1968 With Tom Brokaw Video Essay

At the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, six months after his landmark editorial on getting the U.S. out of Vietnam, Walter Cronkite once more 'told it like it is': "The Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state, there doesn't appear to be any other way to describe it."

Some forty years after Walter called Chicago "a police state," like it was, Tom Brokaw, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, and Columbia journalism professor Andie Tucher told their own versions, like it wasn't.

The most blatant revision occurred in the rerun of the 2006 PBS American Masters tribute to Walter, rebroadcast three days after Cronkite's death. In her voiceover covering the police violence at the Hilton on the night of Hubert Humphrey's inauguration, Andie Tucher says, "Demonstrators were provoking, by some accounts, the police in order to draw attention to their demands. When the police fought back in a violent and brutal way -- with the connivance of Chicago Mayor Daley, it turned into shocking and frightening TV that I don't think even the demonstrators expected." The film cuts directly to Cronkite at his convention anchor desk where he reports: "CBS news producer Phil Scheffler was a witness to that violence, and said it seemed to be unprovoked on the part of the demonstrators." Watching this, my jaw dropped. Incredibly, in this "tribute" to Walter's reporting, the crucial meaning of his story was being revised and contradicted.

Like Tucher, Brokaw, in his bestseller Boom! Voices of the Sixties, created his own version of "how it was." Rewriting the Sixties with asides from his buddy Pat Buchanan, Brokaw also blames the Chicago police-state violence on the anti-war protesters -- especially on Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, whom Brokaw calls "cunning provocateurs" carrying Vietcong flags.

Brokaw's misuse of the French provocateur, meaning "a secret agent who incites suspected persons [protesters] to commit illegal acts" (OED), had to have been intentional. Calling Abbie and Jerry provocateurs was like calling Paul Revere Benedict Arnold. Abbie and Jerry were patriotic Americans through and through, deeply identified with their country and its 1776 revolution. Abbie and Jerry were provokers par excellence. They threw dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange floor, provoking a manic outbreak of greed from the floor traders. Jerry Rubin provoked the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] by appearing in a Revolutionary War uniform, an audacious piece of theater that landed him on the pages of Time Magazine.

The antiwar movement was swarming with provocateurs, acting out the police state's mission to sabotage legitimate protest and destroy political activism. J. Edgar Hoover heavily relied upon provocateurs in his infamous COINTELPRO program, used against the antiwar movement and its "key activist leaders," with Abbie and Jerry at the top of his list. Yet Brokaw fails to even mention the widespread programs of real provocateurs employed by police agencies to sabotage the peace movement.

Close examination of Brokaw's interview with Judy Collins reveals his attempt to rewrite Sixties history. Brokaw baits Judy to confuse her serious political activism with her serious alcohol problem, effectively editing out her major involvement with the Festival of Life. Brokaw writes:

In the fall of 1969 during the trial of Chicago seven for inciting violence and riots during the Democratic convention the year before, defendant Abbie Hoffman asked Collins to be a character witness. She took the stand and instead of testifying she began singing her hit antiwar song "Where have all the flowers gone?" Judge Julius Hoffman ordered her to stop. When she didn't, a court-martial put his hand over her mouth. She only remembers the judge saying "'We do not sing in court.' The rest of it is all a fog."

Were you stoned or drunk? I asked her. "No it was just a crazy time." [Boom!, p. 251]

Far from being a mere "character witness" for Abbie the "provocateur," Judy Collins had a seminal relationship to the Yippie Festival of Life. She spoke and sang at the first Yippie press conference, and gave important defense testimony at the conspiracy trial. From the outset, Judy's prominence was a compelling attraction for the music-oriented countercultural program planned for the Festival of Life. Brokaw's demotion of Judy to a "character witness" for Abbie is strongly contradicted by her trial testimony:

Mr. Kunstler: Now Miss Collins [on] March 17 of 1968 at approximately noon...do you know where you were?

Judy Collins: I was at the Americana Hotel in New York City attending a press conference to announce the formation of what we have now come to know as the Yippie movement;

Mr. Kunstler: What did you say at the press conference?

Judy Collins: ....I said I wanted to see a celebration of life, not of destruction. I said that my...profession and my life has become part of a movement towards hopefully removing the causes for death, the causes for war, the causes for the prevalence of violence in our society... to make my voice heard, I said that I would indeed come to Chicago and in that I would sing....

Mr. Kunstler: Did you...talk to Abbie Hoffman [one week before the opening of the convention]?

