When The World Watched Chicago

As just about everyone pointed out on Tuesday night, Barack Obama's election as president was a moment of huge historical significance for the nation. Obama's eloquent election-night speech in Grant Park is also surely one of the great moments in Chicago history.

Forty years ago, when protestors and police clashed outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (including demonstrations in Grant Park), a catch phrase emerged: "The whole world is watching." The same thing was true on Tuesday, but this time, the world turned its eyes to Chicago with hope instead of alarm or shame. For the first time, an African-American had been elected president, and there he was on a stage in Chicago's lakefront park in front of an estimated 100,000 people.

Of course, how historians judge this moment will depend on what happens once Obama takes office, but it certainly felt like a turning point in American politics. And where will it rank among Chicago's most famous historical political events? It already belongs on a short list of signal moments when political events in Chicago affected the nation and the world.

The aforementioned 1968 Democratic National Convention is clearly one of the key events to take place in Chicago.

Another was May 18, 1860, when Republican delegates nominated Abraham Lincoln inside a big wooden structure called the Wigwam, built especially for the occasion at Lake Street and the Chicago River. "Last-minute backroom deals, plus a successful scheme to pack the galleries with holders of counterfeit tickets, brought unexpected victory to Abraham Lincoln," R. Craig Sautter writes in The Encyclopedia of Chicago. (Sautter also wrote Inside the Wigwam: Chicago's Presidential Conventions, 1860-1996 with co-author Edward M. Burke.)

The Abraham Lincoln's Classroom Web site quotes the Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican's description of the reaction when Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot: "The audience, like a wild colt with a bit between its teeth, rose above all cry of order, and again and again the irrepressible applause broke forth and resounded far and wide ... The Illinois, Indiana and Ohio delegates seemed wild. They acted like madmen. One smashed his hat on another's head, who returned the compliment, which was followed by a mutual embrace."

One of the most famous political addresses of all time was William Jennings Bryan's speech on July 9, 1896, at the Democratic convention in Chicago's first Coliseum on 63rd Street. Condemning the gold standard, Bryan thundered: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold." The speech catapulted the 36-year-old Bryan to the party's nomination, but he went on to lose three presidential bids. And as riveting as his speech may have been in 1896, it now takes some effort to figure out what everyone was so excited about back then. (A recent story on NPR's All Things Considered talks about the Bryan speech in more detail. A recording Bryan later made of the speech is at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/.)

One significant speech in Chicago often gets overlooked. On April 2, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Chicago and spoke to six thousand people who had crammed into the Auditorium Theatre. The topic of his talk was why he believed the United States needed a strong Navy to maintain peace in the world. Roosevelt used a phrase that he had come to think of a personal adage. In the past, he had called it a West African proverb, but few people had taken much notice of it. This time, he said: "There is a homely old adage which runs: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far.'" The Chicagoans responded with vigorous applause. To some observers, it seemed as if they'd heard the aggressive half of Roosevelt's proverb more clearly than his call for speaking softly. In a front-page headline the following morning, the Chicago Daily Tribune cemented Roosevelt's phrase in the public's mind: "SPEAK SOFTLY; CARRY BIG STICK; SAYS ROOSEVELT."

Chicago continued to host many of the national conventions over the years, including the 1932 Democratic gathering at the new Chicago Stadium, where Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the first-ever convention acceptance speech. Addressing the great difficulties America faced, FDR coined the term that would come to define his policies. "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people," he said at the end of his speech. "Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people." (The text is at http://newdeal.feri.org/speeches/1932b.htm, and NPR's Weekend Edition ran a story in 2007 about the "New Deal for America" speech.)

Chicago made history again on Sept. 26, 1960,when WBBM-TV hosted the first presidential debate at its studio, with John F. Kennedy famously looking better on TV screens than his rival, Richard Nixon.

These were some of the key moments when Chicago was at the center of America's politics. (I'd be glad to hear any suggestions for ones I've overlooked). I believe we can now add Obama's victory speech to the list.