The Democrats

Great violet shafts from searchlights swept the sky outside O’Brien’s Persian Palace Theater. The greatest political rally would not begin for another hour, but crowd-builders for each of the fifty-four Democratic candidates for President of the United States, using fast tongues, money, and strongarm tactics, had cajoled nearly 100,000 persons into the street. Each carried a placard on a stick. “TRUST MUSKIE,” said many of the signs; TRUST MCGOVERN,” said others. Some said, “HUBERT HORATIO HUMPHREY, A GREAT AMERICAN YOU CAN TRUST.” “TRUST YORTY.” “TRUST JACKSON.” And on and on and on. “TRUST HARTKE.”

Police ringed the growing mob. Strung over the street were ten-foottall electric letters that said: “THE MR PRESIDENT BEAUTY PAGEANT.” Advance women for Shirley Chisholm climbed on each other’s shoulders to try to punch out the “MR.” with their sticks. A television crew pushed through the throng.

“What a crowd, folks!” a commentator shouted into his microphone. “What a crowd! There must be 300,000 excited fans outside O’Brien’s Persian tonight. The police can’t hold them. Here, listen to them roar. ”

A noise-starter for one of the candidates took the cue and began shouting at the top of his lungs. A noise-starter for another candidate spurred his group to greater noise. Soon, the clamor was like a volcano erupting.

Sound men held their parabolic mikes aloft. The commentator screamed. “Did you hear it? It’s a bedlam, folks. A veritable bedlam! What excitement! Of all the political ralliesI’ve attended, this is the most . . . the most . . . stupendous, folks. Can the police hold them? Can they? It doesn’t look like they can, folks. ”

The candidates began arriving in open cars. “There’s Scoop,” someone screamed. Jackson advance men prodded people to tug at his sleeves. “I’m gonna roll up my sleeves à la Harry Truman and tell it like it is, ” cried Henry Jackson. His sleeves were ripped away. George McGovern shouted, “I’m the only decent man there is!” A throng hoisted his wife, Eleanor, on their shoulders and yelled, “Let Eleanor do it!” Ed Muskie arrived. He said something that sounded very good. The crowd became quieter; some fell asleep. Even Bayh, Hughes, and Harris were there, dreams still flickering. Shriver and Clark. Anderson and Chisholm and Mink and Mills. McCarthy, Wallace, and Aurelio. Yorty. Hartke, Hartke, and Hartke. Proxmire, eschewing a convertible, jogged into the mass. Hubert Humphrey’s voice rang out: “Oh, my goodness. It makes me pleased as punch to see all your familiar faces once more. I can’t express how happy it makes me to see all my dear friends again. I just want to take this opportunitv to let everyone here know that I’m so . .

And where it ends . . .

It had become the longest campaign well before candidates began shuttling between New Hampshire and Florida with countdown intensity, if you forget Andrew Jackson’s, which is easy, and Richard Nixon’s last, which is not so easy. When it began was long ago lost in the crisscross of hopefuls’ planes increasing the midair-collision risk as they raced each other to the next stop to say things which the one who had just left had already said.

Did it begin for Muskie that day in Washington, Pennsylvania, during the 1968 campaign when he invited a student heckler to the platform and almost instantaneously became a new national political hero? If so, Muskie didn’t let on the rest of the day. Nor did ‘72 seem really viable in the months he fruitlessly wandered the country trying to build on his new reputation after the ‘68 election, for, he conceded at lunch one day the following July, Ted Kennedy certainly did seem the inevitable Democratic choice. Muskie added an important caveat: “If I learned one thing in 1968, it is that you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

About fifteen hours later, Teddy drove off a bridge. Muskie was FrontRunner.

Was that the beginning? Kennedy’s tragedy certainly opened a big door, though George McGovern would insist in the summer of 1971, “I would have gone ahead no matter what he did.”

Gene McCarthy’s example undoubtedly emboldened some who felt that they could become a somebody if Gene had. Nixon’s seeming vulnerability after the ‘70 election probably spurred others.

A definable beginning thus gets lost in these and many other factors. It’s enough to say that a whole bunch began running, and in the process threatened to turn 1972 into a Year of the Locust. For all each of them said through 1970 and 1971, all the millions of words that were written were, by the time 1972 finally came, about as memorable as the names of the last two moon walkers. A reporter shrugs as he flips through old notebooks. The only interesting things left are pages of vignettes, like so many flakes of New Hampshire snow, or grains of Florida sand, which, when mixed in the right proportions, produce the makings for sand castles, and children and politicians know about them. Usually they crumble or get kicked over, if a wave doesn’t get them first, as Birch Bayh, among others, can attest.