Judy Collins: Yes in fact Abbie did call me to ask me again whether I would participate in the Yippie Celebration of Life. He told me... that the police were acting antagonistically toward peace demonstrations. He wanted to warn me that I would be subject to that same kind of provocation as an entertainer performing in a public place without a permit.... I said Abbie you must continue to try in every way possible to get those permits.... I don't want to...do anything except sing for people in a legal situation....

Mr. Kunstler: Did you go to Chicago...?

Judy Collins: No. I did not...because the permits were not granted

Mr. Kunstler: [If there was there] anything... planned, or generated, or that might cause... violent activity, you wouldn't want anything to do with it, would you?

Judy Collins: There was nothing violent about anything that went on in the preparation of our side for this convention. We were provoked.

Brokaw's most telling rewriting of history is revealed by what he omits. In 650 pages about "the Sixties," he devotes but one paragraph to the pivotal 1964 presidential election. In that historically crucial election, Lyndon Johnson ran as America's peace candidate, proclaiming "We seek no wider war in Vietnam," thereby winning with the largest margin in American history - 16 million votes. More than anything else, it was Johnson's betrayal of his peace mandate and massive Vietnam escalation that set off the 60's cultural revolution and led to the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention.

Brokaw's Boom! strangely ignores the 1964 election and the betrayal that gave birth to a whole generation of angry, disillusioned young people. Instead, he places the entire blame for Vietnam on John Kennedy and the so-called "Domino Theory," disregarding a wealth of evidence that JFK was planning to leave Vietnam rather than escalate -- an intention which Kennedy reveals in his last interview with Walter two months before his assassination [also found in the American Masters Cronkite tribute].

The media distortion of this era of American history was reinforced by the New York Times when movie critic A.O. Scott concluded his pan of the convention documentary Chicago 10 [for which I was a consultant] by writing:

The joyous prankish spirit evident among the [Yippie] protesters turned sour and nihilistic; the Festival of Life envisioned in 1968 gave way a year later to Days of Rage [New York Times, February 29, 2008].

Scott's false history was so malicious it was hard to read, let alone digest. The music-oriented "Festival of Life" the Yippies envisioned for Chicago in 1968 "gave way" exactly a year later, not to the "Days of Rage," but to the iconic, generation-defining Woodstock love-in. The violent "Days of Rage" occurred amidst the Chicago Conspiracy trial in October 1969 and stemmed from 200 crazed Weatherman (SDS) radicals whose political agendas were very different from the Yippies'.

Reporting in a lengthy "Sixties film" wrap-up several months later, Scott wrote: "August brings the Democratic convention in Chicago, overwhelmed by antiwar demonstrations and a police riot" and "In the fall, Soviet tanks arrived to smash the human face of Czech socialism" [4/27/08]. Once again Scott mangles history. Peace advocates who were in Chicago clearly remember that the Soviet tanks arrived" at the very same time that the Chicago police, Illinois National Guard, and the American army -- all told, 24,000 strong -- arrived in Chicago to smash the human face of the antiwar movement.

As the media-wise Yippies saw it, the Russian police state planned their repression to coincide with that of the American police state. While "the whole world was watching" police violence in Chicago, media attention to Moscow's fascism in Prague would be significantly diluted. Ever responsive to the political moment, Yippies in Chicago created placards announcing Welcome to Prague and Czechcago, and even mounted a demonstration against the putsch at the Russian Visa Travel Center. But the press ignored the pointed Yippie action. The fact that the Youth International Party was equally opposed to the American and Russian police states did not fit the establishment script of the Yippies and antiwar protesters as Vietcong flag-carrying communist sympathizers.

A few weeks after Chicago Abbie Hoffman held a press conference announcing plans to infiltrate 5,000 Yippies into Prague to "support the struggle against the Russian pigs." FBI files show J. Edgar Hoover sending out an urgent coded teletype warning seven top government offices, from the White House on down, of "Yippie plans to attack the Russians!"

Scott misses the strategic Soviet global village manipulations of that historic week in August 1968 as well as the inclusive "Youth International" global village political responses to them. The Yippies "who [supposedly] turned sour and nihilistic" were, in fact, globally engaged with the "velvet" youth revolution against police state brutality, and were themselves a courageous model for it.

The police state that the meticulously objective Cronkite described at the Chicago Convention marked the climax of the traumatic American contradictions of the Sixties: Johnson's Vietnam betrayal, the assassinations of charismatic peace advocates Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the state-sponsored violence, both overt and covert, unleashed by warmongering forces bent on stamping out the democratic opportunity for the people to vote for peace.

