In Memoriam

Conventional Nostalgia

Phony protests for a phony convention.

By 8.25.08

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The ragtag coalition of semi-pro agitators calling themselves "Recreate '68" has dedicated itself to a vain attempt to turn this year's Democratic National Convention in Denver into a simulacrum of the notorious 1968 Chicago convention, when Mayor Richard Daley's cops busted the heads of anti-war protesters in the streets.

As much as I'd love to cover a riot -- or at least be serenaded by the distant music of hippie scum howling in pain while I sip a cold Corona at a sidewalk cafe -- it's unlikely that the misguided nostalgia of "Recreate '68" will be any more successful than the 30th anniversary re-enactment of Woodstock, which notoriously resulted in at least four reported rapes.

This is not your father's peace-and-love generation.

While the suspiciously well-organized anarchists were able to post their schedule online in PDF format, they weren't able to offer any reasonable estimate of how many neo-flower children would show up.

"People don't RSVP for a revolution," organizer Glenn Spagnulo told the Rocky Mountain News.

A revolution led by someone named "Glenn" seems as unlikely as an anarchist RSVP, and Spagnulo seems to be one of those opportunistic faux-radical gadflies who've become such a fixture of the post-'60s Left.

Barack Obama has been embarrassed by his association with Bill Ayers, but at least Ayers and his Weather Underground comrades had to elude an FBI dragnet to commit their terroristic acts.

SPAGNULO, BY CONTRAST, is a former recreation supervisor for the city of Longmont, Colorado, whose idea of revolutionary action was calling into a talk radio show to defend Ward Churchill (another phony radical). Spangulo then sued the city after he was fired for conducting personal business during work hours.

Spagnulo's suit was summarily dismissed, just as most observers dismiss the possibility that he and his "Recreate '68" colleagues might turn the streets of Denver into a scene of revolution. Pseudo-radicals like Spagnulo lack even the self-awareness to realize that their talk of revolution is as bogus as the convention they're protesting.

Like the purveyors of anti-war nostalgia who post their protest schedules online, the Democrats have carefully scripted events inside the Pepsi Center to prevent a repeat of anything like the relative spontaneity of the 1968 Chicago convention.

Just as I'd love to sip my Corona while listening to Denver cops pounding out a syncopated rhythm on the skulls of Spagnulo's crew, I'd love to think that this year's Democratic convention might be as dramatic as what went on inside Chicago's International Amphitheatre in1968.

The convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey was the last stand of hawkish Cold War liberalism, the dying gasp of the party of Truman and JFK, Democrats who were as sincere in their domestic advocacy of the Welfare State as they were in their foreign-policy opposition to Soviet communism.

The Democratic Party in 1968 was still controlled by state-party bosses and big-city mayors like Daley, and its chief constituency was the AFL-CIO unions who, at the time, still represented nearly a third of the U.S. work force. This was the Old Guard, the so-called "Establishment" against which the anti-war protesters were in rebellion.

Inside the convention, Sen. Eugene McCarthy was the chief representative of the anti-war movement. McCarthy's near-upset in the New Hampshire primary had caused President Lyndon Johnson to announce he would not seek re-election.

McCarthy had battled Sen. Robert F. Kennedy for the support of anti-war voters during the Democratic primaries, until RFK was assassinated just after winning the California primary. Most of the delegates in Chicago, however, were chosen by their state party organizations, rather than elected via primaries.

Thus, Humphrey -- LBJ's vice president, who had stepped in as Johnson's surrogate candidate -- eventually got the votes of 67 percent of the delegates.

YET IF HUMPHREY controlled a majority at the Democratic convention, he did not control them well enough to prevent the anti-war minority from causing trouble.

Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, a Kennedy loyalist, took the podium to give a speech nominating Sen. George McGovern for president (McGovern got nearly 150 votes at Chicago, presaging his doomed 1972 presidential candidacy).

After praising McGovern as "a man who has peace in his soul," Ribicoff then looked directly at Mayor Daley -- who was seated up front with the Illinois delegation -- and declared passionately, "And with George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!"

At that, the convention hall erupted, with Daley standing up to shout a few choice words at Ribicoff (although it seems unlikely that "Jew bastard" was among those words, as some claimed).

Ribicoff's insult to Daley and the Old Guard was the kind of unvarnished realism that the Democrats are unlikely to produce this week in Denver. Despite murmurs of discontent by Hillary Clinton's disgrunted supporters, no Democrat is likely to deviate from the script inside the Pepsi Center, or during Thursday's spectacle at Invesco Field.

While political junkies might hope for some spontaneous outburst on the convention floor -- unruly supporters of Dennis Kucinich, perhaps? -- it's far more realistic to expect tightly orchestrated made-for-TV tedium.

THE PHONY SHOW at the Pepsi Center will be perfectly matched by the phony protests outside. Saturday, Denver police asked one protester to move his car after he illegally parked near Civic Center Park.

"The police want so badly to crack some skulls. It's so obvious," the protester told reporters, as if regretting his failure to give them an excuse.

Karl Marx's old jest about history repeating itself as farce is as close to a revolutionary sentiment as anything I expect to hear on the streets of Denver this week.

If I catch a whiff of tear gas, I'll let you know. Waitress, another Corona, please. And don't forget the lime.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.