The year 1968 was the year my life became political. The week of August 25 – 29 was a crucial few days in that development. I wasn’t in college and I wasn’t in high school. I was in Junior High. My father was on his way to Vietnam and I was not a happy camper. The newspaper I delivered every morning in the suburb of DC was not doing a very good job of hiding the fact that the war was not going well for the US troops and that a lot of US residents not much older than me were protesting the war like their lives depended on it. The fact is, their lives did depend on it, especially if they were male. My inclinations were leaning more and more in the protesters’ direction. My father was dismayed, to say the least. I didn’t want to get drafted in a few years.
Already, the events of 1968 were something beyond the pale, even in a decade like the Sixties. I was grooving on the Beatles “Hey Jude” and Cream; Donovan and the Jefferson Airplane. But I was also digging bubblegum music and Motown. My sister had all the Monkees records and they got plenty of airplay in our house, too. Mostly, though, I was watching Laugh In, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and the news. My thoughts were mostly concerned with the girl in my history class who I had a crush on. Her and my grades, which were mostly A’s and B’s. My boy scout troop was fundraising for summer camp. I was not into the patriotism or the uniforms being a Scout demanded, but I liked camping and the skills I was learning.
I was watching the convention because my Mom wanted someone to watch it with. Given that I had been volunteering for Robert Kennedy before he was killed, there was also an inkling of political interest. As it turned out, the convention broadcast would make me political, but not for the Democratic or Republican nominees. It was the vision of police brutalizing young people while they shouted”the whole world’s watching” that would stir the seed of my political self.
Television was a somewhat different medium back then. Our family’s set received nine of the dozen or so channels then existent in the Baltimore-DC area. Six of those channels were owned by the three major networks of the time: NBC, ABC and CBS. Then there were a couple stations we called educational. They mostly broadcast school lessons and a documentary or two. The other stations broadcast a combination of reruns, movies and shows sold in syndication. A couple of the latter were on what we called UHF channels. The UHF was an acronym for Ultra High Frequency. It was one of those stations that broadcast what was considered adult-oriented material late on weekend nights. I recall seeing a film featuring a topless Brigitte Bardot one evening. Another late Saturday night I saw the Grateful Dead on Hugh Hefner’s show called Playboy After Dark on that channel.
Anyhow, television was quite different in 1968 from what it is now. News broadcasters were important and influential. The evening news broadcast was a tightly edited show where the day’s news was delivered by sober men in suits who usually kept their personal opinions to themselves. Consequently, when they did express their opinion or, god forbid, showed emotion, it was something monumental and people paid attention. For example, when CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite wiped away a tear after announcing that John F. Kennedy was dead, that tear was a tear being shed by a nation. Likewise, when Dan Rather was visibly angry at the Democratic Convention security goons as they tossed him from the convention floor in 1968, viewers were either angry at him or the bouncers. Similarly, when the networks broadcast the police attacks on protesters, reporters and bystanders that took place August 28, 1968 outside the Chicago Conrad Hilton, slamming news reporters into the concrete and bloodying them with their nightsticks, viewers either cheered the police or the protesters. Or they just watched aghast at their country being redefined before their eyes.
The broadcast of the aforementioned protests outside the Conrad Hilton was some of the most riveting television I had ever watched. So were the arguments between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr.–who had been hired by ABC as convention commentators—after the battle in the streets that night and the verbal battle about the police actions inside the convention. When Vidal called Buckley a crypto-nazi, I knew whose side I was on. Every time the cops beat someone to the ground or pushed them through a window, my politics moved a little further away from the middle and to the left. Other viewers saw the same broadcast and their politics moved to the right. Fifty years later, the US political landscape continues to reflect the effects of that protest and police riot as surely as it continues to degenerate deeper into a cesspool of its own creation; a cesspool that stinks of money, corruption, war, and white supremacy.
This isn’t a lament for the days when television was less of a tool of the right wing elites. It is a thank you note to the protesters who took to the streets in Chicago in August 1968 and the news media that covered their protests. That week of television opened my eyes and my mind to the reality of this nation we call the United States.