People-Power Revisited

Some time ago I attended a Q & A session given by an independent filmmaker who had completed her first feature-length work. Predictably, she was asked, “What did it feel like to be producing and directing your first major film?” It’s a question that calls for routine adjectives such as “awesome” and “exhilarating,” but she went to the heart of it. “Fear,” she said. “Sustained terror.”

Movie buffs in the audience were startled, but I knew exactly what she meant. I’ve never produced or directed a film, but years ago I ran for U.S. Congress.

We were amateurs, all of us. We had little money, no experience in electoral politics, and no support from the pros in either major party. We didn’t even know what one had to do to get on the ballot. Could we raise enough money to be taken seriously? Would the press print what we had to say? Anxiety? Right from day one. All we had going for us was rage against an illegal, immoral, and pointless war.

It was 1966. We were well into a war that had begun so subtly no one had really noticed. What we did know was that at some point the original assignment of a few advisors to an obscure and impoverished Asian country had grown month by month and year by year into a major war. At the beginning, even the press was unsure how to spell the name of the country (one word or two?), and few Americans could locate it on a map. Now it was being described as a major threat to the security of the United States. Opposing the war had somehow become unpatriotic. Our national flag had become politicized, appearing as decals on police-car windows.

In July, 1966, I was vacationing with my family in Maine. I received a telephone call from a distant friend in my home state of Connecticut asking me if I would consider running for Congress as a third-party candidate opposed to the war. I was a teacher, not a politician, and the invitation struck me as preposterous. True, as an undergraduate I had been highly political, but as a professor I had focused on my classes and writing fiction. I had never run for public office of any sort. Why, I asked, had she called on me?

She explained that she had remembered that I, along with a few colleagues, had signed a statement back in ’64 suggesting that Barry Goldwater was likely to get us into a serious war. A group of students at Trinity College in Hartford where I taught had put up a placard urging everyone to boycott our classes. There was a brief flurry in the papers. I was flattered that she remembered this blip on the political scene, but that brief moment of notoriety didn’t strike me as solid credentials for a candidate for the U. S. Congress. I thanked her and said, “no.”

But I couldn’t let go of the possibility. I recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, “privileged moments.” It describes those rare occasions in which one is faced with a choice that may radically change one’s life. They come without warning and are almost never repeated. My life in academia had been pleasant and a bit insulated from world events. Compared with some of my students who had risked their lives in the civil-rights movement, I had gone soft. I could feel my former activist self nudging me. I called her back and said, “maybe.”

It turned out that although the group of five who had called me had all been active in the antiwar movement, none of them wanted to run for office themselves. They had some notion that my status as a professor might help. It seemed more likely to me that it would put off more voters than it would win.

There was a more serious problem in the fact that all of the organizers were from the Hartford area, a part of the First Congressional District; my wife and I lived in a suburb that was over the line in what was then the Sixth District. No problem, they told me. They would work for me even if they couldn’t give me their votes.

We spent three days giving ourselves a crash course on what one had to do to appear on the ballot—how to file one’s intent, the number of signatures required, and the deadlines. I learned a good deal about the mechanics, but I missed the central lesson until I looked back years later: Political life is driven in part by unseen currents that are as powerful as they are unpredictable. At the end of those three days I had become a candidate for office without ever having said, “yes.”

There are four working months between early July and the November election, and I assumed I had time to go tent-trailer camping in Canada with my family before officially launching the campaign. Many candidates, after all, don’t start their active drive until Labor Day. So I filed my intent, wrote up a press release, gave it and a photo to my volunteer campaign manager, Charlotte Kitowski, and took off with my boys and wife for Canada.

In the world before cell phones, I could have been dogsledding on the Arctic tundra. I had no way of knowing that back in Connecticut my press release had launched a flash flood of news: The New York Times, doubtless facing a summer drought of newsworthy events, ran the entire release, the photo, and added some of their own material. They telephoned poor Charlotte asking for clarifications (Had I supported the Korean War? Was I a pacifist? Had I run for office before?), and she was forced, as press secretaries often are, to provide vacuous responses. When we returned, she was indignant. I had wasted two valuable weeks. I realized then that I had stepped into something that was going to demand every waking minute until November.

