When I did not CREEP
While most politically active young people looked to Robert Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy as their political idols in the sixties and seventies I looked to Pete McCloskey. Pete was a tough old ex-marine and Californian congressman who, because he opposed the war in Vietnam, quixotically challenged Richard Nixon for the 1972 Republican presidential nomination. He got exactly one vote at the Miami Convention. If I'd been there he'd have gotten two votes.
About ten years ago I heard Pete on National Public Radio. He had just gotten in the news for exposing Pat Robertson's inglorious military career. Pete gave a definition for politics that I haven't forgotten. He said that to be politic was not to offend. Judging by his own career Pete obviously didn't pay much heed to that aspect of the job. Today (in 2004) its hard to think of politics as anything other than offensive but the description is apt. To offend is to lose votes and until recently politicians were loathe to lose votes by offending voters. Unfortunately, today's politics is driven by legislative districts on the state and national levels that have been drawn to insure that only vituperatively partisan pols can get elected. Within Parties there is little room or tolerance for dissent. The political world today has become black and white much as it was in 1972 when Richard Nixon presided over the nation.
I had improbably joined the Republican party in 1972 and as an opponent of the War in Vietnam I was looking for an alternative to President Nixon. Pete McCloskey was my man. Before that summer's National Convention and Pete's eventual removal I began working for the impoverished State Republican Party. The real money was in the Committee to Reelect the President as Nixon's campaign was smashing the old fund raising records. I was offered a job in the Minnesota CREEP headquarters.
I don't know who coined that acronym but the unfortunate Com to REElect the President was aptly titled. A forged CREEP letter was to cause the early defeat of Nixon's most serious rival a Kerryesque New England Senator, Edmund Muskie, leaving Nixon to face the politically undistinguished George McGovern. I was avidly reading back page stories about a break-in at the National Democratic Headquarters long before anyone else paid much attention to it. (Regarding McGovern. He was in a decorated WWll bomber pilot whose undeniable war heroism was described as a fraud by one anonymous anti-McGovern piece I remember reading. Karl Rove probably wrote and distributed it.)
Rather than compromise my principles with CREEP I applied for a summer job driving a freshly painted Ford econoline Van for the Minnesota College Republicans. They had dubbed it the "electmobile." I readied myself to visit county fairs to enlist volunteers for republican legislative candidates. Having run a dozen such campaigns since then I can now see how optimistic this enterprise was but I was young and had the good fortune of not realizing my limits.
Unfortunately for me I managed to wreck the electmobile in Crow Wing County just weeks after taking it out on the road. The Republican Party graciously continued to employ me and the College Republicans gamely put me to work despite my having laid waste to their biggest project of the year. The CR big shots towed me along to various functions and found miscellaneous uses for me for the rest of the summer. I clipped news articles, decorated meeting halls and hob knobbed with well connected Republicans.
When Vice President Spiro Agnew came to give a speech in Minnesota at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) convention the Party was worried about security. I joined half-a-dozen other CR's to join the police and Secret Service as body guards for the Veep. As a result I got to shake the hand of the only Vice President ever to resign from the office in disgrace.
After the Miami Convention Pete disappeared from the radar pretty quickly and I had to decide who I would support for President. There was no doubt in my mind that I would vote for the Democrat candidate, George McGovern. As a Republican however I didn't make too big a deal out of my embarrassing lapse of partisanship. I hadn't forgotten my Grandfather's warning about those war mongering Democrats. He was such a Kansas Republican!
My Grandfather, George Robb, had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. When I was eleven or twelve years old he gave me a little talking to about party loyalty. "I made one mistake in my life," my Grandfather reported. "I voted for one democrat because he promised to keep us out of war and see what happened?" Grandfather was talking about Woodrow Wilson who had campaigned on a platform of keeping the US out of World War I. After 1916 he never voted for anything other than a straight Republican ticket. This, alas, is something which I will never be able to boast of.
As the fall rolled around I got back to campus at Mankato State where politicking was fast and furious. By now moderate and credible CR's were melting away from the organization all over the nation. Our group was a rag tag group of sophomores and freshmen whose new President had become a pot smoking long hair. No one else had wanted the job. Not even me. I didn't like the idea of spoiling my reputation with such a unpopular title. Besides that, I was planning to vote for George McGovern I didn't want to be a hypocrite.
Then the George McGovern forces issued a challenge to the College Republicans. They wanted a debate and there were simply no other CR's who would do. Certainly not the doped up CR President. I volunteered to take on the onerous and unwanted responsibility of defending President Nixon.
It was my plan to be honest about my disagreements with the Administration but play devil's advocate in defending Nixon's policies. Recently over a thousand students had marched against the war on our campus. I did not relish the task of defending Richard Nixon in front of such an audience.
The audience of several hundreds was much less partisan than I had expected. I defended Richard Nixon against the two college debaters who had spent all summer researching issues for McGovern. I had only been a passable debater in High School but I had already adopted a reasonably pragmatic style of debate from my year's on the student senate. It was not an unpleasant debate although when it was over a couple of old friends looked at me in sorrow and told me in effect. "I didn't think you could do such a terrible thing" (as defending Nixon).
I did such a thing because I have always felt that there are two sides of a story and each must be heard. I didn't bother defending myself to my friends. I knew perfectly well what my motivation was.
I was pleased when my father, mother, and brother all voted for George McGovern in November. I'll never regret the vote and I'll never regret having refused to CREEP.
I was recently going through some mementos of my youth and found a cartoon that I had taped on my wall when I was in college. It pretty much summed up what I thought of the giddy pro-Nixon students I had met. Of course, I didn't have much patience for some of the anti-war warriors I ran across either. Nothing seems to change.