Bayh, Hughes

It’s October, 1970, about ten months after Bavh and some friends and financial backers agree that he should explore a run for President. This particular afternoon Bayh is at a small television station in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Before the taping, the interviewer is making sure of his facts. “Uh, what state are you from, Senator?” Bayh barely flinches; after all, the marquee outside an Omaha hotel had said,“WELCOME SENATOR BLIGH.”“In-diana, ” Bayh answers. ”Oh, yeah, ” the interviewer says. “Uh, just so I know what to ask you about, what have you been big in?”

The day got no better (he was so late to a big dinner of Jewish fat cats in New York—despite use of two cars, a helicopter, and a WASP millionaire’s plane to get there—that all but a few had left), though for a time his campaign did. He built an excellent political staff while Muskie frittered away for months the advantage won from his 1970 election-eve TV speech. Bayh’s organization was indefatigable down to the smallest detail. When the Nebraska Democratic Party opened a new office, rhododendrons from Bayh were waiting. Great Honk! Contact was the name of the game. Contact. Switch on. But then, switch off.

Bayh’s eyes show it by August, 1971. He is in Dallas still saying that he is taking a few months to see if it’s there in America for Birch Bayh, knowing by now it isn’t. In October, his wife becomes seriously ill, and Bayh drops out without ever having officially started.The illness is the reason he gives, but he knows he’s made no impact.

It took him nearly a million dollars to find out. All the Democrats would spend close to $5 million to find out even before the first primary vote in New Hampshire.

Harold Hughes was the accidental legatee of much of the ‘68 McCarthy support. He’d initiated the party reform effort, had made the nominating speech for Gene at Chicago, and spoken with honesty. Never mind the fact that this hulking ex-truck driver was also an ex-drunk. He’d make a great President, some thought; he could talk to egghead and drill-press operator alike. The first HUGHES ‘72 buttons popped up early in 1970. By fall, he, like many others, was traveling the country ostensibly for congressional candidates but also with a mind toward a possible presidential candidacy, though he never became comfortable with the thought.

It’s the day after Bayh missed the dinner of Jewish fat cats in New York. Hughes is in Waterbury, Connecticut, holding a small group in a community alcoholic treatment center rapt as he deplores the drug scene in his Zeuslike baritone: “How the hell can Father sit in his chair at night sipping his third martini and yell at Johnny about the evils of pot,Hughes declares. It is a command, not a question. This is the issue, the problem (“a microcosm of our great national ailments”) that has grabbed him. The presidential thing really begins to bug him. In a Milwaukee hotel several months later, after midnight, aides are trying to talk politics, but Hughes keeps steering the conversation to the drug problem. His white shirt is unbuttoned, and he keeps clutching it across his massive chest. He doesn’t button it. It is as if the shirt were the presidential thing, and the chest the real thing.

It was no surprise when, on July 15, 1971, Hughes declared he wouldn’t run. He felt he could better attack the problem as a senator than as a candidate. he said. His printed announcement made no mention of the fact that it had recently been disclosed that Hughes was something of a spiritualist. and had tried to talk to his dead brother through a medium. “We were about to pop some great endorsements,” a dejected aide tried to joke minutes after Hughes’s withdrawal. “We had Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy lined up.”

McGovern

It’s a year to the day before Hughes says that he won’t run. At 6:30 P.M., Gary Hart, Rick Stearns, and Kate Douglas tote three cardboard boxes from George McGovern’s office (Suite 362; McGovern is very conscious that John Kennedy once had it) to a building a block away and open the first McGovern for President office. A month later, McGovern says confidently over lunch in the Capitol, “Oh, I think I can get 25 percent in New Hampshire. ” He, too, flies about the country that fall, purportedly for congressional candidates. One October night he’s in Pontiac, Michigan. He warms up the receptive audience with the story of the South Dakota Indian medicine man who proclaimed that rocks he’d examined on a mountain spelled defeat for McGovern in his ‘68 Senate re-election bid. McGovern aides made it worthwhile for the Indian to return to the mountain to take another look. When he came down again, he said the rocks now spelled victory. The audience seems to get a big kick out of the story, but afterward a young Oriental stops McGovern and derides him for making a racist slur on Indians.