We moved back to Connecticut, but because we had rented our home for the summer vacation we had to live with supporters. Surprisingly, volunteers from both parties sprang up wherever I went. Because both the Republican and the Democratic candidates had apparently decided to say nothing about the war, my entrance tapped a segment of the electorate that until then had no spokesperson.

The Sixth District was large and demographically mixed. Much of it was rural and traditionally Republican. Herds of milk cows grazed on grassy hills. At the opposite extreme were three midsized, highly industrialized cities that for generations had been Democratic strongholds. As with many such cities in New England, they were dominated by Polish and Italian voters along with a variety of other ethnic groups.

Our method of organizing soon fell into two distinct strategies. In the rural areas, we focused on one town at a time. We would announce a meeting to be held in a church or hall through press releases and occasionally small ads in local weeklies—all we could afford. Because we were as rich in volunteers as we were poor in campaign funding, we flooded the area with mimeographed flyers. We soon learned that it was a federal offense to use rural mailboxes, so we stapled the flyers to trees and telephone poles. In small towns, news spreads quickly. A crowd always developed. I would give a standard speech outlining why the war was illegal (never ratified by the Senate and in violation of the U.N. Charter), immoral (crushing self-determination), and pointless (based on invented threats). Sometimes a local speaker volunteered to make a pitch for funds. My wife and friends manned the tables, distributing flyers and campaign buttons reading “Why Not Minot?”

It was enormously gratifying to hear both before and after these local rallies members of the audience saying to each other, “What are you doing here?” It was as if we were giving vent to political frustrations that had lain unvoiced just under the surface.

Campaigning in the cities was entirely different. It started about 5:00 a.m. I would stand at a factory gate shaking hands and making myself known. I learned that many would linger and chat before opening time, but no one had time even to shake a hand at the end of the day. By 8:00 a.m. I was often speaking at breakfast meetings—Kiwanis, Lions, Chambers of Congress; late mornings were for door-to-door canvassing. Lunch was a repeat of the breakfast pitch; afternoons we went to the malls looking for hands to shake; evenings were for major gatherings; midnight was for staff meetings.

On Sundays I was occasionally invited to speak at church services. At black congregations I learned the rhythm of responses, waiting for the collective “A-men” at the end of key phrases. These were a welcome contrast with the stone faces I often faced at the meetings of Lions and Rotarians.

The pressure was nonstop. The only exception was a private dinner with a supporter and his wife. The staff and I had discussed at length whether to accept, and it was decided that, surely, the couple planned to give us a major donation. When we were halfway through the meal, however, our host announced that he and his wife had simply intended to give us “a respite from the demands of the campaign.” An entire evening utterly wasted!

Those four months were the first and only period of my life I got along on four hours of sleep a night. I woke before dawn, minutes ahead of the alarm clock. All this with no coffee. Tension was my primary fuel.

Behind the relentlessly public life there were private crises that, we discovered later, were shared by almost every amateur politician. First, there was the mid-campaign leadership battle. Fed by exhaustion and anxiety, staff meetings were frequently stormy. Disputes erupted over tactics and personalities. I finally was forced to switch campaign managers, turning to a dedicated young man named Tom Nerney and his wife, Gloria. He gave up his job to devote himself fully to the campaign. We were like instant brothers who got along without a single moment of disharmony. Making the change, however, was like a bad divorce. I was sure that it would do the campaign terrible harm.

I might have felt better if I had known that not only the split in management but its timing was almost identical to that in every antiwar campaign. Once the frenzied effort to collect the requisite number of signatures was successfully over, the emphasis shifted to winning votes. The transition created a perilous moment. Buried hostilities bubbled to the surface.

