesCALM BEFORE THE STORMWatching the televised convention from New York (Axelrod was born in Manhattan, but after 45 years in the Windy City is a confirmed Chicagoan), young David was riveted, especially as the pomp of old-school political traditions contrasted so sharply with the open hostilities inside and outside the hall.
"As a teenager," Axelrod told FOTO, "I was already opposed to the war. I identified with the civil rights movement, and I was sympathetic to the demonstrators" in Chicago who, by the thousands, had gathered to make their voices heard — and their opposition to the war in Vietnam felt. Above: Yippies (members of the Youth International Party, which was part anarchic theater troupe, part radical counterculture movement) and other protesters in Chicago during the '68 Convention.Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesTHE MAN WHO WASN'T THERECalling Chicago '68 "the culmination of the most tumultuous year in American history during my lifetime," Axelrod points out that one key figure — perhaps the key figure — in America at the time, President Lyndon Johnson, was nowhere to be seen. Months earlier, a battered, weakened LBJ — whose inability to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam divided the nation and fractured the Democratic Party — had declared: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
"An added dimension [to the tension in Chicago] was the ghost of Lyndon Johnson hanging over everything," Axelrod said. "Here was a president so unpopular within his own party that he couldn't even attend the party's convention." The stage was set not only for high drama, but for public crisis.Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesDAYS OF RAGESo much about the 1968 Chicago convention has assumed an aura of legend: Yippies parading a live pig, "Pigasus," as their nominee for president; pitched battles between protesters and police; open animosity among delegates. But for the teenage Axelrod, even then, there was a real feeling of unraveling. "It felt like all the things we thought were rock solid and took for granted were up for grabs," he told FOTO. "I know that among young people, at least the young people I was around, there was a real sense that every assumption we had been taught was now something to be challenged." Above: A protester struggles with police outside the Democratic National Convention, August 1968.Paul Sequeira/Getty ImagesTHE WHEEL OF HISTORYAsked about traditional forms of politicking, even at a convention as fraught as '68 — the signs, the speeches — and whether that old-school revelry is intoxicating, Axelrod acknowledged that it can be. "But I think there's something more going on. If you have faith that, in a democracy, politics is the way you grab the wheel of history and turn it in the direction that you believe is best — that's a big deal. It's not just about hats and signs and parties. It's about the act of embracing a leader, a direction, a set of values and beliefs that are going to govern the country."
In Chicago, those beliefs had to contend with footage and photos of cops attacking protesters — men and women, young and old. The author of a post-convention report that was submitted to President Johnson noted that “a majority of Chicago police acted responsibly; a minority engaged in violence that can only be termed a 'police riot.'"
Miriam Bokser/Villon Films/Getty Images; Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesBettmann Archive'GESTAPO TACTICS'"Cultural changes were creating great divisions in our society," Axelrod reminded FOTO. "They were not unlike the divisions we have now — urban versus rural, for example. You also had great demagogic figures in Richard Nixon and Alabama's George Wallace ... whose polarizing rhetoric was very much like the rhetoric of Donald Trump." (A Southerner who notoriously vowed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," Wallace won five states as an independent candidate in 1968.)
In this photo, the tension inside Chicago's International Amphitheatre is on vivid display. As Sen. Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut (at the podium) ripped into what he called "Gestapo tactics" by Chicago police, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, pictured among the crowd with his hand to his mouth, bellowed epithets.New York Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesDREAMS DEFERREDThe bedlam at the '68 convention "was a blemish that would sully Richard Daley and the city for the rest of his life and beyond," Axelrod told FOTO. "People forget that when Daley was elected, in the Fifties, he was considered a sort of visionary. Time magazine touted him as the face of new urban America. He had grand visions for Chicago, much of which he executed on, but Chicago also became an emblem of deep racial division. Dr. King marched in Chicago in 1966 and the reception he got was, he said, more hate-filled than he had seen in the Deep South." Above: Illinois delegates give Mayor Daley a rousing welcome at the 1968 convention.New York Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesAND THEN THERE WERE THREEThis picture of a debate featuring three rivals for the Democratic nomination suggests that not all of the energy in and around the convention hall was contagious. At left, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the party's main anti-war candidate, looks resigned, while his fellow Minnesotan, Vice President Hubert Humphrey — the eventual nominee — listens closely to South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.
