Saturday, May 3, 2014

Meeting Eugene McCarthy in 1968

My nephew Tommy has a school assignment to collect stories from his family about memories that are connected with important events in history. I can think of a few, but the most surprising and best documented was my brief encounter with Eugene McCarthy.

The year 1968 was, to me, the most dramatic and historical year that I can remember. The war in Vietnam had created a rift in America that echoes in many of our most contentious debates today. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the day before my 11th birthday, and Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles as I was getting ready to finish 6th grade.

Eugene McCarthy was the first prominent politician to challenge Lyndon Johnson and call for an American withdrawal from Vietnam, and he was my candidate. I was so moved by McCarthy and the war that I went to McCarthy headquarters in Santa Monica to help stuff envelopes. I can recall passionate arguments in 6th grade about the relative merits of McCarthy and RFK, but we all cried when Kennedy died.

On the heels of these traumatic events, the Democrats headed to Chicago to nominate a candidate for president. Damaged by Vietnam, LBJ had withdrawn his name from consideration and his VP, Hubert Humphrey was the establishment choice. Humphrey was a decent man, but closely associated with Johnson, and was not trusted by the anti-war faction.

The Chicago Convention was held in late August, and was the most chaotic political event of the American 20th century. Protesters descended on Chicago, and Chicago's police were ready with truncheons and tear-gas. Inside the convention hall, mainstream Democrats were aided by the underhanded tactics of Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, and Humphrey was nominated even though 80% of the delegates were on the anti-war side.

During the convention, I was visiting New York with my Grandmother Pearl. I rode the Circle Line, visited the Empire State Building, and saw the Rockettes and a production of West Side Story. I didn't watch much TV or read the paper but I did know that McCarthy had lost and I was bitterly disappointed.

The weekend of Sept 1 was Labor Day, and my aunt Selma took me via train to Washington DC for a quick visit. We toured the White House and the Smithsonian. On the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 2 we were near the Capitol, and she suggested that we go see if we could say hello to Senator McCarthy. Yes, in those days, you could walk into the Senator's office building and knock on their doors. At the entrance, we asked the security guard where Senator McCarthy's office was, and he told us that he was pretty sure he wasn't in his office, but helpfully pointed out "that's his car over there". So we walked over and left a note on his windshield.

Just after we left the note, Senator McCarthy came walking up the street and we introduced ourselves. I don't remember what I said but I know I was pretty shy and starstruck; I think I managed to tell him that I was a supporter. Then my Aunt Selma asked if we could take a picture. The Senator obliged with what in retrospect looks like a rather sad smile.

The picture above was taken on  an Instamatic camera, and I think the original was in color but I've lost it over the years. My father had a B&W 8x10 copy made, and sent it to Senator McCarthy for me, and as you can see he inscribed it to me. Around my neck is my Argus C3 camera, which belonged to my Uncle Paul and then to my father, which I used to take photos in NYC and Washington on that trip. In the Senator's hand is my note.

Senator McCarthy was a changed man after the events of August 1968 and was never again a significant political force. It's remarkable to me to remember what a different world it was in 1968 when, just 4 days after the convention, I managed to catch him for a moment on a street on Capitol Hill.

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