May 18, 2008

May 6, 2008: “Indiana Can Choose”, The Voice in My Ears, Through the Corridores of Time

“This is Senator Robert Kennedy. Today is an important day in Indiana. Today is Election Day. I urge all registered citizens to go to the polls and vote. Vote for the candidate of your choice, but vote. Indiana can choose the next President of the United States. This is Senator Robert Kennedy”. After all these years, I still hear that voice in my ears.

On or about the 3rd or 4th of May, 1968, I got my final call from the campaign to go South once again, this time in an effort to get out the vote. Kennedy was by now in a tight race with Eugene McCarthy who had established himself, after New Hampshire and Wisconsin, as a strong anti-war voice. The political landscape was further complicated by the ‘favorite-son’ candidacy of Governor Roger Brannigan. The Governor was then serving as a stalking-horse for the newly re-minted Hubert Humphrey who had entered the foray too late to file for the primaries. The campaign, sensing a possible setback, sent out a last call for us to return, this time to work until the time the polls would close. So once again I arranged some time from work, skipped a few classes, gathered up a friend of my younger brother and, with Max McPherson in tow, drove my car through the long dark night, and once again headed to the land of the Hoosier.

This time I reported to Michigan City, an industrial town situated in the Northwest corner of the state on the shores of Lake Michigan. Michigan City and neighboring La Porte, Indiana were working-class towns, surrounded by a growing rural prosperity with upper middle-class and upper class residences located in the dunes overlooking the lake. It was familiar ground to me, much like the cities in which I was raised. We arrived early Monday, finding the campaign headquarters situated downtown on Main Street near a theatre which was then playing “The Graduate”. The music of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson” filled the airwaves as we listened to the radio while making our way about town. I can remember crossing a set of railroad tracks, listening to the local news, as—in a foreshadowing of what would become common practice in later times-- a spokesman for Lyndon Johnson made references to ‘another McCarthy era’ in an attempt to smear the critic of the war. I remember shaking my head and remarking, “he didn’t say that, did he?” Not anticipating the politics of Lee Atwater or Karl Rove, I had no idea then that such tactics would become standard operating procedure, the political currency with which power would be purchased by the emerging Generation of Swine. But that was far off into the future; we had more important tasks immediately at hand.

We arrived at the headquarters and were assigned our various tasks. I went out into the neighborhoods canvassing door-to-door as I had a few weeks earlier in Marion. We returned, as before, late in the day to headquarters where Max and I were invited by a young campaign worker, who was then taking time from his studies at nearby Taylor University, to stay with his family then living in a splendid home up in the dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. There I spent a pleasant evening talking with the family about what we had done, why we had joined the cause, what brought us so far. After a morning breakfast I drove back downtown to the campaign headquarters.

It was now the first Tuesday of May, 1968. It seems strange, by today’s presidential campaign schedule, that this was the first primary election in which Robert Kennedy would make an appearance. Announcing his candidacy too late to enter the earlier contests, he had missed the important New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries; Indiana was the first Presidential ballot upon which the name of Robert F. Kennedy would appear. Unlike the contest forty years later, the Indiana primary came near the beginning rather than the end of the process and represented the initial test of Robert Kennedy’s political reach. For this reason it was seen as an early bell weather of his support and would determine the seriousness of his candidacy.

We arrived at the headquarters and one of the campaign managers asked if he could fit my car with speakers, transforming it into a sound truck. It was a 1962 Ford Galaxy, as I remember it, a four-door brown sedan that was not-too-much the worse for wear and presentable. Someone emerged with the equipment in hand, made the necessary installations, and soon my auto was converted into another piece of campaign equipment. With the young man from Taylor University riding ‘shotgun’ we then proceeded out to tour Michigan City. We turned on the sound system and there was that voice, a message the Senator had recorded which would be played in an endless loop as we traveled through the streets of the city and through its neighborhoods. Over a span of now four decades I can still see the reactions of people as we moved among them. Children would stop playing, turn and run toward us, adults would turn and listen, fingers would be pointed, and small crowds would, on occasion, rush to gather around us as we moved among them. We smiled and waved, handed out some literature, urged those who looked old enough to vote. We were amazed, there were times when we thought we might be mobbed as people would gather around us and make moving the car forward difficult. Simply the power of his voice, by now growing familiar to America, was enough to elicit that kind of response.

This is how we spent Election Day in Indiana forty years ago. At the end of the day, as the polls were closing we debated whether we would make the journey South to Indianapolis and join the campaign’s victory party. Someone in the group knew where it was going to be held, we toyed with the idea for a while, but decided that it would make for a very long drive home. The group, which by now included not only my brother’s friend Max but also two students from Aquinas College, a catholic institution in Grand Rapids, decided that perhaps discretion would be the better part of valor and that the prudent thing would be to head home. Besides, there would be the general election, another campaign, and more victory celebrations. We waited for the election returns, did some celebrating with our friends at the Michigan City headquarters and then, taking our leave, began the long drive into the night. We arrived in Grand Rapids shortly after one in the morning; I dropped off our friends at their dorms and then headed west toward the lakeshore. I drove Max home, then made my way back into the city, down to Sixth Street, and got back into bed a few hours before the sun would rise.

“Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance, forever and a day.
We’d live a life we choose
We’d fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way”
---Mary Hopkin-- “Those Were The Days” (1)

“Indiana can choose the next President of the United States”, Bobby had intoned. Not since that campaign so long ago has the Indiana primary figured so large in the political calculus. Forty years ago it was important because it was the first real contest among the ‘heavyweights’; this year it is important because it comes toward the end of a long and drawn-out struggle; and could perhaps be not the contest which begins the race for the Presidency, but the contest which ends the race for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Clinton is looking for a quick combination in which she comes close in North Carolina, where Obama had at one time a 20 point lead, and finishes him with a huge right hand by crushing him in Indiana. The latest polls show her close in North Carolina, and a 6-8 point advantage in Indiana. Given that voters who have made their decisions in the closing days of the campaign have been breaking decidedly toward Clinton, the forces of the ‘dark side’ see Indiana as the battlefield that will change the fortunes of war.

“Indiana can choose the next President of the United States”. Forty years ago it turned out not to be so. Perhaps this year will be different. “Indiana can choose the next President of the United States”…I can still hear that voice echo through the corridors of time.



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