McGovern laughed it off, but it bothered him. just as many things would bother him in the months after he announced his candidacy January 18, 1971, saying that what America wants is “a way out of the wilderness.” For despite all the tediously magnificent grass-roots organizing his people did, the tens of thousands who responded to McGovern’s mail appeals for dollars, all his large responsive crowds, he did little better with the polls than Bayh had done. And he was all but ignored, in his mind, by the national media. This was hard to take for a man who viewed himself as holding a large share of the Kennedy legacy, who could never forget that he had first had the chance to do what McCarthy had done in ‘68, had he not feared for his political survival, and who lusted to be President ("Richard Nixon never wanted to be President any worse than George.” a former associate says). Perhaps, then, he could be forgiven for sounding like Spiro Agnew when he said on one TV show late in the year: “I’m beginning to think that there is such a thing as an Eastern elite press. They get together and talk with each other over a martini and they sort of agree on who they think the front-runner is, and everything then has to fit that mold.” It was like a whine in the wilderness.

Muskie

Is it Scranton? Or is it Perth Amboy? Is it the fall of ‘70? Or the spring of ‘71? The memory blurs, and the notes are no longer clear. But it makes little difference. The Democratic county dinners are much the same in such places: raucous, whiskey flowing, pols and payrollers and their wives laugh it up while they wait for the candidate.

This particular night it is Muskie. He’s hurried into a back room where the most important of the local pols are waiting for a little extra close-up elbow rubbing. It always seems in such places everyone’s name is Eddie. “Hey, Eddie, over here. ” “Eddie, get me anudder.” “Hey, Senator. what’ll be yours? Eddie’ll get it.” “Hey, Eddie, put your arm around the Senator, “ the hired photographer named Eddie yells, “and put out the goddamn cigar; the smoke’s covering up the faces.”One Eddie after another poses, and eventually the photos will be autographed to Eddie from Ed. One Eddie makes sure a Maine lobster is present, which isn’t surprising, and Big Ed promptly strokes its back. Suddenly, the lobster jackknifes and stands rigid in Muskie’s palm, hypnotized. “You learn this in politics in Maine,” Muskie explains. “Geez, ” a bunch of Eddies say. “Looka that. “ The flashbulbs pop, and Big Ed looks pleased. But this is all frosting to Muskie’s ‘70 election-eve speech when he comes right into millions of homes and “HOW dare they, ” the Republicans, for trying to feed on America’s fears in that campaign. “What contempt they must have for the decency and sense of the American people to talk to them that way. ”

It was an electric moment in American politics, and if Muskie wasn’t the front-runner in some people’s minds before, he was after. And all through 1971, almost every time he was introduced to audiences, this moment was recalled. It was a moment that helped him withstand months of fumbled political opportunities, occasional dull elocution, dubious polls, dire financial troubles, repeated stories about his temper and caution, speculation about whether he was moving too far left or not far enough. So it was that when Muskie’s granite face and firm voice came over national television again on January 4, 1972, with his official announcement of candidacy, the front-runner had already demonstrated a remarkable durability against the kind of attacks a campaign brings.

One sorts through the newspaper clips about Muskie’s supposed failings, or the supposed failings of any of the others, and sees how thin the information becomes as time passes. One thinks about all the county dinners and fund-raisers and head tables and high-level strategy meetings and all the flying around and all the things a candidate puts himself through, and it all becomes so tragically comic.

Harris, Jackson, Lindsay ...

The candidacy of Fred Harris, who said some interesting things in the course of his run, was brief. Then came November 19, the Senate Caucus Room, the big place for presidential announcements. The lights went up, the cameras rolled, and Henry Jackson joined the pack, saying that he would move “vigorously” in such primaries as New Hampshire; but a couple of weeks later he declared that he wouldn’t move vigorously or any other way in New Hampshire. That October 25 press release jumped to mind: “Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty today almost but not quite indicated that he may enter the New Hampshire Presidential primary.”

The sound of the locust became louder: Proxmire will; Proxmire won’t. Mills will; no, he won’t, except for a little bit. Chisholm will; so will Fauntroy, in a limited way. Hartke, Hartke, Hartke. And this doesn’t even take into consideration Aurelio’s man.

