Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Wisconsin Primary Forty Years Ago

William Kristol makes a semi-disparaging remark about finding an Orwell classic in a Milwaukee airport bookstore, as the cosmopolitan disdain almost drips from the New Yorkese columnists lips.

Kristol doesn't realize that the average Wisconsin native is probably more widely and more quantitatively read than citizens of the black Gotham he lives in and writes from. But I digress....

Forty years ago, I was a grad student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on a draft deferment. I was very anti-war and joined the Students for McCarthy [Gene] and due to the fact that I was ancient at the age of 26, was deemed and anointed "Head" of Students for McCarthy. Our first project was raising money for a bus to take Michigan students to actually canvass several precincts in Wisconsin, which was my native state, having been born and raised in Milwaukee's environs.

We set up buckets for contributions on The Diag, the long diagonal walk from the Engineering School past the UGLI across a huge student green where undergrads congregated on good-weather days. We were hoping for about $500 dollars to send about fifty students in a rented Trailways bus which I was delegated to rent for a four-day round trip to Milwaukee. Then the news of Gene McCarthy's stunning second-place, but-oh-so-close finish in New Hampshire and suddenly the buckets went from $15/day to $200/day and we were looking at enough money to send five busloads and over 200 "Clean For Gene" kids to Wisconsin to canvass. But where would the kids stay, who would feed them, and other logistical snarls began appearing as the project grew like Topsy.

There was no Iowa Caucus nor South Carolina primary nor any other primary after New Hampshire and before Wisconsin in those days. Nada. Rien de tout. Kein stuecke... Wisconsin suddenly loomed as the first real head-to-head front-page over-the-top confrontation between LBJ and lonely Gene McCarthy. And suddenly also, Bobby Kennedy started talking non-stop about running, and may have already announced his intention to run by the time the wheels-up roll-out to Wisconsin took place on Friday the weekend before the Tuesday voting.

By this time, I was being interviewed by Nan Robertson of the NYT and a fellow named Shumacher for ABC-TV News as the Student Rep for Clean-for-Gene Kiddie Korps legion heading for Wisconsin. The air was electric with the aura of change----more-so than anything I've seen since until Barack Obama this year......

Sunday night, my mother agreed to host a party at our Wauwatosa home for some of the McCarthy kids from Ann Arbor, who by this time were spread all over Milwaukee County and Waukesha County canvassing the urbs, suburbs, and exurbs like Waukesha and Elm Grove---a few places my memory harks to. I had a car and was constantly shuttling kids around and recall trying to find one frightened girl her crash-shack in Elm Grove for over two hours after midnight. But enough kids showed up at our house to make the party attendance close to one hundred young hungry thirsty party-party crew slurping down beer [the drinking age in Milwaukee was eighteen, unlike 21 in Michigan] and the students dug into their pockets repeatedly as I went several times to our local liquor/beer store and bought dozens of six-packs on top of a few cases for the thirsty kiddees. No carding going on in our basement....!

Finally the five buses began the return trip to Ann Arbor Sunday afternoon, as I recall, and we were at a stop near Battle Creek Michigan on I-94 in a Bob's Big Boy when the ugly mug of LBJ came on the TV screen and announced he would not be a candidate in '68 for president. THE EPIPHANY OF THE COMBINED MAGIC OF MOMENT AND MOMENTOUS VICTORY OVERWHELMED US AND THE BOB'S STAFF HAD TO EVICT US AFTER FIFTEEN MINUTES OF NON-STOP CHEERING!! As I recall. Or so it seemed.

The final three hours of the ride back to Ann Arbor were full of singing "We shall overcome" and other radical or movement hymns and ditties. The adrenaline didn't subside for days, and I was soon asked to join the McCarthy National Staff and head down to Indianapolis to staff up for the Indiana Primary where Gene and Bobby would go head-to-head for the first time.

From then on, it was an unbroken string of defeats as McCarthy lost, but not overwhelmingly, each primary that I participated in, including Indiana, Nebraska, California [where Bobby met me in Watts/Compton where I was inexplicably appointed chief organizer until a revolt by Gene's black staffers finally replaced me with, a fatal mistake, with a black woman instead of one of the black males---a woman who makes Hillary's most obnoxious distaff staffers look tame in comparison. I was made a "troubleshooter" and given a vehicle and worked out of Westwood HQ on the UCLA campus & was invited to the RFK victory celebration by Rick Grandjean---I demurred and was at the Beverly Hilton ballroom when Bobby's assassination was announced just minutes after his victory speech had been projected on a giant movie screen. Eva Marie Saint was next to me and burst into hysterical tears----a bunch of other stars including the entire cast of Mission Impossible, the #1 TV show back then, broke into tears. We were on a jet plane back to NYC when RFK's death was announced by the pilot, and slept in El Morocco Restaurant on banquettes against the zebra-skinned walls that night. I went to the funeral at St. Patrick's three days later. And then on to the Chicago Convention, where I was in the Hilton Hotel on the fifteenth floor when the Chicago cops dragged the McCarthy workers out of their rooms [mine was double-locked] and beat them up, with unforeseen consequences.

But of course, the wonderful three-day canvass of the Wisconsin Primary will always remain as a sort of Wordsworth-type
"twas bliss to be alive..." experience. Forty years ago. But only yesterday....!

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