Center for Politics’ Latest Documentary Explores Wild ’68 Presidential Campaign

Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey campaigns in New York City during the 1968 presidential campaign.

“With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!”

– Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff at the 1968 Democratic National Convention

The sounds and images of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago are more than a little jarring to the modern eyes and ears.

That’s not just because the convention was surrounded by protesters angry at incumbent President Lyndon Johnson and the eventual Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. It’s also that, inside the hall itself, the Democrats were openly feuding, with supporters of then-Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and other dissident Democrats lobbing some very tough accusations at Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the Humphrey-backing party establishment.

Ribicoff, who put McGovern’s name up for nomination, criticized the Chicago police as Mayor Richard Daley and members of the Illinois delegation yelled at him from the convention floor.

Needless to say, this isn’t the sort of thing one would expect at any political convention, particularly a modern one, which typically emphasizes party unity and a sanitized presentation of the party platform over all else.

The chaotic Democratic convention is just one of several epochal events described in rich detail by the latest one-hour documentary from the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Community Idea Stations. “Ball of Confusion” recounts the three-way presidential contest among Humphrey, Richard Nixon and George Wallace, held against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and civil unrest at home.

The documentary will begin airing nationally on PBS stations across the country Monday. It will also be offered to other affiliated networks around the world.

Directed by Paul Tait Roberts, “Ball of Confusion” examines the 1968 presidential contest in the context of a difficult and contentious year in American history. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, civil rights legislation, racial unrest, nationwide riots, and a continuing conflict in Vietnam put the nation on edge and produced a historic three-way presidential election. Through archival footage and compelling interviews, the film shows how the election was influenced by the fractures in the United States’ social and political foundations, leaving deep scars that would affect generations to come.

“Ball of Confusion” features interviews with, among others, former Vice President Walter Mondale; civil rights advocate and former presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson; Pat Buchanan, former adviser to multiple Republican presidents; civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry; George Wallace Jr. and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the son and daughter of George Wallace, the former Alabama governor and 1968 American Independent presidential nominee; Skip Humphrey, son of former vice president and 1968 Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey; John Carley and Robert Odle, former aides to President Richard Nixon; and Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.

There will be several showings this month across Virginia, including Monday at 8 p.m. and Thursday at 9 p.m. on WCVE in Richmond and WHTJ in Charlottesville; Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WCVW in Richmond; Tuesday at 9 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 8:30 a.m. on WHUT in Washington; Nov. 18 at 3 p.m. on WBRA in Roanoke; and Nov. 22 at 7 p.m. on WHRO in Norfolk.The UVA Center for Politics and Community Idea Stations regularly partner to produce documentary films for public television on American politics and history. Two of their recent documentaries won Emmy Awards in the categories of Best Historical Documentary and Best Topical Documentary: 2013’s “The Kennedy Half Century,” which explored President John F. Kennedy’s life and legacy, and 2012’s “Out of Order,” which examined partisan polarization in Washington, D.C.

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