I find it difficult to believe that only three months ago I was a candidate for major office. Hardly a week after the election the experience had begun to transmute itself into a curious chapter of existence, isolated by its very strangeness, and acquiring an aura of sentiment and legend rather like military service in wartime. It seems almost incredible today that I—and hundreds of others—should have devoted eight months of our lives to a venture whose chances were slim from the start and whose electoral results were, to say the least, both perplexing and disappointing. Yet if I ask myself whether it was worth the effort, the answer is clear—I cannot imagine myself having done otherwise. And my co-workers apparently feel the same way. Many of them seem willing, even eager, to do it again.
Here is a paradox worth pondering. Why did we do it? And—as so often in history, large or small—if I conscientiously try to recapture how it happened, the why will emerge as well. I do not want to argue the case once again, to rehash the polemics of the campaign itself. I am tired of that. I want rather to suggest what the venture meant in human terms to me and to those who worked with me—and beyond that, as a historian who also at long intervals has participated on the margin of great events, to see where this experience fits into the broader history of ideological change in our time.
* * *
It all started at a lunch in late February of 1962 with two or three workers in what is loosely called the “peace movement.” One asked me what I thought should be the main thrust of their effort in this election year. I answered, casually, that we might try the experiment of senatorial candidacies in perhaps ten key states. “That’s a funny coincidence,” came the reply. “I was just about to ask you to run for the Senate from Massachusetts.” So there it was: I had been trapped in my own rhetoric. Yet something in me responded to the prospect with excitement and even delight.
Or, to put it another way, if I hadn’t consented, someone else would have had to make the try. Somebody needed to take advantage of a wide-open situation that seemed the opportunity of the decade and that might not recur for a decade more. It was the President’s own state, and the final two years of the President’s own Senate seat were at stake; the President’s younger brother was already announced as one of the contestants, and national and international attention was already beginning to focus on what was billed as an epoch-making battle of Massachusetts clans. There was no incumbent, no personally outstanding candidate; previous experience suggested that an outsider stood a better chance in a mid-term election than when a presidential contest polarized the whole national vote. Of course there was no realistic possibility of getting elected. But there was a chance to challenge the bipartisan consensus in a highly “visible” campaign and to lift that campaign itself above the level of a local clan battle by redirecting it toward debate on the life-and-death issues of the nuclear age.
The first lunch was followed by three long Sunday-night meetings at my own house. The group started with about ten people and increased to a crowded roomful—with drinks on the house, which, by both principle and necessity, became my only personal financial contribution to the campaign. Our first decision was our hardest: should I try to enter the Democratic primary or to go it alone as an Independent? I held out for the latter course—it seemed pointless to get crushed in the middle of the all-Irish struggle between the palace guard of Teddy Kennedy and the more authentic following of Eddie McCormack—and eventually the rest of the group agreed. Moreover (and here the event was to prove us right), we knew that Massachusetts was a politically heterogeneous state, full of dissident and “alienated” voters, nearly half of them registered with neither major party, and with a tenacious tradition of ticket-splitting and cross-voting; under the circumstances, for a maverick to wear a party label might actually be a disadvantage.
By late March we were ready to “announce.” Summoning together the shreds of political experience a few of us possessed, we had rented a room and called a press conference at the Beacon Hill hotel, more commonly known as the locale of shady deals among members of the Great and General Court. We had no idea how many would come: we were sure only of the reporter from the Harvard Crimson. When I walked in, the whole Boston press was there, and two television cameras were staring at me. Unquestionably we were in business: that night the news was all ovei the state, and during the next few days my phone was ringing constantly.
According to Massachusetts law, an independent candidate running for statewide office had to collect upwards of 72,000 signatures—3 per cent of the last vote for governor—in order to win a place on the ballot. The total was prohibitive: this was the unanimous opinion of the press and the politicos, and nobody in fact had tried to reach it since the law had first been passed. To challenge this rooted conviction already made our venture unique; it turned my candidacy into the sort of sporting event that the press could appreciate and understand. Indeed, if the signature requirement had not existed, we would have had to invent something else to perform the same function. For the law obliged us to organize our forces early: it dictated an urgent call for recruits and gave these volunteers something clear and tangible to do. Without it, my candidacy might never have been more than drawing-room gossip in the neighborhood of Harvard Square.
