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Sanders' campaign reminds of 'Clean Gene's' presidential run in '68

For political junkies, old political writers being foremost among those, one of the recurring exercises is finding similarities between years-apart election campaigns. Thus this year's race for the Democratic nomination for president is offering such a comparison, particularly for those fond of fostering, or for some it's fearful of, the thought that history repeats itself.

With Donald Trump suddenly the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, there will be reach backs to campaigns and candidates of the past to which Trump's campaign this year will draw comparisons.

But the similarity I'm referring to in this case is between Sen. Bernie Sanders' intriguing quest of his party's nomination against an established party figure, Hillary Clinton, and Eugene McCarthy's quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968.

McCarthy's campaign slogan of "Get clean for Gene" has become Sanders' "feel the Bern."

That '68 campaign in which McCarthy, a virtually unknown senator from Minnesota, forced Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from any re-election effort then sought to be his successor, will always be a vivid memory for me because it was the first presidential campaign I covered, as a young reporter for UPI.

A quick background for those to whom that 1968 campaign is merely a foggy recollection from a history class. The growing anger, particularly among the young, over the failing effort of the Vietnam War allowed a fed-up McCarthy to decide to run, almost match Johnson's total in the nation's first primary in New Hampshire, and thus caused Johnson to announce in a national television address that he would not seek another term.

Those angry against the war, largely young people who thought it was not only time to end what they viewed as an immoral campaign by their nation's leaders but also seeking broad change in the "Great Society" Johnson had created for their parents' generation, flocked to support McCarthy.

Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of the slain president and viewed by many as heir apparent to John Kennedy's "Camelot," entered the campaign. For a handful of memorable months until Kennedy's assassination as he left the stage at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel following his victory in the California Primary, his campaign brought forth the unrest among minority groups and added those demanding social change to those seeking to end the war.

Kennedy' campaign actually was attracting some Democratic leaders and cementing delegates in each state, including in Washington State where Everest conqueror and Kennedy confidant Jim Whittaker was pinning down Kennedy delegates.

One of my favorite memories of covering parts of that campaign of nearly 50 years ago as a young political writer was a chance encounter at the 1968 Democratic state convention in Tacoma with a to-become-famous high school friend from Spokane.

Kitty Kelley was a spunky young woman for whom that presidential campaign would be the launch pad for a highly successful but controversy-punctuated career as a biographer of the rich and famous.

I glanced across the crowded hall and, seeing her for the first time in 10 years, I made my way through the crowd, said hello and asked her what she was doing there.

"I'm Gene McCarthy's press secretary," she said with a laugh.

"What the heck do you know about being a press secretary?" I asked.

"I decided I wanted to be one and did some research and found that two of the senators didn't have one," she responded. "So I picked McCarthy, made an appointment with him and told him I wanted to be his press secretary. He asked me 'what does a press secretary do?' and I told him we'd figure that out together. So I got the job."

So when McCarthy decided to emerge from relative anonymity and run for president, the campaign brought Kitty contact with political leaders and the prominent in society. Those contacts she made that spring and summer of '68 helped provide the exposure and experience that would allow her to launch her literary career.

I've watched with interest and amusement in the years since then as her ability to uncover long-hidden secrets and get the "ungettable" story on those about whom she produced a string of unauthorized biographies stirred the ire and criticism of the rich and famous and their friends.

Because she was an attractive blond woman with the name "Kitty," those stung by her tell-all biographies of Jackie Onassis Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the British Royal Family and perhaps most famously, the Bush family, found it easy to dismiss the quality of her work.

Over the years, when controversy swirled around her work, I've smiled to myself to think back on that encounter in Tacoma with a young woman I'd known as a Spokane teenager who had used brains and guts as substitutes for experience and privilege to carve out a high-visibility career for herself.

She thus exemplified an army of young women who did likewise in that decade of the '60s and early '70s, creating important roles for themselves in what had been, prior to that, a "man's world," and opening the way for others of their gender to do the same.

But back to the '68 campaign.

Kennedy's death ensured that Democratic party leaders would gather in force behind Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who didn't run in the primaries but merely gathered the necessary state-by-state support from delegates and local party leaders. Thereafter the outcome of who would get the nomination was really never in doubt, except in the ranks of those young and minorities who had come to believe McCarthy's election was vital to the changes they had come to demand.

The battles in the streets of Chicago between McCarthy supporters and Mayor Richard Daley's police force as the Democratic Convention gave the nomination to Humphrey ensured that McCarthy's supporters would largely abandon the system and stay away from the November election.

In the end Nixon's razor-thin margin of victory made it clear to political analysts that those who decided not to vote ensured that the Democratic nominee would lose.

Fast forward 48 years to the Sanders campaign, which has attracted large numbers of those, particularly the young and new voters, who want out with the current social and political structure and flock to him as the instrument of change.

It's obvious to the Democratic party insiders and most elected leaders in the states that Sanders isn't going to win the party's nomination at this summer's convention. Thus Clinton, as much a part of Democratic establishment and tradition as was Humphrey, will head into the general election season hoping that history does not repeat itself, as in disaffected prospective voters giving the election to the Republican nominee by staying away from the polls on election day.

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