The 2008 Barack Obama campaign reminded some hopeful left and liberal observers of the fantastic, feel-good presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy (RFK). Like RFK in the turbulent summer of 1968, Obama swept up a considerable number of progressives in the illusion that big democratic transformation, peace and justice could be achieved by electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate. In both cases, many on “the left” drank heavily and wistfully from the corporate-crafted pitcher of liberal, candidate-centered Kool Aid. It was a great and dreamy seduction.
When it comes to 1968 analogies, however, there is reason to see Obama’s real relationship with progressives and “the left” as closer to that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of the year. Think back to August ’68, more than four months after Daley had uttered his infamous “shoot to kill” order against black Chicagoans who rioted in the wake of the assassination/execution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic Convention was underway at the old International Amphitheater in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The “anti-[Vietnam] war” candidate RFK – the likely victor in the primary contest (despite his late entry) – had been killed the previous month, leaving the Democrats free to nominate the hawkish Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.
Thousands of anti-Vietnam war protestors had converged on the city, to great media fanfare and Daley was not pleased. One evening during the convention, his cops bludgeoned “the hippies” and anyone else who looked vaguely left or liberal on the sidewalks and streets outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where most of the convention delegates stayed during the event) in the city’s downtown. The one-sided “police riot” (as it was later described by a federal commission) crashed protestors and others through some of the hotel’s great glass-plate windows. The assault was captured live on national television, with a crowd chanting “The Whole World is Watching.” I sat stunned as a grade-schooler in Hyde Park (a dreamy liberal neighborhood on the city’s South Side) as the scene shifted from the police state assault at Michigan and Balbo back to the convention floor, where Daley and his Irish-American political gang were seen yelling “fuck you” at a liberal Democrat (Abraham Ribicoff, Democratic senator from Connecticut) who denounced “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago” while nominating George McGovern for the presidency.
(I should not exaggerate the RFK [dreamy and seductive] vs. Daley [ruggedly abusive] dichotomy when it comes to the relationship between Democrats and “the left” in the 1960s. Daley knew how to wrap his iron fist in the occasional velvet glove and was sometimes an expert practitioner of sophisticated, fake-progressive co-optation. At the same time, the liberal hero Bobby Kennedy had an ugly record of wiretapping, infiltrating, terrorizing and otherwise repressing radical and progressives forces at home and abroad – consistent with the fact that paranoid anti-Communist Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy was the Godfather of his first child.)
Note to “the Left”: Obama Hates You