The ten-week signature campaign—running from mid-May to late July—appears in retrospect as the most successful part of our whole venture. It was directed by a young city planner who picked the local coordinators, assigned each town its signature quota, and prepared detailed instructions on how to use voting lists systematically to check the validity of signatures. My job was simply to speak, night after night, each evening in a different town, to audiences ranging from twenty to a hundred. After the talk there would always be a question period, which I considered the most important part of the evening and which sometimes went on as long as two hours. It was only after I had done my best to satisfy every questioner, after I had resolved every possible doubt or hesitation, that one of my co-workers would call for volunteers. To my recollection this total never fell lower than a quarter of those present in the meeting-hall.
Our original—and permanent—center of strength lay along the arc of educated, prosperous suburbia running from near-urban Brookline and Cambridge through Newton, Lexington, and Lincoln to ex-urban Weston and Wayland. Here liberal-minded middle-class housewives did most of the work. Farther out in the state the forces were thinner—with pockets of strength in such predictable places as the Berkshires, Cape Cod, and the college-studded Connecticut Valley. In the large industrial towns the number of local recruits was pitifully inadequate to meet the signature quotas, which had been assigned on the basis of population. By necessity, then, we called on help from the outside. And this could come only from the flying squadron of about fifty college and graduate students who, with final examinations passed, were enrolled from all over inside the state and out, to give their full summer to the campaign. During the week these boys and girls—the “kids,” as they were called, both in praise and blame1—worked over Boston housing developments; on week-ends they would “blitz” some desolate mill town or the great central cities like Worcester and Springfield.
The kids gave me a sense of picking up again where I had left off when I graduated from Amherst College a quarter of a century ago. Their radicalism had about it the same freshness that I recalled from my own college days. In contrast to the sophistication and complexity of 1930’s ideology at Harvard or the New York City colleges, my own ideals had been simple and non-sectarian. The trinity of peace, racial equality, and socialism just about exhausted them. Communism seemed remote, probably brutal, and mostly irrelevant. Of course a more complicated and troubling series of experiences had taken over later: a full-scale initiation as an intelligence officer into the jungle of European politics; the searing lesson of the Wallace campaign in 1948; lying low in the McCarthy years while quietly doing my bit to rebuild the Democratic party in California. All this experience proved helpful when I finally decided to become a candidate myself. More particularly I was on the alert not to fall into the trap of Communist involvement that had discredited and disillusioned so many people in 1948; since mine was the first such effort for a decade and a half, it inevitably invited comparisons.
To my young supporters—this was a difficulty between us—the Communist danger was never quite as real as it necessarily was for my own generation. I remember shouting at them one night: “If you kids don’t shut up, you’ll force me to give an anti-Communist speech”—a most effective way of getting silence. In fact, I never had to make such a speech. A mere reference usually sufficed or, if I suspected fellow-traveling in the hall, a blast about what happened in Hungary in 1956.
The occasion for my outburst at the students was a series of meetings held at my house in midsummer to hammer out a platform. Disorderly discussion proceeded for five hours at a stretch, but in the end we produced a good platform: even today, I would change scarcely a word of it.
On the foreign scene, it was moderation itself: following a call for increased understanding toward the neutral world and a strengthening of the United Nations, it advanced no more than a minimum program on disarmament. Indeed, it hardly spoke of real disarmament at all, concentrating on the preparatory “tension-reducing and confidence-building initiatives” that we had cribbed from such “gradualist” writers as Charles Osgood and Amitai Etzioni. On the domestic scene, the tone was more radical. It was not socialist—although I never made any secret of my socialist sympathies, while explaining (usually to no avail) that the term was merely confusing in an American context. The domestic program was rather of a militant welfare-state variety, with a strong emphasis on the rights of Negroes and of labor. The latter in particular provoked rumbles of discontent in the suburbs. And I myself was far from happy with the way in which certain proposals like the 35-hour week and a $1.50 minimum wage became reduced to slogans. Nor did I find the time and mental energy, as the campaign gained in intensity, to think through the relation of these estimable reforms to the new competition from the Common Market.