The real explanation of why the truths about America's mutation to a police state in the Sixties are being falsified forty years later is that these truths are uncomfortable for a media establishment that backed a rerun of Vietnam in Iraq, and obediently furthered the Bush administration's lies about Iraq as they had Johnson's and Nixon's about Vietnam. The net effect of Brokaw, Scott, and Tucher's distortions ultimately aid and abet the establishment's justification for waging wars the American people do not want, wars that habitually depend upon the media's fudging the truth, even when it means rewriting history to make America's patriotic truth-tellers seem like traitorous agents provocateur.

It’s the 40th anniversary of one of the most tumultuous years in world history: 1968.  The year was especially so in the United States, as this video makes clear:

These heady times were naturally reflected in many films of the day.  While the Oscars and the public still went wild for big musicals such as Oliver! and Funny Girl (certainly respectable entertainments), many film fans since then, myself included, have been drawn to the more adventurous and challenging cinematic works produced that year, the very year, by the way, that the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) began rating films.

Picking my favorite films of that momentous year is extremely difficult—the choices for runners-up alone could fill pages—and ranking my favorites is nearly impossible.  Regarding the runners-up, I’ve narrowed these down to Ingmar Bergman’s two fascinating entries, Hour of the Wolf (the director’s token “horror film”) and Shame (the director’s token “war film”); Bullitt, one of Steve McQueen’s best pictures and notable for its famous car chase; Cliff Robertson’s Oscar-winning portrayal in Charly; George Romero’s ground-breaking low-budget horror flick, Night of the Living Dead; Jean-Luc Godard’s acerbic black comedy Weekend; Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock homage, The Bride Wore Black; Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal as Isadora; and Paul Newman’s first directorial effort, Rachel, Rachel.  All great stuff.

But if these are the runners-up, then what are my favorites?

I’ll reveal my “top ten” films of 1968 in a series of posts over the next two weeks.  I’ll discuss one movie each day (and each post will have a trailer), starting Monday (Sept. 22) with film # 10 and continuing for two weeks (Monday – Friday), working up to my favorite film of forty years ago.  I welcome your feedback (and criticisms) along the way—in fact, as the series progresses, try to predict my number one film.  (Can you guess it now?)

Video Series Overview: 

Top 10 List: Introduction 

# 10:  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

# 9:  Romeo and Juliet

# 8:  The Producers

# 7:  Stolen Kisses

# 6:  Planet of the Apes

# 5:  Yellow Submarine

# 4:  The Lion in Winter

#3:  Rosemary’s Baby

#2:  Once Upon a Time in the West

# 1 Film of 1968:  2001: A Space Odyssey

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Guess Raymond Benson’s # 1 Film from 1968 


Win a Prize !

The first reader to guess correctly, by entering a guess in the comments section after any of Benson’s posts in this series, will win a signed copy of his latest book, A Hard Day’s Death.  All comments are time-stamped, and only one film guess per reader will be allowed after each of Benson’s posts (though readers may exchange comments with the author and other readers as often as they like).  Submissions must be accompanied by the reader’s correct name and email address (which will not be published).  The winner won’t be announced until after Benson’s final post on Oct. 3. 

Click here for complete contest rules.

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A number of fine film critics and film sites will also be commenting on these posts and classic films, including:

Christopher Null, filmcritic.com; David Hudson, greencine.com; Ray Young, flickhead; Bob Westal, forwardtoyesterday; Joe Leydon, movingpictureblog; Nick Davis, nicksflickpicks.com; Miranda Wilding, cinematicpassions; Jonathan Lapper, cinemastyles; Nick Plowman,fataculture; Campaspe,selfstyledsiren; J.R. Jones, chicagoreader.com; Kimberly Lindbergs, cinebeats.com; Alan Lopuszynski, burbanked.com; Shawn Braley, deadpan; Brad Lang, classicmovies.org; Eric Dienstfrey, filmbo; Scott Nehring, goodnewsfilmreviews.com; Bill, piddleville; Steve Carlson, The Ongoing Cinematic Education of Steven Carlson

Other film sites are welcome to jump in as well …

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Raymond Bensonis an award-winning writer and film historian whose work has appeared on the New York Times’ best-sellers list.  His recent books include:



He also writes regularly for Cinema Retro: The Essential Guide to Movies of the ’60s & ’70s, and it’s from his regular column in Cinema Retro that this series derives.

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