Will Denver's '08 DNC Prove as Unconventional as Chicago '68?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Democratic convention during an unpopular war in the last months of an even more unpopular presidency: Chicago, 1968? Try Denver, 2008! But will denizens of the Rocky Mountain state be driven to sip from politically incorrect water bottles because of psychedelic substances lacing their pristine reservoirs? Not likely, says Katherine Sibley, Ph.D., chair and professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University.

“For one thing, the American people, while unhappy with the way the war is going in Iraq, are not protesting in the numbers or with the intensity that they did against the Vietnam War, which erupted into eight days of violent demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago,” says Sibley. “Other issues – jobs, housing, oil prices – seem more pressing today.”

According to Sibley, the reformist zeal of that earlier year, and the desire to overturn the old order and its rules is gone as well, in a more permissive, if decidedly less idealistic, age. “The bitterness and disillusionment that clashed with that idealism in 1968, occasioned by the twin assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, in the months and weeks leading up to Chicago, are also largely absent.”

The dynamics of the Vietnam War have little in common with the war in Iraq, and other similarities may seem more superficial than real, adds Sibley. “All the same, the country still very much lives with 1968’s hopes, as well as its shadows.”

Sibley points to the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party – Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois – as a legacy of the civil rights that Dr. King campaigned and died for forty years ago. “Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, too, is a product of 1968, the first year of a highly publicized feminist protest against women’s second-class, objectified status in society – even if, despite the legends! – no bra-burning actually happened at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City that year.”

The presumptive Republican nominee – Sen. John McCain of Arizona – a Vietnam veteran and war prisoner, underlines another legacy of 1968. “It was the last year in which the United States had more than half a million troops in action in one small country – an exercise of heavy-footed globalism which has not since been duplicated,” says Sibley. “The closest we’ve come since was West Germany in the early 1980s, with just over a quarter-million.”

Sibley adds, “There was much good that came in 1968, and much that was pretty awful – it was year of conflicting legacies, and it continues to affect us.”

Sibley will teach a seminar on the events of 1968 this fall. She is available for comment at 610-660-1741 and sibley@sju.edu, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-669-1222.

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