Right down to November a central ambiguity remained. It was quite apparent to those who knew me well or could catch the emotional drift of my speeches that my personal position went beyond the “official” line in my platform. People had only to read my latest book to see that I was actually closer to “unilateralism” in nuclear policy—once again the word was sloganized in a negative sense—than my campaign stand might suggest. On domestic issues the problem was less perplexing: here I could explain that I was not engaging in demagogy to catch the labor vote but was simply holding true to convictions of thirty years’ standing. In the matter of nuclear weapons, however, the visceral revulsion that I shared with “the kids”—and, incidentally, with the militant ladies of the suburbs and the college towns—constantly threatened to disrupt our careful formulas of moderation. The ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility, as Max Weber would put it, were always in danger of flying apart.
In the meantime we had had our day of triumph and our week of high comedy at the State House. When the signature deadline came around, we had collected 149,000—more than twice the number required—and 80 per cent had been validated by the local town clerks. I think this was something of a record in modern American politics. At least such was the opinion of the Boston press, when on the last day of July we mounted the steps of Bulfinch’s historic building to turn in the bulging piles of electoral petitions.
During the next few days we had our first experience of big headlines and sustained press interest. The other candidates had the right to challenge my signatures if they so desired, and a well-known handwriting expert, a certain Mrs. McCarthy, began to labor in the bowels of the State House, scrutinizing each signature in turn. It was quite apparent—although nobody said so—that she was in the employ of the youngest Kennedy. But who was the other expert, the mysterious gentleman from New York, who sat across from her at the table piled high with petitions? The press was baffled: neither Lodge nor McCormack seemed inclined to challenge. So far as I know, no one guessed the truth—that my friends had by now learned the subtler arts of Massachusetts politics, and that the stranger from out of state had actually been hired by my own lawyer to check on the shenanigans of Mrs. McCarthy. In the end the poor lady gave up: even with the best will in the world, she could hardly have found 45,000 forgeries! My signatures passed through unchallenged.
It was August now. The housewives of the suburbs scattered to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard. The students, who refused to take a rest, fanned out across the state to begin cultivating the grass roots. I beat the summer cocktail circuit for campaign funds and snatched what relaxation I could with my family at Wellfleet. By Labor Day we were back at the job. But somehow it was a different campaign we returned to—bigger, more “respectable,” more self-confident. The first sign of the change came on Labor Day itself, when at a rather dreary union dance, I found myself holed up in the bar with two of labor’s top influentials, whose well-oiled friendliness gave promise of better things to come.
During the last two weeks of September and the first three of October everything seemed to be breaking right. I had finally acquired an efficient manager—a businessman (a rare bird in this sort of venture), who simply took two months’ leave from his regular pursuits and turned his energies to the Sisyphean task of bringing a minimum of order into my chaotic campaign headquarters. On September 18, the party primaries thinned the field of contestants; the voters said goodbye to Eddie McCormack—the Speaker’s nephew and Teddy’s rival. With the candidates now reduced to three, new support began to pour in from all over: steady local workers who fell into none of the earlier stereotypes of house-wives, students, or intellectuals; dozens of Protestant clergymen and rabbis (although I was an announced agnostic); hundreds of physicians (despite the fact that I had called the American Medical Association a “ruthless lobby”); and scientists and professors beyond number.
This was the time when I began to visit factories; when I received a rousing welcome from the state convention of the AFL-CIO; when I engaged in two television debates with the Republican candidate, George Cabot Lodge, which, by general assent, established a new level in American politics by the free-flowing and courteous nature of the exchange and the way in which a single issue was consecutively pursued at each encounter. This was also the period when the money began to roll in. It came mostly in small or medium sums, checks ranging in size from five to a hundred dollars, with only a very few contributors reaching the legal limit of three thousand. It arrived from all over the country and even from abroad; one money order came from as far away as Nigeria. In the end we collected $150,000—again, I think, something of a record. And we also broke political precedent in balancing our accounts: no campaign deficit is currently troubling my sleep.
