Sunday, December 11, 2005

Eugene McCarthy, Rest in Peace

The coincidence today of former Senator Eugene McCarthy's death at 89 and Fox News's gloating over a supposed split in the Democratic Party because of the Iraq War leads to a flood of memories.

I was 24 years old in 1968 and in graduate school in Utah when I got bit by my first political bug. Senator McCarthy had begun to speak the truth about President Johnson's policy in the Vietnam War. It was my age group that was being drafted to fight. Naturally, I might be expected to take notice. I did, and I volunteered with the McCarthy campaign, which was being run out of a one-bedroom apartment in the avenues above South Temple Street. Utah was only the most Republican state in the union. What few Democrats lived there lived mainly in greater Salt Lake City. The McCarthy campaign in Utah was perhaps as foolhardy an enterprise as trying to fight guerilla forces in Southeast Asia. But Utah would be electing delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, and I wanted to help elect delegates from Utah who would support McCarthy.

I started out doing door-to-door canvassing, asking people how they were registered and how they felt about the war and if they'd ever heard of the senator from Minnesota. We were looking for any registered Democrat who expressed enthusiasm for Our Guy. They'd be contacted later to organize their precincts for the caucuses coming up early that summer.

I liked canvassing and learned a lot. I was young and stupid and didn't know any better. I got my hair cut and put on a fresh shirt and tie, like so many of my hippy compatriots in 1968 who were urged by the McCarthy campaign to "come clean for Gene." Urban Salt Lake City, with densely packed neighborhoods, made for efficient canvassing, and finding those (few) who were energized by McCarthy's surprise second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary was confirmation that we were not alone. It also helped that three weeks after McCarthy rattled President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson announced he would not be a candidate for reelection. Democrats had to make a choice, and the McCarthy brigades were the only grassroots movement out there.

We found that many traditional Utah Democrats -- and especially the party's power structure -- were siding with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and some of them were fairly mean to us when we appeared at their doors and said the name McCarthy. We were wading into an incipient split in the national Democratic Party, and we were considered traitors for stumping through neighborhoods on behalf of a Democratic rebel. WE didn't care. Internal party politics meant precisely nothing to us. We were trying to stop a war and change U.S. foreign policy. Call it saving the world.

Our job was vastly complicated by the sudden emergence of Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, who jumped into the race after Johnson pulled out. The enthusiasm for Kennedy was palpable, particularly among blue-collar Democrats. McCarthy appealed to the university crowd, the young, and Quakers. I found myself resenting Kennedy as a Johnny-come-lately who had "opportunist" written all over his campaign.

My tirelessness for McCarthy got noticed, and I was asked to become a "regional coordinator" for McCarthy, which meant I was assigned 30 or so precincts in the Salt Lake valley to "coordinate" ... which meant primarily recruiting people willing to attend their precinct caucuses as McCarthy supporters and trying to recruit additional people to canvass in those precincts as I had been recruited to do. It was indeed a "Children's Crusade," as the national press derisively dubbed our campaign efforts. What else but an idealistic childhood fantasy would have put a political infant like me in charge of 30 precincts?

I worked hard at it, stayed on the phone and on the road, and discovered I needed to drop out of school to do my work. People argued with me about that decision, so I only dropped out of my Faulkner seminar, since it seemed likely I was never going to get through "The Sound and the Fury" anyway. For all that dedication, I ended up losing every last one of my assigned precincts. The Humphrey forces and the Kennedy forces swept McCarthy aside, and so I learned that even righteous crusades sometimes lose ... a lesson repeated in 1990 in our crusade for Harvey Gantt against Jesse Helms. I was not nearly so young in 1990 but still idealistic about positive change.

What we didn't know in 1968 was that the McCarthy uprising WAS the beginning of a national split in the Democrat Party that would put a Republican in the White House for the next two election cycles. What followed could not be foreseen. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in California in June (I sat in the garden and cried that night, over a man I had only recently seen as the enemy), the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the presidency of Richard Nixon followed by his resignation and the brief rule of Gerald Ford. And through it all, the cowering of national Democratic leaders on the issue of "national security," a growing timidity that has not waned to this day.

THAT was a split in the Democrat Party. What we've got today with Senator Leiberman and Chair Howard Dean and Fox News trying its best to distort both men to benefit the failed policies and empty claims of El Presidente and his handlers ... why, this is NOTHING (so far) that rises to the level of a split.

You'd expect a little disagreement, wouldn't you? over the incomprehensibly colossal MESS this boy from Texas has gotten us into, where there is literally NO solution, NO way out, NO plan, NO strategy that will not mean more death and destruction for Americans and Iraqis alike? Howard Dean is as right as rain. Never in history has a foreign army -- no matter its size and advanced war-making powers -- won against a native guerilla force fueled by hatred of the foreign invaders. Consider our own war of insurgency against the British in the late 18th-century. The same was true of Vietnam in 1968, and Eugene McCarthy was one of the few Democrats willing to speak the truth.

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