There are two factors involved. While major-party candidates also have their staffing battles, because they don’t have to collect signatures, there is not that significant shift in effort. In addition, when amateurs plunge into politics, they create a community made up of former strangers. The bonds are often intense, but they are not like long-term working relationships between old friends. Personality differences can spring up unexpectedly.

An even greater crisis challenged my wife and me as a couple. Every marriage has an unwritten contract about the kind of life two people plan to share. Ours was rooted in a quiet and creative life—my writing and her painting—and a close relationship with our two boys and, during the summer, my son from an earlier marriage. Like many academic couples, we enjoyed a low profile. The campaign changed all that explosively. No peace, no moment for reflection, no quiet time alone. Every sentence we uttered referred to some aspect of the campaign. I was out of the house before dawn and before our children were up, and I wasn’t back until well after midnight. I was a non-father. And a non-husband as well. Looking back, we realized that we had lived through the greatest threat our marriage had ever faced.

That too was a part of a larger pattern. In comparing notes with other candidates in the years that followed, we discovered that almost every marriage was threatened. Professional politicians marry political junkies—if not the first time around, then after the first few campaigns. For us amateurs, however, the transformation was traumatic. A friend who had taken the plunge into electoral politics as naively as I followed the pattern to its ultimate conclusion: as soon as the election was over he divorced his unhappy wife and married his former campaign manager. As a team, they continued to lead a highly public life. Fortunately for our marriage, winning elections was never my goal.

By today’s standards, our fund-raising was child’s play. But it didn’t seem so to us. I spent a good deal of time on the phone with potential donors, and I found a few that were willing to part with $500 to $700. No one gave more than that, and most checks were in the $10 to $15 range. We received no PAC money. Two unions supported us, God bless them, the Musicians’ and the Electricians’, and individual members gave money. But both had been burned during the McCarthy period and neither felt free to contribute as a union.

My major argument at labor union meetings was that it was their sons who were being drafted. Those without college deferments were shouldering more than their share. They had every reason to oppose the war. I wanted to remind them that ours was turning into a poor-man’s army, but as I looked around the union halls I realized that few there were poor. Those who were filling the draft quotas were more likely nonunion, frequently unemployed, and increasingly black. But as one 200-pound, cigar-smoking shop steward said to me, “Sure, sure, but what can you do for us?” That is, what could I deliver except words? PAC money went to elect potential—and grateful—winners.

Instead, we relied on other fund-raising approaches. Some of the most successful were cocktail parties and art auctions. We were fortunate in having in our district the bucolic area around Roxbury, Connecticut. It was well-known for its artists, writers, and dramatists. Alexander Calder opened his house for a fund-raising party, and he invited writers like Arthur Miller, William Styron, and others. Giving me his big bear hug, he set the tone for the evening. It was a stellar occasion, the kind that gives the illusion of pure fun. As candidate, however, I was never able to relax. This was, after all, a fund-raising event.

In all, our receipts came out to little more than $30,000. This covered a mass mailing and distribution of the four-page tabloid and four professionally produced television ads. Incredibly, our message reached a majority of the voting public. Remember that by October we had an army of volunteers considerably larger than either the Republican or Democratic candidate, that our three headquarters were contributed rent free, and not a single worker was on salary. There is a question in my mind as to how much of the millions that are now raised in Congressional races are necessary to present significant issues.

Behind the tension and frenzy, there was a personal transformation going on. I was losing my Al Gore reserve and shaping a new persona. I owe a great deal to a Col. Frank Kowalski. He had served in the Army of Occupation in Japan after the war and had been deeply shocked by the ruins of Hiroshima. After the war he was selected by the Democratic machine in Connecticut to be the Congressman at Large, a position that no longer exists. He was a war hero and could speak Polish—the two credentials the party regulars were looking for. He turned out to be his own man and enormously popular—a kind of Polish Harry Truman.