It is July 8, 1971. Mayor John Vliet Lindsay of New York is conversing with John J. Lindsay, a Newsweek reporter. Friends for years, they’ve gotten over the eerieness of John Lindsay talking to John Lindsay. John Lindsay likes John Lindsay because John Lindsay is a good reporter. (In Washington the reporter John Lindsay’s colleagues refer to him as the real John Lindsay.) Mayor Lindsay is musing about maybe becoming a Democrat. “I’ve thought about it. Quite a lot, ” he tells reporter Lindsay. “But I cannot see it bettering the world in any way . . . . You see, I’m really an outsider to the regulars of the Republican Party. I’m an outsider to the regulars of the Democratic Party. And I don’t think the time is right for a maverick. “ Did he think that maybe he should take the problems of the cities to America as a presidential candidate? “It’s really a hell of a tough decision. ” Aurelio’s man lighted another cigar.I don’t think I should do that merely as an exercise. And it looks like an exercise to me right now. ”

Lindsay went through the exercises of being mayor that day, chatting with Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy about the deft handling of a potential riot in Brooklyn the night before; giving awards to families of police officers killed in action in 1970; touring a methadone center set up on an old Staten Island ferry, The Gold Star Mother, moored in the harbor within sight of the Statue of Liberty; walking that night along sidewalks in front of the hovels of South Bronx, where a goateed Latin leaned from a window and shouted; “There’s President Leenseee!” Move on a few months, and suddenly, there in Miami, was potential-President Lindsay, a Democrat now, speaking not far from where he nominated Spiro Agnew for Vice President in 1968, telling America that he, too, was joining the pack.

Everyone seemed to be doing it. As 1972 arrived, some people even still talked about Ramsey Clark. You could still see an occasional SHRIVER ‘72 bumper sticker. Here and there in Washington you could find a button extolling Senator Sam Ervin. On my office wall is a bumper sticker that says, “YARBOROUGH FOR PRESIDENT ‘72.” “When you live as long as I have, all politics looks pretty foolish.” Life magazine quoted Charlie Chaplin not long ago. “Intellectual snobs,” ranted Wallace, jabbing the Tallahassee air with a fist. Hartke, Hartke, Hartke.

McCarthy, Humphrey

It is late 1970, one of Gene McCarthy’s last days in his graywalled Senate office. He never likes to talk about politics. This day he diverts the conversation to the contents of a small box on his desk. Some rocks and two buckeyes are in it. “These are earth rocks,”he says. “Genuine earth rocks. And these are buckeyes. They came from one of those trees over there. “He nods out his window. “Not many people in Washington know about buckeyes, ” he says. (But they know about rocks. Hell, a good man can predict elections from them.)

Not long after he left that office for a hotel suite a block away, McCarthy, too. however elliptically, was running for President again.

Soon after McCarthy left the Senate, taking his volumes of poetry and philosophy with him, the gray walls of his office were painted a cheery cream, and Hubert Humphrey moved in, presidential dreams behind him. Ah, but.

Little by little, the dream returned, and suddenly there was Hubert announcing, joining the mob on the beach making sand castles. The torrent of press releases from his office (he eventually moved from McCarthy’s old suite) became more formidable than any other senator’s. He began running about the country as if pursued. His speeches were shorter, but he was still corny (how could he resist tossing a hat in a Florida circus ring?). Still sentimental and immensely likable, he rushed about leaving each minute panting behind him. “Oh, me, are we done?” he asked as one television interviewer (The Atlantic’s Washington editor, Elizabeth Drew) tried to bring the half hour to a close. “We are. Thank you,” the interviewer said. “Oh. Gee,” Hubert Horatio Humphrey said.

Yes, he was running, spouting the theme which most of the other Democratic candidates were spouting as ‘72 finally came. It wasn’t the war solely, or the economy, because the Democrats weren’t sure that either would be bad enough to make things bullish for them in ‘72. It wasn’t necessarily misplaced priorities, though all agreed that they were, indeed, upside down. What it really came down to was C.I.—the Credibility Issue—which encompassed a general loss of truth, trust, belief, or confidence in anyone or anything in America. And, the locust liked to think, Dick Nixon was the Mr. Big of unbelievability. It was such a great issue because the malaise pervaded all America. Hell, when Madison Avenue latches on, can there be any doubt? Buick suddenly became “something to believe in.” (Whatever became of God?) “You can trust Texaco,” one commercial blares through a big production number that ends with the single word “TRUST” filling the TV screen. You can not only trust but believe in American Oil, Johnny Cash intones. “If You Can’t Trust Prestone, Who Can You Trust?” Pink pad? Blue pad? Honest Ed Muskie who speaks of a politics of truth and a politics of trust? Straight Scoop Jackson, who’s gonna tell it like it is? George McGovern, whose main slogan is, “I pledge to seek and speak the truth”?

Who why what where when how do I start to believe again now that to do so is so hard? A man listens, but the whirring of the locust drowns out the answer.

-RICHARD T. STOUT