Analysis: From student radical to Presidential candidate
It almost went unnoticed in the fevered pitch leading up to today’s primary contest in freezing New Hampshire – but in a front page editorial in the Washington Post’s Sunday edition, former 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern – the Barack Obama of his day – called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I have not been heavily involved in singing the praises of the Nixon administration,” wrote the former Senator from South Dakota who was trounced by incumbent President Richard Nixon in a ‘dirty-tricks’ campaign that included the Watergate scandal.
“But the case for impeaching Bush and Cheney is far stronger than was the case against Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew after the 1972 election.
“The nation would be much more secure and productive under a Nixon presidency than with Bush.
“Indeed, has any administration in our national history been so damaging as the Bush-Cheney era?
“How could a once-admired, great nation fall into such a quagmire of killing, immorality and lawlessness?”
In 1972, with the Vietnam War still raging and the draft still in place, McGovern was the favourite of the youth movement.
He also inherited the loyalty of New York Senator Robert Kennedy’s followers, having stood in for him at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago after Kennedy was assassinated right after winning the California primary, where he defeated antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, the poetry-writing Senator from Minnesota.
In fact, in the volatile world of 1968, when “change” was the watchword among youth in America and around the world, Hillary Rodham changed.
Entering Wellesley in 1965 as a Goldwater Republican and attending the GOP convention in 1968 as a more liberal Rockefeller Republican, she left the GOP in part because of its “veiled” racist messages, according to a profile in the New York Times.
She also became radicalised by the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and went to New Hampshire to campaign for antiwar standard-bearer Eugene McCarthy.
It might be interesting to note that Kennedy was actually the more moderate of the two antiwar candidates, wanting a “strategic withdrawal” from Vietnam instead of McCarthy’s swift pullout.
The following year, in 1969, Hillary was chosen as the commencement speaker at her graduation – the first student speaker in Wellesley’s history, according to biographer Carl Bernstein.
But when featured speaker – Massachusetts Republican Senator Edward Brooke, the first black man elected to Congress in 100 years, for whom Hillary had campaigned, failed to mention the cataclysmic events of 1968, she tossed aside her own notes and excoriated him, making her a de facto spokesperson for her generation.
She subsequently chose activist-orientated Yale Law School (over Harvard, Obama’s alma mater), where she met Bill Clinton and, among other political activities, worked with African-American powerhouse Marian Wright Edelman on the problems of migrant workers (later becoming staff attorney fo Edelman’s Children’s Defence Fund), and monitored the Black Panther trials, with her notes going to the American Civil Libertites Union.
In 1972, she and Clinton campaigned for McGovern in Texas and as a young attorney, she became part of the legal staff advising the House Judiciary committee on the impeachment of Richard Nixon, stemming from dirty tricks conducted during Nixon’s successful campaign against McGovern.
Nixon subsequently resigned.
As Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned in New Hampshire today, there was another specter of Watergate that loomed over the Primary contest – Ed Muskie.
In 1968, Maine Senator Muskie was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s running mate after President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election.
They lost to Nixon.
In 1972, Muskie entered the Presidential race as the front-running establishment candidate against antiwar insurgent McGovern.
Last February, when Clinton was campaigning in New Hampshire, liberal writer Harold Meyerson wrote a story in the Washington Post asking “Can Hillary Clinton Avoid What Ed Muskie Couldn’t?”
He suggested that their campaigns were similar. But until yesterday, Clinton had not displayed the kind of vulnerability that killed Muskie’s campaign.
While snow fell during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in 1972, Muskie started crying as he defended his wife against what turned out to be Nixonian dirty tricks.
He looked weak and his Presidential candidacy quickly tanked.
Yesterday in Portsmouth, after non-stop campaigning since the Iowa Caucuses, Clinton choked up during a question and answer session with women voters.
Here’s part of a report from the New York Times:
“In perhaps her most public display of emotion of the Presidential campaign, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s eyes welled with tears, and her voice cracked dramatically on Monday, as she talked about holding up under the rigours of the race and her belief that she is the best candidate for the Democratic nomination.”
If it was not an Ed Muskie moment – Mrs. Clinton did not cry (or look like she was crying) – she was certainly on the verge of it after a woman asked her, at a round table discussion at a coffee shop here, how she managed to get out of bed and soldier through each day.
“How do you do it?” the woman, Marianne Pernold, asked. And, with a touch of humour, she added, “Who does your hair?”
“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” Mrs. Clinton replied slowly.
“I couldn’t do it if I did not passionately believe it was the right thing to do. It’s very personal to me.”
At this point Mrs Clinton’s voice softened and lowered to a near-hush, and she spoke more haltingly.
“I have so many ideas for this country, I just don’t want to see us fall backwards,” she said, her eyes visibly wet, as a row of news photographers began snapping away to capture the moment.
“It’s about our country, it’s about our kids’ futures. Some of us are right some of us are wrong,” she continued, firming up a bit – and sounding, some reporters felt, either angry or resentful about Senator Barack Obama.
“Some of us are ready, and some of us are not. Some of us know what we’ll do on day one and some of us don’t.”
The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll has Obama ahead of Clinton by 13 points, suggesting a second loss to the African-American candidate who won in 95% white Iowa and has been rallying young people to a new movement with the promise of changing America.
But for LGBT boomers who remember the excitement of the 1968 and 1972 antiwar “We Can Change the World” insurgency campaigns, Hillary Clinton’s emotional moment was not so much like Ed Muskie as a confrontation with the ideals that became embedded in the soul during that idealistic period.
Having fought against the Vietnam war mongers to bring soldiers home – most of whom were people of colour and poor whites who could not escape the draft; having organised student protests and worked with black students to achieve modest gains in the university system; having worked with and been mentored by Marian Wright Edelman – how could her surging main rival be a brilliant young black man whom she might otherwise have supported?
How could all her experience be less important when compared to his rhetoric of change – a rhetoric of change similar to that she once espoused when she was a young civil rights lawyer and organiser?
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When did she become that old, that Establishment, when her soul tells her she is still fighting for the same things she’s always believed in?
There is an old feminist saying: the personal is political. To be sure, as they have described it, the personal is political for Barack Obama and John Edwards, too.
But to Hillary Clinton, who embodied the phrase and took it with her to Beijing, China for the International Women’s Conference where she spoke out about women’s rights – and to Belfast where she brought Protestand and Catholic mothers of that war-torn province together – “the personal is political” has a deeply profound meaning.
And to a boomer forever inspired by young President John F. Kennedy’s profound pronouncement that the “torch has been passed to a new generation” – that’s what Hillary Clinton’s choked up vulnerability meant. Not yet. Not yet. The job of changing the world is not completed yet.
Karen Ocamb will be covering politics from an LGBT perspective in the run up to Super Tuesday. Ocamb is the news editor for IN Magazine.
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