Of all the fund-raising devices that my financial committee cooked up, by far the most rewarding were the cultural events we sponsored in Boston and its suburbs. We held an art auction: the painters and musicians and writers responded with offerings, and the evening’s take was $10,000—although hundreds of potential buyers had to be turned away as the hall grew unbearably stuffy and the police invoked the fire laws. We also held chamber music concerts, for which members of the Boston Symphony donated their services. The music was superb and the attendance distinguished—almost like rallies of the local gentry. At one of them I gave what by general account was my best speech of the whole campaign. I spoke from a mood of infinite weariness in a quiet voice worn by over-use. Perhaps true to character, the speech was scarcely political at all—a few reminiscences and reflections on the meaning of music in an apocalyptic era. My friends told me that I was speaking better these days than I had in the spring. The power to find the words that went to the hearts of others came upon me more often—the inexplicable grace of the hwyl, as my Welsh ancestors termed it.
As the third week of October drew to its close, I recall thinking that had the campaign ended right then, the job would have been done. We scarcely needed to go through to the election. We had succeeded beyond our wildest anticipations. I had been taken seriously as an equal candidate; the press coverage had been good; minds had been opened. I had prodded the other candidates—more particularly Lodge and McCormack—to talk about my issues. In brief, I had made my point. And I was very tired. Why couldn’t we just shut up shop and go home?
Then came Cuba. I heard the President’s crisis speech over a flickering car radio winding through the Berkshires on my way to Williamstown. An hour later I was on my feet addressing a packed hall of undergraduates and townspeople. I spoke extemporaneously, with only the few notes I had scribbled in the car. I recall speaking slowly, even more precisely than usual, and a friend told me later that my eyes were glassy and strained. Perhaps I was too solemn. But I suspected that I might be the only person in the country who was both ready to speak out and in a position to be heard. I also knew that I might be “blowing” my whole candidacy.
“If I did not answer the President at this point, I would not be true to what I set out to do in this campaign.” Such was the burden of my remarks. I did not say that the President was entirely wrong. I said rather that he had acted over-hastily in imposing the blockade, that he had bypassed the United Nations, that he had unnecessarily stirred up an atmosphere of national emergency. I still believe these things. I also thought then and think now that the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, while it altered the military balance somewhat, did not change it nearly as decisively as the official American spokesmen claimed. Indeed, one of my main points all along had been that there was no such thing as a balance, that the nuclear situation was inherently unstable and hence intolerably dangerous. It was up to my country, I argued, to take the initiative in substituting international action for power plays (such as the one the Soviet Union had just pulled off in Cuba) on the part of rival military blocs.
Quite obviously, the bulk of the American people—and of the Massachusetts electorate—would have none of this line of reasoning. In the short run, the event seemed to prove the President right. In one sense the Cuban crisis increased the “visibility” of my candidacy. It drew attention to a position that now looked even more heretical than before, and for the rest of the crisis week I spoke to audiences swollen by a mixture of indignation and curiosity. But these happened to be in the major academic centers. Elsewhere my support appeared to be melting away. A manic-depressive cycle seized a number of my co-workers. My own schedule was already crowded to bursting, and the sudden onset of the Cuban crisis disrupted it completely. During the last two weeks of the campaign I had no time to think, to prepare my speeches, to regroup my forces. I lost control of my own campaign, as events and people rushed dizzily by me. In my memory, the fifteen days from the beginning of the emergency to the election figure as little more than a weary blur.
