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Chicago ’72

The Panthers, the Tribs, and the night my dad’s yacht got hit by a bus

When future historians of twentieth-century American politics go looking for a single scene with which to encapsulate the Great Reaction against Sixties radicalism and reform—now mercilessly barreling toward its fourth decade—they might do well to examine the harshly lit and windswept corner of South Michigan Avenue and the Congress Parkway in Chicago as it appeared on the chilly, forbidding night of November 3, 1972. I happened to be there, shivering in line outside the magnificent old Auditorium Theater with a couple of high school classmates and our history teacher, hoping to get into the big Democratic Party rally scheduled for that evening. The atmosphere was one of electric doom: Even the most optimistic among us knew deep down that this only-in-Chicago, machine-orchestrated campaign event signaled the death throes of the party reform movement that had begun in the late Sixties. Fighting in those years against the party oligarchy that had steered the country into the Vietnam War, anti-war leader Allard Lowenstein and Senator Eugene McCarthy had, incredibly, driven an incumbent president from office—and for a time it seemed they might overthrow the entire structure presided over by LBJ and Richard J. Daley, the mayor of Chicago.

And even though Senator George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president, was one of the party’s insurgent leaders, everyone could see the end was near. President Richard Nixon was running for re-election on yet another new “peace” plan called “Vietnamization,” and McGovern was far behind in the polls. The handwriting was clearly posted on the wall, or, on this evening at least, the wildly flapping sail of a twenty-four-foot yacht implausibly situated on the east side of Michigan Avenue, bow pointing north, perched on a trailer. The boat belonged to my highly eccentric father, Roderick, and the slogan printed in gigantic black letters on the vessel’s mainsail, now billowing in and out with the wind, reflected not only the captain’s rage at the corrupt American political system but also the dashed cause of peace: It said, simply, and absurdly, “Republicans for McGovern.”

My idyll shattered in so many tiny yellow droplets.

Standing in line with my classmates, I’d already heard the jokes about the crazy guy with the boat on Michigan, but I knew my father well and accepted the remarks with silent amusement. Whatever people said about him, Dad usually had a clear and sane objective, no matter what he was peddling, and this nutty, yacht-borne slogan seemed just the right rejoinder to John Connally’s highly effective “Democrats for Nixon.” Until the 1972 campaign, Connally was best known for sharing a bullet with JFK in Dallas, serving three terms as Democratic governor of Texas, and then switching sides to become Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. More importantly, Connally was LBJ’s asshole buddy of long-standing, and his eagerness to kill off the party reform movement represented by McGovern seemed all too obviously hatched with Johnson’s—and probably Daley’s—tacit approval. Now he appeared in dissenter’s robes, abandoning party loyalty out of “principle.” McGovern was a danger to America and something had to be done to stop him.

A lot of things made my father mad in those days: Nixon, the war, Daley’s Cook County political machine, but something about “Democrats for Nixon” really stuck in his craw, and he launched his own personal counterattack against Connally’s slickly produced television ads. Even as McGovern’s candidacy plunged, Dad still raised enough money from friends (including a couple of real Republicans) to run an ad in the Chicago Sun-Times under the headline “We’re Scared, Dick”—alluding to Nixon’s penchant for violence on a grand scale—and now, playing out the string, he was trying hard to keep his boat’s boom and mainsail under control in what, after all, is frequently referred to as the Windy City.

But the unruly air currents were the least of the difficulties buffeting well-meaning liberals in November 1972. The fundamental problem was that there were, indeed, many Democrats for Nixon, and all too few Republicans (or anyone else, for that matter) for McGovern. That didn’t deter my dad, though, who like so many of his fellow successful Americans, believed deeply in the power of advertising and charade to sway public opinion. It’s no coincidence he named our modest cruising yacht Potemkin.

Anyhow, as I stood in line to hear McGovern speak, the wait to enter grew longer and longer and I badly needed to urinate. Like all American cities, Chicago has no public restrooms to speak of, but I remembered there was a chemical “head” aboard Potemkin. Asking my friends to hold my place in line I raced the half block to Michigan where I sighted my father hanging on to the boom like John Muir clinging to a redwood tree. From the east side of Michigan, I clambered up the trailer and into the cockpit. I hurriedly greeted my dad, who seemed not the least surprised by my sudden appearance, and ducked below deck to use the toilet. The ceiling was too low to permit me to stand, so I knelt and prepared to relieve myself into the pot illuminated only from the exterior by the blue-hued mercury vapor street lights.

It occurred to me that my situation was absurd, or at least as implausible as Republicans for McGovern, that I had no business peeing in a pot on the good ship Potemkin. But then again, why not? In many respects it still felt like the Sixties and anything seemed possible, even the election of George McGovern, even ending the nine-year-old war in Vietnam, even urinating on a boat in the middle of Michigan Avenue. I’d almost forgotten I was in Mayor Daley’s Chicago.

