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In Your Heart You Know He’s Nixon

“. . . In a way, both Kennedy and Nixon have been written about inaccurately. As we learned who Kennedy was only after he died, we may learn who Nixon is only after he is President . . .”

From the October 28, 1968 issue of New York Magazine.

The last night of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, with bloodstains still visible on the sidewalks of Michigan Avenue and 20,000 armed men still pursuing fewer demonstrators than have been peacefully contained in Central Park on a summery Sunday, the McCarthy and McGovern and Kennedy forces gave each other one final instruction: to applaud Hubert Humphrey. They would seize on the first decent statement in his acceptance speech—a peaceful step in Vietnam, some distress at seeing students and delegates gassed in the streets; anything—and cheer and applaud that statement in the hope that it would be followed up and enlarged upon, as Humphrey frequently follows and enlarges upon any statement that gets good audience reaction, so that this choice of the Democratic machine might inadvertently find himself committed in public to something constructive.

Of course, it didn’t work. It was a pathetic, heat-of-battle instruction among the ranks, and a high-level version of the same idea had already failed that afternoon when George McGovern and his chief convention aide, Frank Mankiewicz, had met with Humphrey in his hotel suite. “I am here to speak to Democrats, and only Democrats; will all the security men please leave the floor? . . . Our problem is that we have not talked to each other, have not really been in touch with each other . . .” That was the beginning of the acceptance speech Mankiewicz had suggested to Humphrey, a dramatic speech that might have bridged some of the terrible emotional distance between the peace forces and the Establishment, between the old Humphrey and his current stance as Cowardly Lion. But the candidate didn’t listen. In the end, he did make some disapproving reference to the fate of dissenters out of respect for McGovern, but it was too weak to bridge any part of the gap, or even to annoy Mayor Daley.

In fact, we were all probably wrong to try. Even a dramatic gesture like the one Frank Mankiewicz had thought up out of despair might have done no good. What a man stands for matters much more than the words he uses; something Wallace supporters have understood right through all the watered-down speeches and the wreaths laid on Lincoln’s grave. Given by a candidate who meant something, the acceptance speech Humphrey finally made might not have been bad at all. But this was a man who compromised more, and with less reason, than even his colleagues expected, and who abdicated leadership so that the forces of reaction could reduce a watershed event to one simple-minded question: Do you or do you not support your local police?

In Humphrey’s own Amphitheatre head-quarters, a poster of his smiling face was left with a hand-lettered inscription on the final day. It said, “The Gutless Wonder.”

So it wasn’t surprising that a spontaneous determination came over a lot of us who had been in Chicago—not by nature ‘nay-sayers or bomb-throwers, but people who had believed in change by participation—to go to the polls for local candidates, but not to vote the Presidential line at all. There were a lot of attempts at explanation: the Democratic Party could best be revitalized out of office; by creating statistical discrepancies at the polls, we could make the point of no confidence in whoever won; Nixon was going to win anyway, so why not use our votes, or non-votes, for another purpose? But the real reason was more emotional than that. We just couldn’t imagine going into a polling booth and pulling the lever for this man who had betrayed so much, no matter who the alternative was.

Back in New York, wearing plain white buttons to indicate we had no Presidential choice and working for local candidates only, we discovered another set of scales had fallen from our eyes. Men change. They grow, and they change drastically. We were finally getting rid of that old liberal leftover-from-Marxism reliance on Correct Positions and party labels. After all, lackadaisical Senator and belated war critic Eugene McCarthy, who once wanted nothing more from life than to be Johnson’s Vice President, had ended up in the parks of Chicago with Yippies, peace delegates, and militants, radicalized, or very nearly. And Robert Kennedy, who started out as the anti-Communist who made Joe McCarthy godfather of his first child, ended up as the only American politician who seemed as concerned about the fate of Vietnamese civilians as that of American soldiers. (The turning point, I’ve always thought, came when he was 29 and went to the Soviet Union where a Soviet doctor saved his life; but these normal human explanations aren’t favored by political scientists.) Even Strom Thurmond, arch segregationist and defender of states’ rights, was once a reformer and disciple of Franklin Roosevelt.