After 1968

"After 1968" Continued...

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

The Monday after Wading-in-the-Reflecting-Pool weekend was Walking-Through-the-Capitol day. The idea was that Ivy League college students, the best and the brightest, would buttonhole their senators and representatives and convince them to oppose the Vietnam War. My roommates and I walked the corridors and at 5:30, on a lark, stopped at the office of Speaker of the House John McCormack.

I knew a little about McCormack, who was 78 and for 42 years had been a House member from a Boston district several miles away from where I had grown up. He was one of 12 children, only three of whom made it to adulthood; his father died when he was 13, so he quit school, worked as an errand boy for a law firm, skipped the high-school diploma but attended law school at night, and passed the state bar exam at age 21. Then came politics. He became the House majority leader in 1940 and sat in the front row holding a cigar. He became Speaker in 1962.

I knew his father had been a construction worker and his grandfather an immigrant from Ireland during the potato famine, so I told McCormack's secretary that I was Olasky from Boston and wanted to discuss the relation of the Irish revolution against the British to the Vietnamese revolution against the French and the Americans. She told him that and, astoundingly, returned to show us into the inner office.

McCormack-tall, rail-thin, silver-haired-looked like a cadaver with a twinkle in his eye as he listened to my roommates and me. He then explained to us the big difference between the Irish desire for freedom and the Communist Vietnamese desire to set up a totalitarian regime. We didn't buy it, of course, but he was courteous throughout and it was hard for us not to be. After half an hour he said he had enjoyed the conversation but it was time for him to have dinner with his wife, which he said he never missed doing.

But before he left, he said he wanted to show us something special. He took us into the House chamber, pointed to his large speaker's chair, and said each of us could sit in it. We did, swiveling it around: revolutionaries enjoying being grandchildren. McCormack smiled and waved goodbye. We spun around a few more times under the eye of an aide, then walked out and laughed about what a reactionary fellow McCormack was. But, although we wouldn't tell each other this, I think we were all wistful.

(I later found out that McCormack was telling the truth about dinners with his wife, Harriet; they had been married for 50 years and it was said they never spent a night apart. She became ill later that year and had a lengthy hospital stay; he spent every night in an adjacent room until she died in 1971. McCormack retired the following month and went home to Boston. He died in 1980. By then I was sorry to hear of it.)

We returned to New Haven. With classes and final exams called off to allow us to have fun protesting, we headed out a couple of days later to northeast Philadelphia, at the behest of ultra-liberal New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein, to spend five days campaigning for an anti-war candidate in the Democratic senatorial primary there: "Reese for Peace."

My political mentor for those days was a 60-something Philadelphian who said he had fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group (largely Communist) of Americans who fought in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. He showed me where to go door-to-door chirping "Reese for Peace," where to distribute fliers ("Reese for Peace"), and where to be a last-minute advocate as primary voters meandered to the polls on primary day.

That day was memorable not only because the Reese candidacy (rest in peace) lost badly, but because incumbent Congressman Joshua Eilberg kicked me. Throughout the day the local political machine's ward heeler, Abe, had approached voters to remind them how he had fixed their parking tickets or gotten the truant officer to back off when their kids skipped school. As Abe offered his reminders, I shadowed him: "public sidewalk," I insisted.

Late in the afternoon, when Eilberg hopped out of his limo and asked Abe how things were going, I was by his side. Abe said all was fine except for "this punk from Yale." Eilberg said, "Get out of here, kid," and I responded with my "public sidewalk" line. Eilberg pivoted and kicked: Not very hard, but this was proof that the dark night of fascism was descending in America-or so a couple of "Reese for Peace" proponents protested as the dark night of political defeat descended on our short-lived campaign.


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