Then, Bang!, and my idyll shattered in so many tiny yellow droplets. The whole of Potemkin’s fiberglass hull shuddered and rocked from the shock of a very great impact. I nearly fell over, bracing myself against the curvature of the hull. Rapidly zipping up, I poked my head out into the cold night air. A northbound city bus had smashed into the boat’s boom, bending it and very nearly lifting the boat off the trailer. At first, it seemed odd that the bus driver didn’t stop—that he behaved for all the world like a hit and run driver. But quickly my mind cleared. Though my father later insisted it was an accident, I’d begun my political education in earnest that night, and I was learning firsthand how few surprises ever occurred in American politics, and especially in Chicago. Republicans for McGovern, indeed! The bus driver must have done it on purpose, no doubt on direct orders from City Hall!

And yet, in that fading moment of American radicalism, there were still some things that escaped the control of the boss of bosses, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Chief among them was the behavior of his most erratic, hot-tempered subordinate, Edward V. Hanrahan, the Cook County state’s attorney. Once considered Daley’s heir apparent, Hanrahan had blotted his copybook in December 1969 by sending his own policemen (was it only in Chicago that a prosecutor could have his own police force?) to “raid” an apartment occupied by two officials of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, allegedly to search for guns. The resulting deaths of the Illinois state Panther chairman and the local leader from Peoria had looked to some people like out-and-out murder, but three years later Hanrahan was hanging tough and, to everyone’s amazement, scheduled to appear at the rally that night, side by side with McGovern.

To understand how implausible was Hanrahan’s political survival, one must first appreciate the utter imperviousness of Chicago to, shall we say, “openness” over the decades. “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet,” one alderman had declared after Richard Daley’s election to the mayoralty, and the words still rang true in the immediate aftermath of Hanrahan’s buccaneering assault on the Panther apartment in the heart of the West Side’s black ghetto. Incarcerating Black Panthers was all the rage in 1969, and the state’s attorney’s enthusiasm for the task was very much in keeping with mainstream anxiety about this small group of posturing black men possessed of a few guns, a talent for soundbites, and some Gilbert and Sullivan-style party titles. Just the day before the Chicago Panther raid, U.S. Secret Service agents in San Francisco had arrested David Hilliard, the party’s “chief of staff,” for allegedly threatening to kill President Nixon in a speech at an anti-war rally.

But nobody died when the Secret Service grabbed Hilliard. In Chicago, Hanrahan’s agents left two people dead and then loudly proclaimed that they got what they deserved. In this bloody PR enterprise, the state’s attorney was ably assisted by the Chicago Tribune, then still the curious creature of the late Colonel Robert McCormick. That the city’s political machine was Democratic and its journalistic establishment Republican hardly mattered; the Tribune hated all the same people as the Daley machine: longhairs, liberals, communists, feminists, peaceniks, uppity blacks, environmentalists, and intellectuals—perhaps especially intellectuals. In those days, the Tribune was not only the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” it was the “American Paper for Americans,” a uniquely shrill, self-righteous dealer in the strange fixations of McCormick’s homemade brand of right-wing paranoia.

So when the clamor for an independent investigation of Hanrahan’s raid grew too loud and persistent, the Tribune reacted with characteristic self-confidence. A week after the shootings, on December 11, the paper published its “EXCLUSIVE” account of the raid under a front-page banner headline. “Exclusive” was an apt description: It was a story told exclusively from the point of view of Hanrahan and the fourteen policemen who raided the Panther lair on West Monroe Street. The law enforcement authorities had, of course, behaved honorably and legally throughout the events of that morning, the Trib reported. The safety of nearby residents had been foremost in their minds. “At first I thought we’d hit the place at 8 o’clock that night,” Sgt. Daniel Groth told Tribune reporters Edward Lee and Robert Weidrich. “But after talking it over, we decided that would be a bad time, both for our safety and that of residents of the area.” Sounding a bit like a visiting zoologist, Groth continued, “It’s a heavily populated neighborhood. . .and. . .we feared such a raid might create an incident in the area, which we knew was the heart of Panther territory. Our object was to avoid an incident.” Groth, it seemed, was every inch the community relations officer. But the crucial facts, the ones that supposedly exonerated the cops, were provided by Hanrahan himself. Thus, we learned from the Tribune, “Hanrahan. . .made available official police photographs which they said conclusively proved the Panthers opened the battle by firing a shotgun blast thru [sic] the apartment door.” Before long, the story got even more specific, and more exciting, as the lawmen recalled pounding on the door, clearly identifying themselves, and announcing they had a search warrant:

Then suddenly, as the two policemen entered the anteroom they said a shotgun blast was fired thru the closed living room door, a charge which later proved to have been a solid rifle lead deer slug fired from a twelve-gauge shotgun. The slug pierced the door, ripping splinters from the outside of the door as it exited and narrowly missed the two policemen. Photographs of this door were furnished the Tribune by Hanrahan as evidence that the Panthers inside the flat fired the opening shot at his men.

