Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Forging ballots and Looking for Love: 1972

In the last post I wrote briefly of my work in 1972 on the Dick Clark senatorial campaign. I was an assistant to Pete Smith, the press secretary. I'm working on a novel I started a long time ago, for the Dickens Challenge. The idea was to write a novel in serialized form, as Dickens did--one chapter a week, with no going back. All but perhaps one of us never completed his or her novel. Rachel Green actually did finish Another Bloody Love Story, though I'm sorry to say it hasn't been published.

The novel I never finished when The Dickens Challenge was active (and which I intend to finish now) includes a chapter that talks about the Clark and McGovern campaigns of 1972. It's based on my experience that year. The narrator, Timothy Rymer, is musing about his true love, Helena McKechnie, on a 2005 train journey from Philadelphia to Chicago. She had disappeared at the end of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, only to reappear four years later:

Chapter 8: “Come Home, America”

The sleeping car attendant came with my meal. I tipped her, closed the door, and peeked through the window. We were at Cumberland, Maryland and about to start the climb into the Alleghenies. I said a blessing before eating the roast chicken I had ordered, and said a prayer for Helena, and for the man I knew only as Benét. After I finished, I called the attendant to make up my bed. Once she had gone, I lay down, though thought came before sleep.

I wondered once more why I was going to Chicago, and how I could change what had happened in 1968, or 1970, or 1978. I didn’t know which year was the key. I didn’t think the key year was 1972. But that was the year Helena came back into my life. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in history in the spring of 1972, and was planning to take a break before beginning graduate school. A friend from my McCarthy days had persuaded me to work in another seemingly quixotic campaign. Dick Clark (no, not the American Bandstand guy) was taking on the seemingly invulnerable Senator Jack Miller of Iowa.

Clark’s campaign office was in downtown Marion, Iowa, in a loft above a restaurant. When I joined the campaign, Clark was just beginning his walk across Iowa. It wouldn’t be a simple walk across the state, but a 1300-mile trek covering virtually all of the 99 counties. I spent my time in the press room, drafting news releases and position papers. But my first job for the campaign was to forge ballots. Nothing illegal--it was for a straw poll at the All-Iowa Fair in nearby Cedar Rapids, but I did have some qualms about it. The campaign manager would walk by the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s booth, pick up a few pads of ballots and bring them back to the headquarters. The ballot had the contests for president: Richard Nixon, George McGovern, and George Wallace (who turned out not to be a candidate in November); for governor: Democrat Paul Franzenburg and Republican Robert Ray; and senator: Clark vs. Miller. Of course, all of our forged ballots were for Clark, but I asked about the other two races.

“Yeah, I mark some for Nixon,” said Pete, the press secretary. “And sometimes I use a really hard mark and vote for Wallace, Clark, and Ray.”

“But,” said Connie, his assistant, “I try to mark as many for McGovern as I can.” I might have fallen in love with Connie, a gorgeous woman with long dark brown hair and brown eyes, if she hadn’t been 32, married, and with four children. Like her, I badly wanted McGovern to win, even though he had virtually no chance.

It seemed that some of McGovern’s supporters were his worst enemies. Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) did a lot to sabotage the Democrats, but they were pikers compared with McGovern’s friends. They were the ones who kicked Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley out of the convention. Sure, it was payback for 1968, but it meant that that Illinois and other traditionally Democratic states would go to Nixon. And their endless debating over minor points shoved McGovern’s acceptance speech into the wee hours of the morning. It was a beautiful speech, almost like one of the great litanies of the early Church. Most Americans never heard it. I saw it on a black-and-white TV in the little press room carved out of the big loft:

From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.

Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.

Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land -- from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters -- this land was made for you and me.”

Less than a month after his nomination, McGovern’s running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri admitted he had suffered from depression, and had received electroshock treatments. And after saying he supported Eagleton “1000 percent,” McGovern faced the realities of 1972 and replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver. While McGovern’s candidacy was probably doomed from the convention on, I witnessed the final nail driven into his campaign’s coffin on October 26.

It was one of those beautiful fall days that almost makes up for the steaming Midwestern summers and brutal winters. I took the bus down to Iowa City to see McGovern. Clark and the other statewide Democratic candidates wouldn’t be there, as they’d be hurt by association with him.

The McGovern rally was held on the Pentacrest--the center of the University of Iowa campus, named for the domed Old Capitol building and the four great limestone halls that surrounded it. There was a huge crowd, reminiscent of the antiwar rallies of a few years before. People were sitting on the window ledges of Schaeffer and Macbride Halls, their legs dangling into the air. I was in the midst of the crowd, looking around for faces. There was a young couple holding hands--he with red hair like mine and she with luxuriant dark brown hair. I thought of Helena and wondered again what had happened to separate us.

The crowd roared when McGovern came out onto the Old Capitol steps. He said he had some good news. though. Henry Kissinger, who had been negotiating with the North Vietnamese in Paris, had announced that “Peace is at hand.” If this was true, Nixon could claim he had ended the war. Good news for the nation, but it ended even the tiniest hope of a McGovern victory.

McGovern gave his basic stump speech. I had heard it before. Still, I was happy to have experienced it. As the crowd dispersed, I stood there, trying to decide what to do until my bus left, I heard a voice from the past.

“You look dazed and confused.”

“Helena!,” I exclaimed, and we embraced amid the crowd.

P.S. I just worked for Clark through the summer. I went back to the University of Iowa the fall semester, and found love. I met an amazing young woman that fall. She was wearing a McGovern/Shriver button, as was I. We went to that McGovern rally in October--we're the young couple the narrator notices. (Yes, I had red hair once.) We've been married for 36 years now.


Charles Gramlich said...

Love and politics. They say they don't mix, but in your case I'm glad they were wrong.

steve on the slow train said...

Charles--They can mix. But I also got one bit of advice when I worked on the Clark campaign: "If you're ever working on a campaign and need a divorce, there's always a lawyer who'll do it for free. Which is good because if you're married and working on a campaign, you'll probably need a divorce."