March 13, 2010

Four decades span disaster and delight

Electing Barack

— On Nov. 4 I was in Chicago's Grant Park to see history happen -- for the second time.

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** FILE ** In this Nov. 4, 2008 file photo, President-elect Barack Obama's family walks off stage as he addresses supporters during his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago. Places that U.S. presidents have called home often become major tourist attractions, from estates at Mount Vernon and Monticello, to Hodgenville, Ky., where Abe Lincoln's log cabin once stood. But if you want to see all the places connected to Obama's life story, you'd need to visit three countries, five time zones and six states. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)


In 1968 I was a Maine delegate to the Democratic National Convention. I was there the night protestors and police clashed outside the convention hall in Grant Park. I was 29 years old.

The situation became dangerous. My eyes were burning from the tear gas. The protesters were screaming and shouting.

Police were clubbing young people and pushing them into police vans. Students were resisting and chanting and crying as they were heaved into trucks and carted away.

What was to be a triumph for Maine -- the nomination of Ed Muskie for vice president -- turned into smoke and failure.

Our country rounded a corner that night into a time of cynicism and alienation. And I believe the events that night led to the presidency of Richard Nixon instead of Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic nominee.

I had not been back to Grant Park until this past Election Night, when I saw Barack Obama declare to a passionate crowd that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America.

My son, Emmet Beliveau, the organizer of the Election Night event for the Obama campaign, was nearby. He is about the same age I was on that fateful night 40 years ago.

But what a different experience he was having. People were crying again in Grant Park, but for a far different reason. In 1968 they were crying in despair. In 2008 they cried for joy and hope.

As I stood there in a sea of more than 200,000 other supporters on Election Night, I realized just how far we have come. In 1968 I was a young and idealistic state representative and Democratic Party chairman from Rumford, attending my first Democratic National Convention.

Our delegation included some of Maine's great leaders -- Gov. Kenneth Curtis, Sen. Edmund Muskie, U.S. Reps. Peter Kyros and William Hathaway and approximately 25 other delegates from throughout the state. For most of us this was our first convention and first visit to Chicago.

We were particularly excited that night because it was widely believed that Sen. Muskie would be chosen as the vice presidential running mate to Sen. Humphrey on the national presidential ticket.

We were also apprehensive and sensitive to the deep division within our country -- and within our delegation -- on the Vietnam War. But none of us were prepared for what happened that night.

Although Sen. Muskie did receive the vice presidential nomination, the protests, tear gas and police reaction that night in Grant Park took America from a period of hope into a time of disparagement.

As we listened to President-elect Obama's address on Election Night, I felt that the nation had finally turned a corner. Although the economy is a disaster, our foreign affairs are in shambles and environmental problems abound, somehow, with this election, our country is again proud, hopeful, buoyed.

By electing Barack Obama, we gave hope to the disenfranchised and -- overnight -- regained our stature as a symbol of tolerance and democracy throughout the world.

Forty years ago, after the Grant Park fiasco in 1968, I went home and found myself a few years later on Richard Nixon's ''enemies list.''

Today, my son Emmet is heading to Washington, D.C., to oversee the inauguration celebration for the president-elect.

He's off to a better start than I was, and so is the country.

— Special to the Press Herald

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