And sure enough, the Tribune printed two photos depicting two different views of the same bullet hole and provided a helpful graphic, a neat white circle, to make sure the reader didn’t miss the hole and its significance. On a different page, more photos proved that the trigger-happy Panthers had fired first at police entering the back door as well, further justifying the police fusillade.

It wasn’t “Dewey Defeats Truman,” it was worse. The same day, the leading afternoon paper, the Chicago Daily News, reported the interesting fact that none of its reporters could find any evidence that the “deer slug” had damaged the wall behind the front door. This sounded mighty suspicious. What’s more, it turned out that that the “bullet holes” in the back door so carefully identified by the Tribune were actually rusty nailheads, and a bullet-riddled bathroom door was really a bedroom door. It began to look quite possible that the cops had simply broken in with guns blazing.

The next morning, the Sun-Times boldly front-paged Hanrahan’s and the rival Tribune’s shame while Daily News columnist Mike Royko piled on with a withering column of his own. Thoroughly humiliated, The World’s Greatest Newspaper beat a hasty retreat. Weidrich returned to writing a gossip column and by Saturday the 13th, the paper reported the launching of a federal civil rights investigation into the killings in a story that carried no byline at all. By Sunday, the Panther disaster was off the front page altogether and the Tribune was back to doing what it did best, announcing the bracing news that “fifty-two Reds” had been reported killed by U.S. troops near My Lai, site of the famous massacre that McCormick’s successors had been aggressively doubting since the first reports.

But up in the Tribune Tower, management was shaken to its core. Three years later, by the time the bus hit the Potemkin on Michigan Avenue, the paper was no longer the “American Paper for Americans” and had even adopted some Frenchified intellectual pretensions. Weidrich’s gossip column now appeared on the new “Perspective” page, advertised as “A Forum for Ideas, Analysis, and Diverse Opinions.” It must have been tough for Weidrich to swallow his pride after the Panther “exclusive,” but to be published directly beneath an epigraph from Voltaire—“I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—must have tasted of the bitterest bile. Col. McCormick’s great and preposterous rag—really the world’s worst major newspaper—was well on its way to becoming the respectable, diversity-minded corporate citizen that it is today. The current owner of the Sun-Times, Conrad Black, today finds himself well to the right of his competitor’s bland bureaucracy. Never again will the Tribune surprise anyone.

Squeezing inside the Auditorium Theater to hear McGovern speak, my friends and I managed to get seats in the first balcony. Thousands of people were left on the street to hear the speeches over loudspeakers. But we weren’t the earnest, young crowds who had got “clean for Gene” four years before. The McGovernites of 1972 were more ragged in appearance, more divided among ourselves, more into drugs. And unlike the ’68ers, we knew we were going to lose. Even the seating at the rally reflected this. Daley had packed the best seats on the orchestra level with ward heelers and left the cheap seats in back and above to the hippies and McGovernites. The mayor had a lively if petty sense of irony: This seating arrangement could only have been revenge for the unceremonious ejection of his delegation at the party convention back in the summer in favor of a delegation led by Jesse Jackson. Now it was the reformers’ turn to sit at the back of the bus.

Matt Danaher, Circuit Court clerk and surrogate son to Daley, introduced the boss as “the greatest mayor this country has ever known.” Daley approached the podium and took the microphone, or rather seized it and pressed it to the corner of his mouth. Never an accomplished public speaker, Daley was still at his level-headed best, gruffly balancing the absurdly fractured menagerie assembled that night on his home turf. Shaken by the violence of the 1968 Democratic convention, embarrassed by the Panther raid, humiliated at his own party’s convention in 1972, stung by independent gubernatorial candidate Dan Walker’s upset primary victory a few months before, he was gradually regaining full control of his city.

But the fissures caused by Vietnam and the reform movement were still present. Before Daley came to the podium, Danaher had introduced the entire Cook County Democratic slate, bottom to top, including Hanrahan. Yes, Hanrahan. He had survived indictment, Daley’s efforts to dump him from the ticket, and the general outrage of all right-thinking citizens in northeastern Illinois. When he stood to acknowledge Danaher’s welcome, the ward heelers rose as one with their organization-printed signs and roared their approval, while the hippies in the cheap seats simultaneously shrieked their deafening boos. Walker, author of the report that called the melee at the ’68 convention a “police riot,” stood for Hanrahan but refused to applaud as the other candidates had dutifully done.

A brave act by Walker, but clearly the momentum was going the other direction now. Following Hanrahan’s cacophonous moment on stage, when all the hopeless contradictions in the Democratic Party became vividly clear, Daley introduced McGovern, in a moment of dispiriting anticlimax, as “The Next President of the United States.” The party hacks seated below applauded perfunctorily, but the people in the balcony stood and cheered. I recall feeling some genuine hope then. I didn’t realize that the most telling moment had already come, a little earlier when McGovern first entered the theater to thunderous, uninterrupted applause. Several minutes into this astonishing display of emotion, an irritated Danaher had taken the microphone and shouted, with that unmistakable Chicago whine, “Siddown!” And a lot of people did.