As soon as he became outspoken in opposition to the Vietnam War, however, the party regulars were no longer pleased. In fact, they refused to nominate him for a second term. They lured him out of the state with a lucrative appointment to something known as The Subversive Activities Control Board in Washington, D.C. He languished there in exile, surrounded by vehement hawks. Political machines have a gift for ironic punishments.

At the very beginning of my campaign he came up on his own initiative from Alexandria, Virginia, to introduce me to some of the more enlightened members of the Democratic establishment and, more important, to train me how to become a politician.

“Politics is touching people,” he told me over and over. “The handshake, the hand on the shoulder, the friendly grip on the arm. Those are votes. You go after them vote by vote, you understand? Vote by vote.”

He would accompany me through the Polish districts of New Britain and check on the ways I greeted total strangers. “You didn’t touch him,” he’d whisper. “He won’t remember you.”

Adding to the tension generated in any campaign was the uneasy feeling that our phones were being tapped and that someone among us was an informer for the FBI. We had all lived through the McCarthy period, and Frank Kowalski’s work in Washington confirmed that the public and private lives of all political activists were being observed. We were fairly sure about who in our organization was the informer, but there was no way to act on it—except to insist that he stop making copies of our volunteer lists. I reminded my staff that since everything we did was legal we had nothing to hide. We should assume we were being observed and ignore the intrusion. Years later I was able to review the FBI files—at least the half that was not blacked out for “security.” They had indeed done a fairly thorough job.

The better we were known by the public, the rougher the campaign became. The administration of Central Connecticut State College announced that since I was an enemy of this country I would not be allowed on campus and that no placards about my campaign could be posted. The students enlisted the services of a sympathetic lawyer and secured a court order blocking the university’s action. The judge allowed us to have posters up for six hours before my appearance. Precisely at the end of the six hours the dean of the college personally toured the campus ripping down posters. His performance guaranteed us a good turnout.

On another occasion, an evening meeting was interrupted by a leather-jacketed motorcycle gang. They marched down the aisle, some fifteen of them, heels pounding on the floor. I remember thinking that as long as the evening remained verbal, I had the upper hand, but that if it came to a slugfest, they would have a distinct advantage. So I started talking to their leader before he reached me. I asked him, a young rooster of a man, whether his group ever had meetings. He stopped, perhaps puzzled by my lack of outrage, and nodded. “Suppose,” I said with a calm I didn’t feel, “I showed up and interrupted what you were saying. How would you feel?”

He shrugged, struggling for words. I told him I could see that he was the head of the group as soon as he stepped in. He nodded emphatically. “So I guess we’re both leaders,” I said. He seemed to like that. I asked him how many were in his group and where they came from, determined to keep the exchange verbal. Finally I urged him to stick around and hear what was going on. He shrugged and then nodded to his gang. They all sat down in the back row and I continued my speech. At the end, I shook his hand and urged him to invite me to his meetings. “Sure thing,” he said. We parted as co-leaders, never to meet again.

Not all of our encounters ended so smoothly. In one small, impoverished mill town we were given permission to have a meeting in the basement of a church. It was a graceful white clapboard building of the sort that appears on Christmas cards. A remnant from the early nineteenth century, it was the one beautiful sight in an otherwise sooty and depressed town. On the night following our meeting a gang stacked bales of hay against the front door and burned the building to the ground.

As the campaign approached the climax, there were some great moments. Dr. Benjamin Spock flew in to deliver a major address in our support. He was eloquent. Arthur Miller, who had been badly burned by the McCarthy committee in the ’50s and had stayed clear of politics for more than a decade, agreed to stand at the meeting and announce his support.

When we realized that we couldn’t afford to mail our tabloid to every voter in the district as we had planned, an astonishing network of volunteers was organized to distribute them by hand. Bales of that four-page “newspaper” were delivered by car to communities all over the district, and from there they were handed out door-to-door. This entire operation was organized and brought about without my knowing it. Clearly the campaign had taken on a momentum that was well beyond any one person. It was a delight to visit our three regional headquarters and hear what new projects they had initiated. The energy was exhilarating.

