When news broke Wednesday afternoon that Chicago is being considered as host of the 2024 Democratic National Convention, the reporter behind the scoop, NBC News national political correspondent (and my former colleague) Natasha Korecki tweeted out my story about the 50th anniversary of the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention, which so scarred the city and sullied its reputation.
While it’s nice to be remembered, I’d hate for that tumultuous event to once again define what happens whenever Chicago hosts out-of-town guests. That disaster isn’t the only convention we’ve had. Chicago is the most popular city in the country for such events, having hosted 11 Democratic and 14 Republican gatherings, including the first one in — did none of you pay attention in school? — 1860, when the newly-formed Republican Party, worried that huddling in an Eastern city would “run a big chance of losing the West,” picked Chicago as a symbol of “audacity.”
They gathered at a large log building at what is now the corner of Lake and Wacker Drive and nominated, indeed rather audaciously, a homespun downstate lawyer and failed senatorial candidate named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was tempted to hurry to Chicago, but his cronies waved him off, worried he would undo the backroom deals they struck to get him the nod. “Honest Abe” was a fine campaign slogan, but could be difficult in practice.
I won’t go through all the conventions. There are history books for that. Though Chicago can boast that our conventions tend to stand out, and not just because of rioting.
There was the 1920 Republican convention, nominating nonentity Warren G. Harding, basically because he looked like a president and nobody knew he had an illegitimate daughter. The deal to nominate Harding put “smoke-filled room” into the political vernacular (actually smoke-filled rooms, 408-410 of the Blackstone Hotel).
Or the 1932 Democratic convention, where Franklin D. Roosevelt helped usher in our modern campaign age with two political firsts: being the first nominee to show up and accept in person, and the first presidential candidate to fly in an airplane. The flight was delayed due to storms, and FDR explained, apologetically, “I have no control over the winds in heaven.”
Our next convention could very well instead reflect the 1996 Democratic convention, which sent Bill Clinton on his way to re-election and helped revitalize the West Side in general, allowing the city to shine instead of screw up.
Why isn’t NBC passing around stories about 1996? Success is less memorable than failure. While they’re still making movies about 1968, the average person is hard-pressed to recount anything from the 1996 convention. I remember just one moment: being assigned to cover a conclave of anarchists, and then only because I was amused at how well organized the anarchists were. Well, that, and the party for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s George magazine at The Art Institute.
It isn’t a done deal. NBC reports Las Vegas is another city in the running. I’m biased, but I would suggest Vegas is off-message for the Democrats right now. (Why consider Vegas? Are all the hotel rooms in Sodom and Gomorrah already booked?)
My guess is, city organizers will most intently study not past Chicago political conventions at all, but the 2012 NATO meeting in Chicago and the protests that came with it. Tamping down disruption while avoiding the appearance of a police state has become a near obsession of cities hosting political conventions — again, with 1968 in mind.
Rahm Emanuel drew a lot of heat for tamping down protests too much, and it erupted anyway, worse because of his efforts. An important lesson: the 1968 protests were in a real sense whipped up by Mayor Richard J. Daley refusing to permit dissent. Perhaps that was inevitable, given how close in time they were to the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. But also a reminder that, as with architecture, sometimes less is more.
Speaking of which, we need to also look at the last Democratic Convention, in Milwaukee in 2020, pared down for COVID-19 — a good idea for 2024, too. We don’t need nearly a week of ballyhoo. Besides: if Milwaukee can pull off a convention in the middle of a pandemic, Chicago should be able to manage the same or better.