Alter: Remembering Chicago, 1968

Forty years ago, the Democrats met in Chicago, their most disastrous convention ever. Denver obviously won't be a repeat, but Democrats face some similar dangers if they don't pull the party together. I know this from personal, if youthful, experience.

In 1968, I was a 10-year-old Chicagoan, fascinated by politics, determined to hang out at the convention. My mother was working for Vice President Hubert Humphrey and my father for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, both of whom had their convention headquarters at the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, not far down the street from where Barack Obama's headquarters is today. It was late August, only a couple of months after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and even before Chicago police started clubbing reporters and demonstrators outside the hotel, the mood was tense.

Humphrey, the presumptive nominee and soon-to-be Senate tutor of a 30-year-old freshman named Joe Biden, had entered no primaries, but he had the support of President Johnson, as well as the urban bosses who still ran the party. His slogan, "the politics of joy," was especially off-key that year, as a bitter struggle over the Vietnam War swept the country. Humphrey had started out as a Minnesota pharmacist, so someone got the dumb idea of having part of his headquarters decked out like an old-fashioned pharmacy. My mother, who knew Humphrey, volunteered there, running the pharmacy that sold Humphrey buttons, posters, scarves and other memorabilia. Business wasn't brisk.

Over on the east side of the hotel, my father, working in delegate outreach, was surrounded in McCarthy HQ with longhaired staffers and hand-scrawled peace signs. The volunteers there knew McCarthy wasn't going to win the nomination but wanted approval of an antiwar plank in the party platform. When they lost this fight, some McCarthy supporters crossed Michigan Avenue and joined the hippie and Yippie protesters gathered in Grant Park. McCarthy's press secretary that year was Seymour Hersh, soon to be a legendary investigative reporter.

My parents and I would often eat at the Conrad Hilton's Haymarket restaurant, which may not have been named for the site of the famous 19th-century Chicago terrorist bombing (and gross police overreaction, which led to the execution of innocent immigrants), but should have been. The place already meant something to me because a week before the convention opened, the bus bringing me from summer camp had deposited me coincidentally at the Hilton. At lunch in the Haymarket, my parents told me my dog had died. For me, this would be only the first of that summer's traumatic experiences associated with the hotel.

Early in the week, my father, then in his 40s, returned from the Haymarket restaurant to McCarthy headquarters and was summoned by an icy staffer. "We understand you've been spotted having lunch with a Humphrey operative." When my father told him that was his wife, the aide was not amused.

I roamed the Hilton lobby freely, though my parents wouldn't let me go in the park with the demonstrators. Rumors circulated that Ted Kennedy would arrive from Hyannis to accept a "draft" and be nominated. When the rumors proved false, a boomlet for George McGovern began. So as not to side with one parent over the other, I sported a McGovern button.

On the second or third day of the convention, someone threw a stink bomb into the lobby of the hotel. I can still smell the ether. I never felt fear, but I'll never forget riding up Michigan Avenue as tense National Guardsmen lined the streets, with angry demonstrators just behind them. My parents didn't want me to be around at night when the violence erupted, so I saw the beatings on TV. The scene just outside the hotel descended into what an official report later described as a "police riot." A Chicago newspaperman, Don Rose, still connected to everyone in the Obama orbit, coined the phrase "The whole world is watching."

The next day, I was shocked to see the plate-glass windows of the Haymarket restaurant shattered. People walked around the lobby and the now-deserted Humphrey HQ, dazed over what had happened the night before. There was more to come that evening, but my own baptism in the fire of American politics was complete. I watched the rest at home on TV—including Mayor Daley shouting obscenities at the podium, where Sen. Abraham Ribicoff denounced the "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago."

As Rick Pearlstein recounts in his new book, "Nixonland," Humphrey left the convention trailing Richard Nixon badly in the polls. It was the worst "reverse-bounce" in history. But after he broke with LBJ on the war in a speech in Salt Lake City, Humphrey began quickly closing the gap. He lost in November by a hair.

One of the reasons for Humphrey's loss was that many McCarthy supporters (not my father) refused to close party ranks and support him. They were so angry over the war and their personal bitterness over the way McCarthy was treated that they sniped at Humphrey publicly and stayed home in November.

Some of these people—then in their mid-20s or 30s, and now in their mid-60s or 70s—are the same liberal Democrats who say they cannot vote for Obama. Their long hair is gray or gone and they certainly aren't sleeping in the park, but the anger they feel resonates of 1968. They might want to consider what happened to the United States after Nixon was elected. It wasn't pretty.