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50 Years Later: Cokie Roberts On The 1968 Democratic Convention

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, Democrats assembled in the city of Chicago in one of the most tumultuous and violent political conventions in our nation's history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Chicago Police are now in the aisles here with billy clubs, clearing people out. They're not using them on people. They're carrying them. And they're dragging everybody right out of the aisle here. It's a terrific crush.

GREENE: Now as chaotic as the events inside the convention hall appeared, the police response to Vietnam War demonstrators outside was dramatically worse. Commentator Cokie Roberts was at that convention and got a unique view of what was happening, and she joins us in our studio to share her memories this morning. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David. Nice to talk to you.

GREENE: Well, it's always great to talk to you. So remind us. You were at the convention. I mean, were you covering it as a journalist?

ROBERTS: No, not officially. I was working in television production at the time, but my husband was covering it for The New York Times, so I had access to the press areas. And I was there, though, as something like an honored guest or something because my father, Hale Boggs, who was majority whip of the House at the time, was chairman of the Platform Committee. So I really knew, often, what was going on behind the scenes. And trust me, it wasn't any prettier than what was happening in public.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting. What do you mean by that?

ROBERTS: Well, President Johnson simply didn't grasp the degree of passion and anger of the anti-Vietnam demonstrators and delegates. Look; it was hard enough for us younger-generation people to convince our elders who were there in Chicago that they had to come to understand that.

And Johnson was watching on TV. He kept wanting to come to the convention himself. He thought that if he came on his birthday, August 27, he'd be greeted like a hero. And it was a really awkward moment when the call was made telling him he couldn't come to his own party's convention. But if he had, the scene would've been much worse.

GREENE: I can imagine. What an embarrassment for him.

ROBERTS: Yes.

GREENE: I mean, Cokie, we look back on those days as being incredibly violent, incredibly divisive, a terrible moment for the Democratic Party. Do you have positive memories from Chicago that year?

ROBERTS: I do, although it was a tough convention inside the hall as well as outside the hall. I was very pregnant, so I was able to sort of stand the cops down a little bit. But my favorite memory was just this surreal moment where my mother was having lunch in the Pump Room, this very fancy restaurant, with Sonny Bono, the musician, who was at the height of his fame on "Sonny & Cher."

GREENE: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And he wanted to get young people to register to vote. My mother, who was very active in politics and then went on to be a member of Congress herself, arranged to have lunch with him. He starts talking about - he wants to register people at concerts, and he's telling her all the things that happen at concerts, using graphic language about what young people do. And I was just horrified. He's saying these words in front of my mother.

GREENE: In front of your mom.

ROBERTS: My mother.

GREENE: Oh, my. Well, Cokie, the divisions from '68 - have they healed in our country?

ROBERTS: You know, they're different issues, different generations. The people at that convention who were defending the status quo came out of World War II into the Cold War. And remember, just the week before the convention, the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia, squashing a rebellion there.

But the people who were demonstrating saw our own government as the enemy, not the communists. And their exclusion from decision-making is a big threat. And I think that skepticism about government has certainly continued. Also, the policemen saw the protesters as spoiled college kids who didn't have to work for a living in much the same way that we see resentment of people considered elites today. And inside the Democratic Party, of course, we're seeing a resurgence of the ideological divide.

GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts remembering an important moment in our nation's history - the '68 convention - Democratic Convention in Chicago. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE SONG, "ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.