THINKS LIKE A RADICAL

Last night on CNN there was a special documentary on 1968.  It brought back some old memories, some good, some bad, of a year I lived through as a young man.  1968 bought us the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the rise of the anti-war movement and Gene McCarthy’s presidential bid, Lyndon Johnson announcing he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for another term as president, the assignations of ML King and Bobby Kennedy, urban riots, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and ultimately the election of Richard Nixon.

In the spring of 1968 five of us piled into a yellow VW bug and drove from Columbia, Missouri, where we were students, to campaign for Gene McCarthy in Nebraska.  We landed in Lincoln, were told they had plenty of help there, but we were needed in Omaha.  We headed for Omaha and crashed at the home of a wealthy liberal industrialist and headed out the next day to change the world.  I was assigned to knock on doors in the section of town where meat packers worked.  Plenty of George Wallace and America Love it or Leave it bumper stickers on pickups with gun racks.  But that didn’t deter brave naïve me, clean for Gene, from knocking on doors.  To my surprise I was often politely received, and in some cases invited in for coffee and cake.  I gave them my spiel and they usually smiled and nodded.  I don’t think I changed any minds, but at least I didn’t get shot.

I remember going to a speech by McCarthy.  The room was packed and all I remember was sitting on the floor next to his lectern, and thinking this guy is really boring.  I also remember going to the State Fair Grounds where Bobby Kennedy gave a speech.  The only thing I remember from that was him saying farmers in Nebraska should support him because he had a lot of kids and they drank a lot of milk.  He won the Nebraska primary, later went on to win the California primary, then was shot and killed.  Damn.

We all piled back in the VW bug and drove back to Columbia. That fall in philosophy class I tried talking my peers into supporting Hubert Humphrey, who had won the Democratic nomination.  But they were purists and said no way.  I said OK, let’s see how you like Richard Nixon.  We all know how that panned out.

Sometime later, upon reflecting on the 60s and early 70s, I composed a song:  Thinks Like a Radical.  Kind of sums up the period, and, yes, is somewhat autobiographical.  The words:

John White was sleeping in study hall

On the day John Kennedy died

Pricilla Rabel dropped her pen on the table

And let out a high-pitched cry

And while the Principal gave details

Through the school o’r the intercom

John realized deep down inside

Something was radically wrong

And he wanted to do something about it

But it never was at hand

Now he thinks like a radical, but talks like a Democrat

And lives like a Republican

 

John White was walking on campus

When he heard about ML King

Ain’t it a shame, cried Jimmy Coltrane

How could they do such a thing?

That night Chicago exploded

And Detroit and Washington too

They’ll take all the best and leave all the rest

To pick up the pieces for you

And he wanted to climb up the mountain

But he became overcome

Now he thinks like a radical, but talks like a Democrat

And lives like a Republican

 

While reading his local draft notice

For the hundred and forty-third time

The image crashed in through the tube in the den

Of the woman who said it’s a crime

Gunned down in Kent, Ohio

Four students lay bleedin’ she screamed

And under the helmet, behind the rifle

John saw his own face on the screen

And he wanted to change the system

But that’s not how the system is run

Now he thinks like a radical, but talks like a Democrat

And lives like a Republican

 

After the war was over

He went to graduate school

Got a business degree and bought a TV

And picked up a family too

And he wanted to follow Jesus

But he didn’t want to be crucified

Now he goes to work on Monday

Relaxes on Sunday, and knows he is half alive

And he feels caught up in his lifestyle

But just doesn’t know how to get down

Now he thinks like a radical, but talks like a Democrat

And lives like a Republican

 

 

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