Sunday, April 17, 2011

Presidential Politics - 1976

My sophomore year on campus, 1976, was an election year. It was the second year of the presidency of Gerald Ford, the Liberator of Poland. Gerald Ford was made possible by Richard Nixon, who resigned in August 1974, promptly taking a good chunk of the Republican Party with him. November of 1974 had seen so many Democrats elected to the House and Senate that the more liberal among us began to imagine a Democrat in the White House in 1976. Massachusetts had been the only state in the nation to vote for George McGovern in 1972, and it became the only state in the nation to say, "I told you so", when Nixon resigned. I could replay the whole sorry, sordid story of Watergate, the Burglars and everything else, but you know it already and it's just too embarrassing an American story to recount. Suffice it to say that I knew something odd was going on in Texas when every billboard advertising George McGovern's candidacy was being defaced with a hammer and sickle; only later did I learn that the graffiti was the handiwork of Donald Segretti and his Dirty Tricksters (and only much later did I learn that George McGovern's Texas campaign in that awful autumn was led by an energetic young man named Bill Clinton).

Anyway, you've already heard about New Hampshire and its wacky conservatism (and how the state, tailor-made for the Reagan Revolution, turned against him in the '76 primary). I was more interested in the Democrats, though, and one Democrat in particular - Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma. Senator Harris had a wife, LaDonna, who was a full-blooded Native American, also from Oklahoma and almost as famous as him. He also was a populist, preaching a brand of economic democracy that had been popular in the days of Bob LaFollette, a senator from Wisconsin who ran a third-party campaign for president. Harris' campaign manager, Jim Hightower, would go on to write books, get elected agriculture commissioner in Texas for two terms and then host a radio show and write a newspaper column. What endeared Fred Harris to me was that he was approachable - I got to meet him up close and personal in a friend's living room with about a dozen other supporters, and I would see him out on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This was not true of the other candidates.

With one exception. In the winter months of 1975, I was invited, as one of two thursday staffers, to ride the bus from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, with an obscure governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. He brought two busloads of student newspaper reporters with him to see the Allman Brothers, who were Close Personal Friends of his. Carter was different from anyone else in the race - he was folksy and homespun, he had been on a nuclear submarine and he was a peanut farmer. And he preached folksy, downhome honesty and integrity, which was refreshing after four years of Nixon and Ford. His whole campaign featured him, his toothy grin and his peanuts. He had positions on the issues, but some of us on the bus were convinced that the answers he gave to questions we students asked him were different from the answers he gave when professional reporters from the city newspapers joined us in the conference room. That would become the trademark of his presidency, according to more than a few observers. His brand of outsiderism would resonate with the voters in 1976, but not with the Washington insiders, who were every bit as persnickety a bunch then as they are now. Hence, after a dramatic series of events in Iran that concluded with US hostages being taken, and a short, sharp economic free-fall that consisted of high interest rates and a disconcerting run-up in oil prices and unemployment, Carter became a one-term president, losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. But he would go on to become one of the most influential ex-presidents we've ever had, surpassed only by (you guessed it) Bill Clinton.

Anyway, back to Fred Harris. Presidential primaries in 1976 were nowhere near as short and decisive as they are now. The Iowa caucuses were a relatively new phenomenon, intended by some to try to steal away some of the influence New Hamsphire had on the primaries. They succeeded in putting Jimmy Carter on the map; after pouring the bulk of his resources into the state, Carter won the caucuses and used that victory to springboard himself to the top of the heap on the Democratic side. But Fred Harris managed a decent-enough showing that he could campaign hard in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which held primaries on successive Mondays in late February and early March. That's when I got involved. I organized an MIT student chapter, hoping to put Harris over the top in Massachusetts.

I also went to New Hampshire one weekend. A dozen of us carpooled up to Manchester, New Hampshire, slept in sleeping bags on the floor of someone's apartment, and trudged into the cold, snowy winter of the Manchester suburbs, stuffing mailboxes and sticking flyers under screen doors - hoping to sway a few votes. In the end, Fred Harris ended up coming in woefully back in the pack; Jimmy Carter went on to win the state's Democratic primary, followed by Morris Udall and George Wallace, the segregationist. Harris and Birch Bayh would battle for one of the also ran slots, which fell to Bayh as the night wore on. Harris limped on into Massachusetts and ended up folding his campaign after picking up only 8 percent of the vote (Massachusetts selected Henry "Scoop" Jackson, senator from Washington State, as its favorite - with 24%).

If nothing else, I felt good about having convinced 17% of the MIT student body that Fred Harris was worthy of becoming president (according to a referendum sponsored by one of the non-partisan student groups), besting the rather enthusiastic campaigners lined up behind Birch Bayh. In 1980, I would help organize Stanford University for John Anderson when he ran for president in the Republican primary - and later I would work for his third party candidacy. That was another glorious lost cause that should have succeeded; instead, Ronald Reagan would fulfill a lifetime quest to become president, and nothing in America was ever the same again.

I learned some things from my participation in the 1976 presidential campaign. For one thing, most students didn't want to be bothered. They had other things on the mind - studying, athletics, UMOC (Ugliest Man on Campus - a charity fundraiser in which students campaigned to see who could bring in the most money based on how ugly they were in a costume - or not in a costume) and student politics (known to most of us as "grease"). Most were conventional liberals, which meant that they liked the politics of Morris Udall, an environmentalist congressman from Arizona (try finding that these days!), but not the populism of Fred Harris (in the thursday offices, however, Fred Harris was regarded as a liberal sell-out, and besides, the new Howard the Duck comic book had Kiss in it!). They also found the whole thing irrelevant to their day-to-day lives. Nowhere was that attitude more prevalent than in the West Campus dormitories (McCormick, Burton and MacGregor), which led to this cartoon...
(One day I shall have to discuss nitrous oxide, which has certain amusing properties known only to dentists).

That Allman Brothers concert we saw in Providence was actually pretty decent - except that Gregg Allman had a huge bandage on one hand that interfered with his guitar-playing. There were rumors about it - drugs, Cher, a motorcycle accident. We didn't know or care; as long as he was vertical and singing, it was a great show.

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