In The Turmoil Expected At The Conventions, Some Hear Echoes Of 1968 | KERA News

In The Turmoil Expected At The Conventions, Some Hear Echoes Of 1968

Jul 17, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As you probably know, Republicans and Democrats will both hold their national conventions over the next two weeks. Last week, I was in Cleveland ahead of the GOP convention, which starts tomorrow. This coming week, I head to Philadelphia for an early look at the Democratic convention. The backdrop for both conventions - a country trying to come to terms with its racial history and a present punctuated by civil unrest and acts of violence. Some see a parallel in modern history - 1968, an election year full of turmoil that ended in what historians call this country's most contentious convention. NPR's Eyder Peralta brings us the story of one man who says he lost his faith in party politics that summer at the Democratic National Convention.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Digging through archival footage of that convention, I find this one scene. It shows a scuffle on the floor of the International Amphitheatre in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Check with our state chairman. He's an elected delegate. What are you trying to (unintelligible) stuff? He's an elected delegate...

PERALTA: And in the middle of it all is this guy. Men are grabbing him by the neck, and he's essentially being crushed by a crowd. Here's how John Chancellor, an NBC newsman, described it at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CHANCELLOR: They're asking for silence. There's a priest in here, dozens of reporters, and the man who got involved in it all is very calmly smoking a cigarette.

PERALTA: That man is Alex Rosenberg. He's now 97 years old and lives in New York City.

ALEX ROSENBERG: The video doesn't show you how bewildered I am. I didn't know what the hell's going on.

PERALTA: He says he later learned that the security people wanted to throw him on the ground. So the late Reverend Richard Neuhaus had grabbed him from behind to keep him from falling.

ROSENBERG: So when you see me in this casual position with the cigarette it's because my arms are pinned, and I can't move because he's got me by the belt buckle.

PERALTA: What is clear from the video is that the 1968 Democratic convention was explosive. Protest outside turned violent, and the Democrats were fractured. The establishment backed Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Rosenberg and the young insurgents backed Senator Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate.

ROSENBERG: But we - if we had the votes to elect McCarthy we never would have gotten out there - out of that place alive. They'd have assassinated us.

PERALTA: Alex Rosenberg really believed that. He says that McCarthy supporters were seen as traitors, and police attacked them, threw tear gas at the lobbies of their hotels, interrogated them. That summer changed Alex Rosenberg. And while that year was more tumultuous, he sees echoes in today, especially in the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

ROSENBERG: And I do believe, as people have said, that he and Bernie Sanders, while representing very different segments of the public, their strength is coming from the same element - element that government has failed.

PERALTA: Rosenberg has always been an idealist. Even though he didn't believe in armed conflict, he still volunteered for World War II. In the '60s he was against the Vietnam and pro-civil rights, but his candidate lost to a cautious establishment. 1968 was the last time Alex Rosenberg engaged in party politics. Instead, he turned to art. He became a big art publisher. He worked with the likes of Miro, Chagall, and Dali. And he never looked back.

ROSENBERG: Politics are boring to me today. I mean, this whole thing - I would have liked to see Bernie Sanders win, but I've been through this over and over. What I've seen is a limit to how far the progressives can go. I'm an optimist. Hopefully, it will change one of these days.

PERALTA: Even, he says, if he doesn't get to see it. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.