Yet it would be wrong to use “Cuba”—the single word condenses a whole complex phenomenon, as in the case of its opposite number, “Munich”—as a universal alibi. Most impartial commentators thought that it cut my vote at least in half. Perhaps it did—no one will ever know for sure. What to my mind it did rather more was to underline a cruel truth which had been present from the start but to which my friends and I had refused to pay sufficient attention. Even in its best days my campaign had had an air of unreality. I might shine on television. I might reduce my opponents’ arguments to rubble. Teddy Kennedy’s consistent refusal to debate me might be—and was—interpreted as a tribute to my forensic skill. There was even the suspicion that the series of encounters with Lodge had been cut short after two debates because in the second one I had pushed him too hard. But all of this did no good. Teddy’s crushing victory over McCormack in the Democratic primary had proved the impossibility of my votes’ tipping the balance to the Republicans. After mid-September every Massachusetts citizen with a minimum of political savvy knew who was going to win the election. While I was delighting the intellectual elite at genteel evening gatherings, Teddy was outdoors in the mill towns pulling in the mass vote. When I tried to do the same, the result was usually an embarrassing fiasco. After beating the bushes throughout the state, Teddy could collect only a pitiful handful of professors to endorse him; mine were so numerous that we never even tried to count them. He and I were running two totally different kinds of campaigns that never met—except on the rare and stiff occasions when Teddy’s managers in some way fouled things up and we suddenly found ourselves on the same platform. Meantime Lodge shuttled rather unhappily between these incompatible models. Obviously Teddy had it “made.” When my supporters would indignantly inquire why the President’s brother refused to debate me, I was tempted to answer—and sometimes did—“Why should he?”
After all this, election day came almost as a deliverance. The Sunday before, I had already noticed that I was “disengaging,” that I was thinking of my campaign in the past tense. The result is now a matter of record—a paltry 50,000 votes, 2 per cent of the total cast.
All our wooing of labor proved fruitless; the mill towns produced only a scattering of votes. There was a slightly better response in strongly Negro areas. The Italo-Americans, whom I had repeatedly addressed in their own language, had been glad to listen—but voting for me seemed to be quite a different matter. Such, indeed, was the central lesson of the whole campaign. Outside the liberal suburbs and the college towns, Beacon Hill and the Berkshires, my candidacy never quite became real. For the average citizen to vote for a man who stood no chance of election was just too far beyond the sphere of normal ideas. The answer, some of my co-workers argued, was to make a bold claim that I could win. But this struck me as plain idiotic—an offense against simple truth and common sense. Perhaps here, as at other points in the campaign, I displayed too much of an intellectual’s fastidiousness. I twisted and dodged and finally took refuge in the formula that since one miracle had already occurred in the signature campaign, why couldn’t we pull off another?
As I walked down factory assembly lines, the workers had greeted me with friendly curiosity. This at least had occurred in the true working-class, blue-collar departments—among clerical employees things were invariably stickier—thereby giving unexpected confirmation to a romantic notion of the working class that I thought I had long since outgrown. But again, sympathy was not the same thing as a vote. It was rather a recognition from decent people who had a tough job to do that I was temporarily in the same condition. Many of them seemed to have only the foggiest idea of who I was and what I was running for. I recall one worker who heard with utter incredulity the news that I was opposing Kennedy and Lodge for the Senate seat. The dazed expression on his face seemed to say: “And what tall story will you be telling me next?” I also recall a more cheerful occasion—a garment-workers’ dance at New Bedford—when a young garment worker, her opulent figure enveloped in a knitted dress, offered to introduce me around the room. To each friend in turn she whispered the magic words, “You know, dollar-fifty and thirty-five hours,” as though it were a very special kind of secret. I caught the same look of incredulity, this time mingled with delight, on the face of the old and toothless woman whose hand I happened to be shaking. It was as though she had suddenly been offered a box of candy; I might be a Santa Claus—but I was not a very real one.
No wonder I had begun to ask myself whether it was worth it—the endless round of blighted cities, the desolate barking into a microphone on wind-swept corners, the futile coffee hours with the hostess wringing her hands and explaining in tones of pathos how three-quarters of those who had promised to come had simply failed to show. (I soon learned that in politics the usual rules of behavior no longer hold, that customarily polite people feel free to lie like troupers.) There was so much that was unspeakably dull, so much that was irritating beyond belief—the anguished telephone calls, the bright ideas that really were no good at all, above all, the bores who trapped me in corners with interminable questions to which I had already given the answer eighteen times. I can see myself now, leaning wearily against the wall and nodding, “Yes, yes, yes” with glazed eye and vacant smile to someone whom in ordinary life I would not have tolerated for two minutes. These—far more than the celebrated matter of political “courage”—were the true trials of campaigning.
