In the Spring of my college Freshman year at the University of Missouri in Columbia MO, my friend Michael Cohen (no, not that Michael Cohen) convinced me to back Eugene McCarthy for president. A short time later when Robert Kennedy announced his bid for the presidency, Michael switched to Bobby. I stuck with Gene, and thus held myself up to be Clean for Gene and more pure.
Later Michael switched back to Gene. Not sure why. Maybe guilt. At any rate we were both on the same page now, and we hit the campaign trail. The Nebraska primary was coming up, and we caught a ride with some guy—Frank?—who owned a yellow VW Bug. The three of us, along with two enthusiastic women—I think Lila and Colleen?—piled into Frank’s bug and drove to Lincoln one Friday evening. When we arrived at McCarthy’s headquarters we were informed that they had plenty of campaign workers, but our services would be appreciated in Omaha. So in the middle of the night we piled back into the bug and drove to Omaha. We’d been given the address of a McCarthy supporter who happened to be a wealthy industrialist with a big house. When we arrived he graciously greeted us, and told us we could crash on his floor. We did. The next morning we got up and went to HQ and picked up some brochures. We were directed to door knock in the blue collar district of the stockyards and packing plants—George Wallace country. Land of pickup trucks, gun racks and America—Love it or Leave it stickers. Not exactly prime territory for promoting an erudite anti-war liberal intellectual like McCarthy. But what the heck, we did it anyway.
I remember the smell. The whole neighborhood stunk with the odor of the stockyards—what my future brother in law hog farmer would call the smell of money. With trepidation I ventured forth knocking on doors. To my surprise most folks were polite and non-threatening. Maybe it was because I dressed conservatively, had a haircut, and was white. One family even invited me in for cake and coffee. They even seemed to be open to my anti-war message, but maybe they were just being polite. In any event it was a positive experience aside from a couple of aggressive dogs. Whether or not I changed any minds, I have no idea.
Later that day we all went to the state fair grounds, where Kennedy was scheduled to speak. The McCarthy kids—purists—held up McCarthy signs in a gauntlet like entrance to the fair grounds. Bobby marched in, looked at us and smiled, and flashed the peace sign. There were plenty of his supporters around as we engaged in good natured banter between the McCarthys and Kennedys. We really didn’t dislike Bobby, just saw him as an opportunist who jumped in after Gene’s surprise showing in New Hampshire that caused Lyndon Johnson to declare that he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party for another term as president. The only thing I remember about Bobby’s speech was something about how Nebraska farmers should support him because he had a lot of children who drank a lot of milk. Weeks later he was shot dead in California.
The next day we door knocked again, and later that evening went to a church to hear Gene speak. I remember arriving late and it was standing room only. However, I managed to maneuver onto the stage and took a seat on the floor next to the podium. I remember nothing about McCarthy’s speech except the overall impression that I was in a college political science lecture and Gene was the professor. It wasn’t a stem-winder speech, but the kids were jazzed up and we were all energized to put ourselves on the line for his cause—we purists. In the end Bobby won Nebraska handily—52% to 31% for Gene. Oh, well, we did what we could.
That summer I worked to make money for my next year of college. However, some of my friends decided to go to the Democratic Convention in Chicago. They were still holding out for Gene, although it was clear that Hubert Humphrey would win the nomination. Some even got knocked on the head by the police, what was deemed a “police riot”. Middle class Americans feared that the hippies and yippies were taking over. Mayor Richard Daley cracked down. My favorite quote from him was when he asserted that the police are not here to create disorder. They were here to preserve disorder.
That fall back at MU there was a heated discussion in my philosophy class. Should those who were passionate about Gene vote for HHH? Some of my friends, still purists, said never. My practical side emerged, and I asserted that if the choice was between Humphrey and Nixon, which it was, we should back Humphrey. My assertion was met with distain from the purists. Well, OK, I said, but hope you like Tricky Dick. We all know how that turned out.
Now, fifty years later, we are on the eve of another critical election—the 2018 mid-terms. Many are predicting a “blue wave” as a reaction against the current White House Occupant. There is currently a rift in the Democratic party between the left leaning purists who are promoting Medicare for All, free college tuition, and abolishing ICE, and those who think it is a bridge too far and that those ideas will alienate the middle class, not to mention the specter of the right hanging the Socialist label.
I am torn. Maybe it is time for a clear left-leaning agenda. But my gut tells me otherwise. I’m concerned that the purists who want to hold candidates to litmus tests will go too far, resulting in another backlash a la 1968. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe America is ready for the next FDR.
I’ve heard it said that the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. Maybe it’s time to get out of the road. Honk honk.