By Don Heckman
Anyone who was in Chicago’s Grant Park in August 1968, as I was, had to watch Barack Obama’s election night speech in the same location with a sense of wonder. The 1968 demonstrations centered around the Democratic Convention were explosive ventilations, a virtual mass exorcism of the pain, the fury and the frustration gripping much of the country in general, and most young people, in particular. Not because the nomination of Hubert Humphrey was as bad a thing as it seemed at the time. But because his failure to oppose the American presence in Vietnam had destroyed his credibility about one of the core issues facing the country, at a time when a new course was so desperately needed.
The year had begun with the Tet offensive bringing Viet Cong soldiers to the gates of Saigon’s U.S. Embassy. In March President Lyndon B Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Hope for a change diminished when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, diminishing further when Bobby Kennedy was killed in June, on the night he won the California primary election. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew for President and Vice-President in early August. And, two days before the Democratic Convention – mirroring the world’s entrenched regimes’ resistance to change — the Soviet Union decimated Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring with 200,000 troops and 5,000 tanks.
It was, in other words, a time in which it was hard to find much to believe in.
How different the atmosphere was for Obama’s extraordinary speech. It seemed, for once, that the right choice had been made. That in a period of national malaise comparable to 1968 — a period in which the country is again mired in a destructive foreign adventure, while, at home, economic and political polarization rule the day – the country had finally opted for the candidate who consistently advocated change. Real change. (And one can only hope – as a small aspect of that change – that the Obama administration will abandon the highly manipulative Bush narrative about Iraq, and call it what it is – not a “liberation,” but an “invasion”; not a “war,” but an “occupation.”)
As liberal and open-minded as most young people were in 1968, the notion that an African American could have been chosen by a national party, much less elected to the Presidency, was almost inconceivable. Four decades had to pass before that could become a reality. And those four decades represented a swing toward an emphasis upon economic greed, the diminishing of a caring society and a growing international belligerence that have placed us in our currently precarious position as a nation and a culture..
All of which imposes a tremendous burden of expectation upon Obama. Not simply as the first African American president – which will be demanding enough in itself. But as a leader whose time in office can be a watershed for a much-needed era of democratic values, a sharing society and international moderation..
Which was all we were really asking for — all those decades ago — while Mayor Richard Daley’s eager policemen were swinging their night sticks during the August, 1968 turbulence in Grant Park, Lincoln Park and beyond.