In 1968 I was a “Clean for Gene” campaigner in western Kansas. There were probably a hundred of us, but at least we caused enough of a ruckus to get harassed by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Also, I got fired from the college where I was then teaching. The town was Hays. The college was Fort Hays State College. The issue was the Vietnam War.
Every Sunday for most of the summer we would stand around the square of the town’s park for an hour of silence while a field agent for the FBI took our pictures and then later in the week spread them out on a table in the post office asking town folk if they could identify us. I pointed out myself.
Yes, I was a bit older than the students I now see at rallies for Bernie Sanders, but not much. And because I was a college teacher, like the students who also were protesting the war, I had a draft deferment.
While Sen. Eugene McCarthy did not come to western Kansas, there was still that sense of his presence. When we knew he was to give a televised speech we’d gather together at one or another’s home to watch him, then meet at the Brass Rail tavern to talk about it over 3.2 beers. He was to us a revelation. He had an idea of how to end the war. And we were part of that idea: draft us. Draft the white college students (and their teacher) from the white middle-class suburbs of Johnson County, Kan., and it would not be long before the parents of those college students would join us in protest. We didn’t like the idea, but we knew he was right.
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These days I am one of those bemused by and wary of Bernie Sanders. I doubt he can win the Democratic nomination or become president. But that is not where I am wary (and getting increasingly weary). It has to do with the implied promise he is making to those young voters, not the ideas he is advocating — a single payer health care system, free college education. I like those ideas, and indeed I wish they were in place. My problem is that Bernie Sanders claims they will come about because of a revolution. And the revolution will come about because he will win the presidency with such decisiveness that the chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives will fill up with like-minded Democrats. I don’t believe a word of it. Neither should those young students. But they don’t know better, and Sanders is violating their political innocence.
A number of years ago I met Eugene McCarthy. I told him how I had protested the war on his behalf in western Kansas, and what we thought of his notion to draft us. What was that? he asked. That we were wary of the truth of his plan but more important, we were weary of the war. He smiled, and then told a story of the only time he had been in Kansas as a candidate.
The campaign was camped out on the top floor of a hotel in Topeka, meeting through the night about (among other matters) why they were in Kansas at all. Outside the windows of the room a neon sign blinked “Jesus Saves,” in red, white and blue. Watching the morning get light in the east, McCarthy observed it was not so much that the sun rose in Kansas as that the state sank.
McCarthy’s wit, the achievable truth of his vision, the candor of his campaign are political echoes from the past. Sanders should emulate them.
Robert Day is the author of 10 books, most recently “Let Us Imagine Lost Love” (a novel set on Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza) and “Robert Day for President, an Embellished Campaign Auto-Biography.” He lives in Rawlins County, Kan.