Chicago Then and Now

Notes on the 1968 and 1996 conventions

           The kid she was with, her boyfriend apparently, put a protective arm around her as if to shield her from all this unseemly curiosity. A few minutes later they were entwined around each other, making out passionately, oblivious to the people filing past on the other side of the fence, toward the convention.

           In his officially assigned spot next to the horny anti-abortionists stood a Whitewater crackpot with two full-sized dolls inexplicably pinned to his lapels. His mantra, which he repeated over and over in a monotone, went like this: Filegate, Whitewatergate, Bill and Hillary are looking more and more like Bonnie and Clyde every day. Who do you think shot Vince Foster?

           Hatred of the war topped everyone's list on the streets of Chicago in 1968, but there were many causes and agendas. Mine, and that of people like me, was the struggle against "corporate imperialism." Ours was surely a concern born of privilege. College kids who'd read Marx and Marcuse and C. Wright Mills talked about corporate imperialism. Others just wanted a fair shot at a corporate job.

           To us corporate imperialism meant the slow, inexorable insinuation of The Corporation into the texture of everyday life. It meant the total dominance of the economy by The Corporation, so there would be no option left but to serve it. It meant the corporate hijacking of the culture, counter- and otherwise, by the simple expedient of buying it.

           It's hard to believe, I'm sure, but the first major rock musician had yet to sell out to advertising in 1968. We warned about it, though. We said they'd co-opt our music and flog industrial beer and weird-looking clothes with it. Now it's a rare person who sees anything unusual about that, or about the bizarre phenomenon of consumers paying for T-shirts and other items of apparel with corporate names and symbols all over them. We're not only dragooned into serving as walking advertisements, we pay good money for the privilege.

           People don't talk about corporate imperialism anymore, but the recently concluded Democratic convention was a good example of it. The dead hand of the spin doctor lay heavy on that event, and corporate hegemony was total. Corporate logos, corporate shills, and corporate lobbyists were everywhere. Ameritech literally wrapped itself in the flag as it sold prepaid phone cards out of booths decorated in red, white, and blue bunting at the United Center. Ameritech's was the biggest corporate presence, but far from the only one. The first floor corridor of the United Center was a gauntlet of corporate kiosks promoting everything from software to Saturns.

           The list of corporations that contributed $100,000 or more to the convention's host committee is long. It includes Browning Ferris Industries, Chrysler, Archer Daniels Midland, Walgreen, Xerox, Paine Webber, Lockheed, Motorola, and many others.

           Political and media bigshots rubbed shoulders with celebrities at venues like the George magazine party hosted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., but corporate-sponsored events dominated the schedules of ordinary delegates. Bufffets were laid out in the hotel lobbies courtesy of Ameritech, which also gave away a fair number of their prepaid phone cards to the credentialed media so they'd be remembered kindly.

           What did Ameritech have in mind? Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, chair of the subcommittee that oversees Ameritech, explained it succinctly. "It's an opportunity for them to show off what they can do," he said proudly. "You've got members of Congress, heads of major corporations, and the most important reporters in America here. This convention is a chance for Ameritech to affect how they are viewed."

           In fact, that's all it was. Clinton's nomination was a foregone conclusion, just as Dole's had been. No issues were debated or even raised at either convention. Versions of the corporate agenda had already been adopted by both parties. This was just a chance for The Corporation to say thanks to the Democrats, to show off a little, and buy some goodwill cheap in the process. The media played along slavishly, parroting the official line that folks like Jesse Jackson's supporters were fearsome loose cannons who might (but didn't) inject a little drama into this dull affair.

           One afternoon I stood by the podium and watched as a parade of congressional candidates took five-minute turns at the microphone. Each speech opened with a litany of smarm that Dick Morris probably dreamed up while he was lolling around the hotel room with the whore who tattled on him. The candidates had met payrolls, they knew what it meant to run a business, they had families they loved and their husbands and wives and children loved them, and why not? They smiled so much.

           As for the Democratic delegates of 1996, in some ways an afterthought in the proceedings, many of them were liberals, a word I no longer utter with contempt. They look pretty good now compared to what is called the mainstream of American politics.

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