Sunday, February 21, 2016

How a college kid sneaks into a presidential campaign



Looking back, it was almost like I was on a miniature Hunter S. Thompson campaign voyage, though without the ability of a writer who later became a friend.
Before I began driving fancy convertibles, handing out wads of cash to pay campaign workers, drinking beer at topless joints and meeting famous people In my pre-journalism life I was seen as a nerd.
Though in those days four-eyes was a more likely insult, and history was my first love even before girls.
I especially liked books about World War 2, presidents, and the Wild West.
My father was in the Air Force, fighting the Cold War, and had been a 17-year-old machine gunner after D-Day.
I didn’t read about journalism at first, at least not that I can remember.  I did take Journalism 101.
When I went to college my love of history followed me. Vietnam was on the horizon, and that made the history of Indochina and colonies my favorite reading choice.
Being a military brat, initially I disdained Wayne Morse and other early critics of the war.
At the same time, my mother and father were both strong supporters of John Kennedy.
My first major experience with journalism was when I was pulled from high school in Aurora, Colo., because President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
Though journalism was not yet in my future plans, watching the war on TV, as well as the growing opposition of my college student peers, began convincing me a war I might have to soon go fight was wrong.
Photos from AP and others showing burning civilians, an army officer shooting a prisoner in the head, was shocking.
The My Lai Massacre left up to 509 Vietnamese dead. It was immediately reported by a U.S. helicopter nearby. The ground commander spent less than four years in house arrest and was pardoned.
For children of the Greatest Generation, who defeated Hitler and Japan, it shook us to the core.
Other than take part in anti-war demonstrations there seemed little a history student at a small Baptist college north of Kansas City could do. The area was not immune to the anti-war demonstrations sweeping the nation but classes continued pretty much as they had.
I also claimed close to being drafted, a student deferment just saving me.
President Lyndon Johnson had a powerful grip on Washington after replacing assassinated and beloved President John F. Kennedy. Republicans supported the war as much or more than Kennedy did.
U.S. commanders told the nation in in 1967 they could “see the light at the end of the tunnel” in the war against the Chinese- and Russian-backed rebels.
A surprise offensive on Jan. 30, 1968, named “tet” for the Vietnamese new year, took major towns and cities across the country. Though the U.S. forces were able to recapture most lost ground it was now clear this was not going to end soon.
The only way to have enough troops to meet this threat an army that had been reduced after World War 2 had to use its power to draft hundreds of thousands of young men.
College was a sanctuary for many of the middle class and well-to-do. Critics said blacks and other minorities would provide the bodies needed to stop the Viet Cong.


A little known, maverick U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, dared to take on President Lyndon Johnson.
Polls had been around for decades but did not rule the roost as today. Spin was always present. McCarthy got 42 percent and Johnson an edge under 50 percent on March 12, 1968.
The nation was stunned. Polls didn’t warn them that it could be this close. New Hampshire, in those days was a right-wing haven, and pro-war. It  had been one of only six states to vote against Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 following the Great Depression blamed on his opponent.
Sen. Kennedy was also stunned by the New Hampshire. He had avoided getting into the nomination race because many felt it looked like he was trying to take advantage of his brother’s assassination.
Johnson withdrew as a candidate for what would have been his second elected term.
Resentment against Kennedy was so fierce he was crushed in the first primaries that followed New Hampshire, even in his home state Massachusetts..
Then he turned the tables winning the Indiana primary in the heartland.
Then, in an even more the unlikely state, Republican-dominated, rural Nebraska, a primary was being held within easy driving distance from Liberty, Mo., 200 miles, in my Corvair.
I knew no one in the, including any one one to call. And I was just turning 21.
There campus was flooded with McCarthy organizers. Never saw a Kennedy representative.
My parents, as I said Kennedy lovers, had little money being in the military. They were split on the war. Dad supported it. Mom opposed.


I remember a couple of high school friends who had enrolled at Creighton in Omaha. I crashed with them in their form, though it meant listening to trash talk about RFK all night.
I found my way to the Kennedy headquarters and met the late John Treanor, a long-time Kennedy campaigner. He had been a volunteer with John F. Kennedy’s first race..
When I showed up I was I pretty much was at the head of line of volunteers. Perhaps the only one. Just like young people today seem to favor Bernie Sanders, McCarthy was the choice in 1968.
He didn’t even check my driver’s license before  putting me in a rental car (mine was an embarrassment). I began delivering things usually I had no idea what they were.
They paid my gas and snacks.
Often I went into what was considered Omaha’s ghetto. While McCarthy had the student vote, blacks and farm workers were lined up with Kennedy.
After a few days Treanor put me in a room in the Sheraton Fontenelle, a landmark in downtown Omaha.
The lobby was full of campaigners, journalists, and those hoping to catch the eye of one of the candidates.
One evening a couple of TV crews were happying to be the toast of Kennedy. My parents didn’t drink much, and neither did I.
I got tipsy pretty fast. Someone ran to our table, the Kennedy table, and said we had to get a new speech to Bobby.
Frank Mankiewicz was forced to remove a joke about Muriel Humphrey, Hubert’s wife, who had fallen ill.
This was even before faxes let alone mobile phones.
The next thing I knew I was headed out the door.

A waiter yelled demanding who would    pay for these drinks: someone shouted bill them to Mr. Mezzanini.

I was a put in shiny new a white convertible cougar, a model that had only been out for a year.
The Secret Service knew I was coming so they got there quickly.
I’ll never forget the ruddy face and smile that greated me when his door opened.
He quickly took charge. “What are you going to do now,” he asked.
I said I would drive back to Omaha.
“No, you’re not. You are spending the night here after we get you fed.”
He handed me a copy of his book, “To Seek A Newer World,” and wrote kind words to me.

This speech delivery, one of the highlights of my life, also got me on the staff, though I was not getting paid. The next day I delivered wads of cash to blacks in the Lincoln ghetto who had gotten out the vote and helped Kennedy win with 52 percent support.
Kennedy was on a roll now, and I was with him.
I went back to William Jewell College to catch up on classes and get more clothes.
The campaign had sent me an airline ticket to join the campaign in San Jose, where I worked in several areas, including San Francisco.
Driving a convertible _ they seemed to have a preference for them _ to Santa Cruz gave me a chance to see some beautiful sights and swim.
At one point I was sent to deliver supplies to farm icon Cesar Chavez.
We knew we had to work hard because after a string of primary victories McCarthy upset Kennedy in neighboring Oregon.
Still, we celebrated from time to time. One night we went to a topless bar in San Francisco, in those days it was called the “Ore House.”
The Kennedy crew was made of men, most veterans of one war or another.
Treanor, who later became an assistant U.S. attorney, a judge and held other government jobs, loved to fiddle.


Election night we went to the bar, I think it was in the San Jose Marriott. We had heard predictions we won, and it seemed our area, might have provided the margin.
Then the screaming began. We could see chaos on one of the hanging televisions.
The next morning I was given an airline ticket to return home a long with a ticket to fly on to Washington, D.C. We had been in the air for an hour or two when the pilot came on the intercom and announced Bobby was dead.
I stayed with Treanor at the apartment he shared with his brother and attended the funeral. We rode down the Potomac and sipped beer and shared our tears.
That may have been what led me to become a journalist, more than 35 years with Associated Press in jobs around the world: editor in New York City the day Saigon fell, the Alaska Pipeline, apartheid in South Africa, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the famine in Ethiopia, the Columbine Massacre and much more.

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