College resumed in mid-September and I had to add teaching to my schedule. Balancing the two was a juggling act. I left the house each morning before dawn with two briefcases, one political and the other academic. After my stint at the factory gates and, frequently, a breakfast address, I arrived at college dazed. Entering my oak-paneled classroom was like passing through a time warp. Seminars in literature and creative writing seemed like genteel pastimes from a different age. Unlike some of my politically committed colleagues, I constructed a fire wall between my candidacy and the class. I asked students not to wear my “Why Not Minot?” buttons, or discuss politics even indirectly. I did this mainly because I recalled with bitterness being trapped as a student at Harvard in a class run by a right-wing instructor. It was agony determining each day whether I should keep my mouth shut or speak out and risk a bad grade. He held, after all, a whip handle. As I explained to my students, I was more than willing to talk politics outside the class, but inside that room we were dealing with literature.

I was well aware of good writers—poets like Denise Levertov in particular—who disagreed. Some of them instilled their work during that period with political convictions. Those who taught urged their writing students to do the same. But the history of literature has shown that most highly topical, politically passionate work is forgotten as quickly as posters fade.

I learned later that my candidacy had become an issue with the trustees of Trinity College. A conservative group led by a vociferous hawk, they discussed various ways to make my teaching schedule so unpleasant that I would voluntarily leave. The dean, however, became my defender, reminding these corporate leaders that academic freedom was taken seriously by many and that hostile efforts on their part might backfire. Thanks to him, I never received even a hint of disapproval from the administration. This was in sharp contrast with politically active faculty members in the state system, one of whom had to spend six years of litigation to be reinstated.

Election day came on a class day. There was no way I could stop the television camera crews from entering the classroom. “Just ignore them,” I told my students, and we did so like actors in an absurdist play. Between classes and committee meetings, I visited polling places and found time to vote with my wife.

Then, finally, at long last, the polls closed. Having known from the start that winning an election against two well-financed candidates was neither a possibility nor even the goal made the gathering at our house a celebration. Like the independent film producer and her crew, we had pulled it off. For better or worse, we had delivered the message. I had already composed my concession speech—laced with one more blast against the war. I was acutely aware that with the election over we would lose our invaluable platform.

The only question that lingered in my mind was whether all that effort, all that tension, all that sustained exhaustion had generated a significant impact.

It had. We managed to unseat the Democratic incumbent. He not only gave up his seat, he quit politics for life. A bitter man, he paid us a compliment by blaming his loss on us. His defeat was a miniature precursor of President Johnson’s withdrawal from politics three long years later.

As the New Republic summed it up, “One man can make a difference.” It was not, however, one man. It was the concerted action of an astonishing group of citizens working in concert.

Like many political victories, our efforts had their unintended downside. We elevated to office a self-seeking Republican who eventually rose to the governorship and then a judgeship. For years I had to deal with the resentment of many Democrats.

I was also disappointed that we were never able to convince the public that our efforts were designed to support fighting men and women by trying to stop the madness before even more were killed. For years many considered us to be opposed to those in uniform. If there has to be another such mobilization, more must be done to counter this misapprehension.

The satisfactions, however, have outweighed the disappointments. Our efforts, along with tens of thousands of others, demonstrated to politicians that they cannot duck major issues like an unpopular war without risking defeat. The memory of the 1960s has had a dampening effect on this country’s actions in South and Central America. Even now it is a factor for many members of Congress if not yet in the White House itself.

The greatest satisfaction, however, is this: A group of naive but dedicated citizens were able to create a viable political force in four months. They trained themselves and raised the necessary funds. The movement was not generated by a charismatic leader, nor was it fueled by a millionaire. It sprang from the shared conviction of thousands and was fueled by compassion and indignation.

Today’s series of deceitful claims and politically motivated crises have an unnerving familiarity. But the capacity of Americans to organize a formidable opposition remains undiminished.