Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When I was Clean for Gene

The news of Eugene McCarthy’s death brought back memories of that hopeful and dreadful year when he challenged Lyndon Johnson for the presidency. I was too young to go off to New Hampshire or Wisconsin to campaign for McCarthy. In the fall semester of 1967-68, my mother had taken a teaching job at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. I would be a junior at Cedar Falls High School.

After two years at University High School in Iowa City, Cedar Falls was a big change. Even though it was part of the Iowa City public school system, U-High was very much an elite institution. I was an outsider—a boy with divorced parents and limited income in a school dominated by professors’ kids.

At first, I had some apprehension about going to a large public high school. But I found more acceptance at Cedar Falls than I ever had at U-High. I wrote for the school paper, acted in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and was part of a clique of political liberals.

Eugene McCarthy declared his candidacy for the presidency on November 30, 1967—my sixteenth birthday. While I didn’t know anything about the man until then, I was very much against the Vietnam war and happy to see someone challenging Johnson. The obvious challenger, Robert Kennedy, had declined to run. But the eccentric senator from Minnesota, who wrote poetry, played baseball, and had been a novice monk, was willing to take on a sitting president.

I went to the Students for McCarthy group at the UNI and agreed to sell “Million for McCarthy buttons. While I sold only ten or twenty, I did contribute to the effort. But the most bizarre event in my personal campaign for McCarthy came at the Cedar Falls High School mock convention.

By the time we had the mock convention, Johnson had pulled out of the race and Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey had jumped in. There weren’t many Humphrey or Kennedy delegates. The two strongest candidates were McCarthy and Wallace. That’s right. George Corley Wallace, unreformed and segregationist. Cedar Falls, with the exception of UNI students, was virtually all white. If you were black, you lived in nearby Waterloo. On the east side, where some of the streets weren’t even paved. A lot of Cedar Falls residents, including many of my fellow students, wanted to keep it that way. And they weren’t embarrassed about supporting the nation’s most celebrated racist.

The mock convention was held in a large classroom, which resembled a small auditorium. It began with the nominations. McCarthy’s began with a Chinese fire drill display, and the announcement that the senator had once led a Chinese fire drill team. The Humphrey and Kennedy nominations were not memorable. But the Wallace nomination, with Confederate battle flags waving and the playing of “The Bonny Blue Flag” (a song glorifying an early Confederate banner) was. The leader of the Wallace contingent—a very bright young man who argued that Wallace had the best interests of blacks at heart—was caught up in the pro-Confederate enthusiasm.

The deliberations and negotiations went on, it seemed, for hours. Some of the Kennedy and Humphrey people came around to the McCarthy side, but not enough for a majority. After several ballots, we realized we had to accept Wallace as running mate. (The alternative would have been to walk out and let the Wallace people win.) Thus our mock convention ended with an oxymoron—a McCarthy-Wallace ticket.

The McCarthy group met at a local restaurant to celebrate, but it was a curious celebration, mainly spent waiting for two very popular and attractive people to show up. We had won, but only by accepting a running mate whose politics we detested. Yes, it was just a mock convention. But in retrospect, it exemplified the polarization of America in 1968.

The issue of the war was secondary in that mock convention—something we McCarthy supporters hadn’t realized. I think we believed, like most northern liberals, that sensible people had overcome race prejudice. I knew there were racists in Cedar Falls, but I thought their cause was on the decline. My family had attended a memorial service for Martin Luther King, jr. at a black church on the east side of Waterloo, where we were welcomed by the parishioners. It seemed to me that blacks and whites would learn to accept each other.

But the riots after King’s assassination, including some disturbances in Waterloo, had frightened too many whites. And in retrospect, the war was a secondary issue in the November election as well. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, finally broke with Johnson on the war, but still lost the 1968 election. He couldn’t overcome Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which used the race issue to win border states which normally went Democratic, while Wallace, running as an independent, took much of the Deep South from Humphrey.

Had he lived and been nominated, Robert Kennedy might have been able to bring Americans together. McCarthy, with his acerbic wit and professorial air, had little chance of attracting enough middle-of-the-road whites to win the election. But that doesn’t detract from his courage to take on LBJ. For a few months in the winter and spring of 1968, Gene McCarthy gave us the hope of a better world. For that, I’m proud to say I supported him.