Conventional Wisdom This Historical Society Exhibit Recalls the Many Political Conventions Chicago Has Hosted over the Years

Article excerpt

Byline: Gordon Walek Daily Herald Staff Writer

Surely, we don't need to remind you what transpired the last time Chicago hosted a national political convention. No one with even a distant connection to the tumultuous events of 1968 will ever forget it. And city fathers are making sure nothing similar happens again.

The so-called police riot? The shouting match between Mayor Richard J. Daley and Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff? Young CBS newsman Dan Rather getting pushed to the convention floor by security officers who Walter Cronkite described as "thugs"? Given the tenor of the times, those actions made sense. No, what's to be avoided, at all costs, is a reincarnation of the Humphrey dress.

The Humphrey dress? It's a hideous green and blue cotton thing, emblazoned with H's and Hubert Humphrey's signature. It was displayed, and presumably sold, in a Humphrey "boutique" in the Conrad Hilton, where Democratic Party officials camped out. In the annals of campaign history, the fashion item was a bust.

The dress, one of about 500 artifacts in the Chicago Historical Society's new exhibit, "Parades, Protests, Politics: Chicago's Political Conventions," speaks volumes about why Richard Nixon went on to defeat Humphrey in the presidential election. With friends designing dresses like that, who needs dirty tricks?

The exhibit, curated by Kathleen Zygmun and on display through next January, is a snapshot of the Chicago political convention experience, which is extensive. The upcoming Democratic fandango at the United Center will be the 25th major party convention hosted by the city (in addition to 25 third party national conventions) - more than any other city in the country.

Most of the structures in which those gatherings convened - from the Wigwam where Abraham Lincoln was nominated in 1860 to the Chicago Stadium, which hosted both parties in 1932 and 1944 and the Democrats in 1940 - no longer exist. Only the Auditorium, where Republicans met in 1988, and the International Amphitheatre, where Democrats and Republicans gathered on five occasions, have survived.

So even if walls could talk, most of those that heard the political maneuvering and backroom deals came down long ago. Which left Zygmun with the job of picking up, and assembling, some curious pieces. The Humphrey dress was one. Others include delegate ticket stubs, jewelry, buttons, banners, handkerchiefs, photographs, video and audio tapes, paintings and even furniture from many of those political confabs. Most of the artifacts are from the historical society's collection, which may make Zygmun's job sound simple. Just head for the basement and haul the stuff up.

Far from it. She had to find things first.

"We're not computerized yet," Zygmun said. A year ago she began scanning catalog cards and inventory lists in each of the museum's seven departments simply to identify items that might be appropriate.

"It's a long process," she said. "But very exciting."

Eventually, she came up with 950 artifacts from which she selected about 500 for the exhibit. The various trinkets and curios speak to not only the changes in technology over the years, but the evolution of political conventions as well.

In the late 19th century, handkerchiefs were favored convention items. The exhibit features a particularly fine one featuring Benjamin Harrison, the 1888 Republican presidential nominee.

In the early 20th century, notes Zygmun, the invention of celluloid coincided with a big political campaign button business. …