"McCarthy probably knew at that point that he wasn't going to be the nominee," Axelrod said. "He's going through the motions. Humphrey, meanwhile, as LBJ's vice-president, was weighed down by his unwillingness to break with Johnson on the war — until it was too late. He was hobbled by his own sense of loyalty. He was kind of a tragic figure. He ended up running an extraordinary race — he came within a point of defeating Nixon — but he was running with an enormous weight on his back."
Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images; Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesBettmann ArchiveFREEDOM OF THE PRESSIn a picture that mirrors scenes seen frequently in America today — a journalist under siege at a political rally — reporter Dan Rather holds his ground in Chicago in 1968. Rather was punched and knocked to the ground by a security agent while trying to find out why a Georgia delegate was being roughly escorted from the floor.
"To see reporters being manhandled by police" was unsettling, Axelrod recalled, "because [back then the press was] viewed as honest umpires or brokers of information. Seeing the people bringing you the story become the story was part of the jarring nature of the convention. Of course, Nixon's election would further exacerbate that, as his administration was openly hostile to journalists. But it's just one indication of how '68 was really a loss of innocence in so many ways."
Watch Dan Rather's own account of his confrontation with security in Chicago.Stan Wayman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesEMPTY PRIZE"Now, this is a great picture," Axelrod said of this portrait of the Democrats' presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, looking out on Chicago from his hotel room. "The story is that he got whiffs of tear gas from upwind. This moment was something that Humphrey had desperately sought. He wanted to be president. But he could see from his window the tumult and chaos that would brand his convention and the party. He must have known at some level that what he got was an empty prize."
The final tally in November: Nixon, 31,783,783 votes; Humphrey, 31,271,839 votes; Wallace, 9,901,118 votes.Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images'THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING'If five words can sum up the unrest in Chicago, it might be these: "The whole world is watching!" That was the chant in the streets as the National Guard sealed off the Hilton Hotel (above) and police bloodied protesters. But what the world saw might have been different, Axelrod told FOTO, had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated just two months earlier.
"If Bobby Kennedy had been the nominee of the party," Axelrod told FOTO, "I'm not sure that he wouldn't have been out on the street addressing the people." Axelrod's supposition is hardly unfounded; in Indianapolis, on the night Dr. King was killed, RFK stood in the middle of a shocked and angry crowd, and called for calm — a moment of unscripted, unforgettable courage often credited with helping spare that city from the riots that erupted across the U.S. in April 1968.Bettmann ArchiveWEIGHTY THINGSFifty years removed from those heady times, Axelrod's takeaway from Chicago '68 feels more nuanced, in a way, than the standard narrative of a baffling, four-day maelstrom. "I was always suffused with a feeling that there is great meaning in politics," he told FOTO. "In 1968, the war was on the ballot, civil rights were on the ballot — weighty things — but in the conflagration that ensued [in Chicago], you also saw the essence of democracy and a country struggling to deal with its challenges. Even then, I thought it was deeply important."The White House/Getty ImagesWHAT'S REALAxelrod (seen here, at center, with President Obama and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in 2009 in Moscow) knows that politics is more grind than glamour. Yes, it's about vision and values, but it's also about late nights, policy debates, and the thankless task of coalition-building. "I'm an optimist," he told FOTO, "because I think we always have the tools to bring about change. I'll only stop being an optimist when people stop caring. If people stop caring, bad things happen."
"You know," he said, "I've mentioned this in other contexts, but I wept the night that the Affordable Care Act became law. Part of that was because I have a child with a chronic illness and have experienced the hard edge of the healthcare system. But it was mostly the realization that maybe other people wouldn't have to go through what we had. That made it all very real. I thanked the President, and he just said, 'Well, that's why we do the work.' That was the most crystallizing conversation I've ever had about politics. It's not about the red team or the blue team. It's about what you can do to make things better — to help give people the best chance to make the most of their lives."