I remember thinking that the whole venture came to an end just in time to save me from some threatened deterioration of personality. By the end of October I was barely managing to survive on brandy and Seconal—it was not until Christmas time that I realized how tired I actually was. People commiserated with me for having to continue my teaching at the very height of the campaign. But this in fact proved a godsend; what had started as a financial and professional necessity became another technique for survival, which I exploited to the full by invariably giving precedence to my academic commitments and by keeping separate with pedantic rigor the two realms of my being. Yet even this division of existence did not suffice to maintain sanity. In the end I was reduced to stratagems for outwitting my own campaign headquarters. Now and then I alleged a prior commitment that had only a shadowy existence. One blessed afternoon I simply vanished without trace into the fastnesses of central Massachusetts.
Still it was worth it. It was a great adventure, for me, and I think also for the nearly three thousand people who at one time or another worked for the campaign. This total in itself was noteworthy: I believe it was the largest amateur organization put together in recent American political history. It was also one of the most devoted and one of the most united. For the first time since the 1930’s the whole of the liberal dissenting constituency found itself together under one tent.
Along the way we had demolished a number of myths. We proved that American politics—even in as rough a state as Massachusetts—can be far more decent than it is popularly supposed to be; I was constantly amazed at the courtesy and respect I encountered nearly everywhere. Nobody called us Communists: the charge would have been too absurd. The worst that happened was a post-Cuba cartoon showing me with a Chamberlain-type umbrella in the guise of an appeaser. We proved that it was possible to speak out on the prickliest of issues—China policy, world government, even birth control—and to be heard with attentive interest by people who had not the remotest intention of voting for me. Very few Catholics supported me; but the rest did not denounce me as an Anti-Christ. If further proof were needed, we unquestionably demonstrated that the spirit of Joseph McCarthy no longer overshadowed this most Catholic state. We exposed the utter impotence of the John Birch Society and the radical right. Time and again I was warned that rightist hecklers were going to break up one of my meetings. The highest total the hecklers ever reached was fourteen, and on the rare occasions when they did appear, they soon collapsed in discouragement.
As I came to know my following better, I began to understand that for years they had been waiting for this sort of campaign. They longed to challenge the consensus, to question the basic assumptions by which their fellow-citizens lived. Throughout the 1950’s they had quietly gone about their business, behaving as their neighbors did, swallowing down their anger and their fear for their children. For a whole decade the tension of self-contained protest had been building up. Then came the words they had been waiting for. At last, at last somebody was saying in public what they had thought in the privacy of their own consciences or quietly discussed in small meetings of like-minded people. The result was an emotional explosion—a happy, a peaceful explosion, but an explosion nonetheless.
Perhaps that is how dissenting politics has to be conducted in an advanced democracy in the third quarter of the 20th century. In European countries the situation is much the same. There also the vocal minority is small. The intellectual gadfly parties muster no more than 2 or 3 per cent of the vote. There also the reserves of radicalism are more and more found not among the workers, but in the educated middle class. The bulk of the population remains unmoved; prosperity and “the deterrent” have become the twin opiates of contemporary society. Spirits are lulled by the monotonous chatter over the airwaves. But if a different note is struck, then there is at least a chance that people will prick up their ears and take notice.
Such is the main point of a campaign like mine. I always thought of it as a trial run, a precursor of larger things to come. And these things, I believe, could well take place in a totally different framework and with a new cast of characters. I do not think my candidacy either set a precedent or requires repetition. I do think that the situation in Massachusetts in 1962 called for such an effort. The great advantage of a political candidacy over mere speaking and writing is that one is obliged to put one’s own person on the line, tangibly and visibly. It suggests that if the candidate and his friends are willing to go to all that trouble—and with no chance of electoral reward—they must mean what they say. In the simplest terms, this is what we set out to do last spring. We were trying to impress on the minds of our fellow-citizens that for a minority of people in one key state of the union the issue of human survival was worth an extraordinary commitment of time and energy. And that I think we accomplished.
1 Hostile journalists sometimes described them as beatniks, but they were, if anything, over-serious. There was scarcely a smoker among them, or a drinker, and they were devoted, enthusiastic, and energetic. Certainly without them the signature total would never have been met.