Friday, May 4, 2007

Flashback: Andrew Young Wins the Primary and the General Election Despite All.

[Memories from fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

When Andrew Young faced his primary opponent, Wyche Fowler…white, liberal, bright…in a district 57 percent white after Young had booted it the first time (1970) in a Democratic year (with Nixon sweating out a near recession and taking a lot of anger because of the invasion of Cambodia to strike down enemy sanctions on the border) by running as somebody akin to a black nationalist…the odds were he would lose again. In 1970 he had had his golden chance…known as a conciliator between the white Atlanta establishment and blacks…a man with, if not a national identity certainly a national reputation—having truly been standing next to Martin Luther King when he was shot to death (unlike Jesse Jackson who had smeared his shirt with blood and raced off to the TV stations to do a bogus theatrical act). The white portion of the district was largely Jewish, which meant it was trending liberal, sympathetic to the problems of blacks. Against all these advantages, Young had blown it by trying to ingratiate himself with the black poor who had felt he was too elitist for them. Rather than take their guff, had he simply run as a civic leader receptive to whites, he would have won.

But he had made a gigantic mistake. He ran as an angry black man, ripping up whitey in order to grovel for the applause from the pit. Now it was two years later—1972—and a solid Republican year. Nixon had gone to China which had great promise with white liberals, had seemingly (although incorrectly) met the inflation challenge by slapping on wage and price controls which at first blush seemed good (but later was proved to have been disastrous), by creating the Environmental Protection Agency, signing the SALT I agreement, had wooed liberals further with the Consumer Product Safety bill setting up the CPSC. Add to this his rhetoric for law-and-order, the Organized Crime Control Act, the Drug Control Act, the District of Columbia Criminal Justice Act which had a “no knock” provision, authorizing criminal detention for up to 60 days for Washington, D. C. criminals who appeared dangerous.

Nixon was appealing to everybody. Conservatives liked his tough words on Vietnam. Liberals liked his romancing China. Domestic liberals loved his domestic policies which were a variant of the New Deal. He had romanced liberals with the Water Quality Act, the Clean Air Act. All these things and his opponent was George McGovern, the most radical left-winger, peace candidate in militaristic Georgia. Now Young determined to do what he should have done in 1970 and run as a moderate. He now faced an attractive liberal white Democrat who had a track record as the “Night Mayor of Atlanta” for solving city problems. Lots of luck, Andrew.

“What we have to do,” Hosea Williams told me, “is to gin up the black vote.” He was getting ginned up himself pretty regularly. I said: nope; if you listen to me, Andrew Young is out of the black radical business, Hosea. Do it yourself. “Damn chalky,” Hosea grumbled as he sipped, but down deep he knew I was right. I followed Young around the district pretty much and I could see the moderate tone. He went to a lot of youth events and had a gentle sort of easygoing looseness that I hadn’t seen before (and which I see in Obama as he moves among young people). Then I’d come back to Hosea and tell him that Young was scoring well with the whites in the suburbs. Hosea would fly into apoplexy and read me out of the human race. I’d tell him he had received one or two too many raps on the head in that Selma march. “Yeah from your brothers, honky!” he would grin. But he was thinking I was right.

Not long later he told me over coffee as he sobered up (not that he drank so much but his head, having been battered often, swam after two drinks), “I think you’re right. Andrew’s got to go down the middle of the road.” I said: now you’re thinking right. “But somebody has to gin up the folk,” he said. “And I think it’ll be me. He’s got a tough chalky liberal he’s runnin’ against.” So just for fun I would follow him around. Soon he became a great drawing card for black meetings when Young wasn’t around. I rather enjoyed his demagoguery which produced a forest of black fists flying around—but on looking around and seeing that I was the only white with a lot of faces glowering at me, I decided it rather prudent that I make myself scarce. But more than watching the bland Young, I was drawn to the Hosea Williams meetings.

I remember one night in the basement of a Baptist church when he read a quite stirring statement that had been made by Fowler at the same church the night before: an exquisite statement of solidarity with racial justice.

“Ra-ci-al justice!” rasped Hosea Williams. “Racial justice from whitey! Tell me brothers and sisters…” and they all leaned forward to listen as his voice sank to a whisper, “how long has Wyche Fowler been black!” It’s a crummy statement but to be in a hot room cheek and jowl with a crowd, it exploded. Once when he pulled that I really thought I might catch a beating from some of them—but his eyes were always on me to pull my chestnuts out of the fire.

Young defeated Wyche Fowler easily in that primary which was stunning to me. Fowler quickly endorsed Young. The outpouring of black votes did it but Young with his moderation and quiet chuckling good humor carried well in the white suburbs as well. We recorded a lot of those meetings for the film. None of Hosea Williams because I rose above principle and decided the documentary which was to promote racial healing would not benefit with those “how long as Fowler been white?” tirades. Hosea was quite put out. We gave him some of the more virulent outtakes for his files.

The winner in the Republican primary was no easy match either—Rodney Cooke, a kind of Rockefeller Republican the GOP had picked for this district. Cooke started to imitate Fowler in his languid sympathy for black woes. Hosea was eager to start in on Fowler in the same way he had done Fowler, “how long as Cooke been black?”—but after one long night of discussion, I am glad to say I dissuaded him.

I told him that Republican liberals are different from Democratic liberals. Fowler took Hosea’s abuse like a gentleman; Cooke might not. “That’s just the point, chalky!” Williams yelled at me. “Let `im go after me and we got this thing licked.” No, I said: there is a residual Republicanism in this district. After all it has had a Republican congressman for a long time. An angry black militant like you, Hosea, going after a Republican would regenerate the conservative Republican base and help Cooke.

“Why should I take advice from you, chalky?” shouted Williams as part of his strategic amen corner murmured assent.

“Because I know the damage a dumb demagogue like you can do by stirring up white folk,” I said using the singular “folk.”

The amen corner seemed to agree with me. Anyhow, Hosea cooled off and never used that tactic against Cooke.

Once he growled, “how do I know you want Andrew to win anyway?”

I said: you don’t. I got a movie whether he wins or loses. I just had hoped that a man of your education, two masters degrees and all, would be smart enough to see the wisdom of what I’m telling you. If you don’t, go ahead and boot this one away.

He didn’t. Andrew Young was elected as the first black to go to Congress from the deep south in more than a century. And later, I had a blubbering, weeping black man hug me until the breath left my lungs as Hosea told me I had been right all along and he wrong. That was the last time I saw him.

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