“It’s a revolt,” declares Pete Campbell regarding the internecine machinations at Sterling Cooper as antiwar protestors battle with police in Chicago during the infamous 1968 Democratic convention. In a strong episode, the divisions between the old and new members of the firm mirror the schism in the country over the Vietnam War.
Early in “A Tale of Two Cities,” the Democrats are delaying the debate over Vietnam at their convention. Megan tells Don there is no way Humphrey can win if the Democrats don’t come out against the war. “Against Nixon,” responds Don quizzically. Indeed, Nixon had been left for dead by many after his close loss to JFK in the 1960 presidential election, which was followed by a defeat at the hands of Pat Brown (father of Jerry) in the 1962 California gubernatorial race. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” snarled the former vice president to the press afterward. Most pundits presumed his political career was over, but Nixon campaigned hard for the GOP in the 1966 midterms, receiving a great deal of credit for the Republicans’ success that year, which was much needed after the Goldwater debacle in 1964. Still, Megan was partially correct, as the failure to adopt a stronger position against the war alienated the antiwar left from the Democrats, with many of them staying at home rather than voting for LBJ’s vice president.
The convention plays on television throughout the episode, reminding us of a time when there were only three networks and the quadrennial rituals revealed major national debates as opposed to the stage-managed infomercials the country watches today. The antiwar movement descended on the proceedings and marched toward the convention hall, only to be met with harsh resistance from the Chicago police of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Of course, public opinion was divided over the police beatings of antiwar protesters and that is reflected in the episode. Megan and Joan are horrified while Don seems sympathetic to the police. In the end, a majority of Americans seemed to side with the cops, despite their brutality, a sign of how the only thing more unpopular than the Vietnam War was the antiwar movement. In the end, the disorder surrounding the convention doomed Humphrey, paving the way for Nixon’s victory in the fall.
The next day, Roger and Don meet with some executives from Carnation. One official believes that the Democrats are not only done for 1968 because of Chicago, but could be finished for good. While that was a slight exaggeration, the legacy of the divisions surrounding the battles of 1968 and 1972 weakened the party for years, leaving them with a reputation that liberals were outside the national mainstream. Between 1968 and 1988, the Democrats only won one presidential election, Jimmy Carter’s narrow post-Watergate win in 1976.
The CEO of Carnation arrives at the meeting and express his anger at the “long haired fools,” but is also unhappy that the Republicans will likely nominate Nixon the next month, calling him an “opportunist.” He prefers “Dutch Reagan,” a reference to then California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had been elected in 1966. The “Gipper” would make his first attempt to win the presidential nomination at the GOP convention in Miami Beach, falling short in part because the party bosses believed he was too conservative for the country. Nixon adroitly bridged the divide between the Rockefeller and Goldwater wings of the party in ‘68, but Reagan’s emergence reflected the rise of the New Right that grew out of the reaction to the 1960s.
By the conclusion of “A Tale of Two Cities,” Pete is frustrated that the business is changing and seems to give into the cultural changes of the time, borrowing a marijuana cigarette from Stan. Meanwhile, the divide between those from Ted Chaough’s firm and the old guard from Sterling Cooper seems as profound as the divide in the country as a whole in 1968.