Friday, March 7, 2008

Flashback: In 1970-71 Gene Meanders Inconclusively, Reading Poetry, Speaking Enigmatically as Hubert Warns of the McGovern Commission Which He Believes (Rightly) Will Cost the Democratic Party Future Victories.

[More than 50 years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Private citizen Gene McCarthy meandered around the country, picking up honoraria (including those paid by the schools I was part-time teaching at i.e. the Wharton School of Finance, University of Pennsylvania). It was a wistful, inconclusive man with whom I dined on occasion, during his teaching stint with me in Philadelphia and when I saw him in Washington. He was not interested in participating in politics and actively shirked involvement beyond making speeches. He condemned President Nixon for sending troops to Cambodia on April 30, 1970 saying “it proves he has no clear policy for ending the war.” But he shied away from capitalizing on the explosion that followed the incursion including the fatal shootings of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State on May 4. While some in the Senate were writing anti-Vietnam legislation, he refused to assume movement leadership that many of his old supporters urged on him. After talking with him extensively, I decided he was undergoing a depression. As a matter of fact, that idea has never entirely left me and I have wondered from that time on whether or not he was intellectually weary and seeking a hermit-like environment.

At the same time during my trips to Washington, I would see Hubert and his senatorial staff on occasion. Hubert kept noting to me the changes that were undergoing in his party through the McGovern “reform” commission. The commission had been started in 1968 with David Lawrence, mayor of Pittsburgh, a Democratic regular (and a conservative Catholic) as chairman. Lawrence died and Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.) named George McGovern as “reform” chairman. Harris was a lefty who for some reason was not attracted to Gene McCarthy or the Kennedys but to Hubert and Hubert thought it would be smart to have a left-winger of his own. After Hubert’s defeat, Larry O’Brien continued to serve as DNC chairman but had to give it up for a lucrative job in private industry and Humphrey’s great mistake, as titular leader of the party, was to okay Harris as DNC chairman. Harris bolted to the left and named Sen. George McGovern as chair of the “reform” committee after Lawrence’s death, to Humphrey’s everlasting regret.

At first McGovern was cautious and named some regulars to his group such as Austin Ranney, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin, Warren Christopher, a corporate lawyer type who had been deputy AG under Lyndon Johnson and George Mitchell, the reflective national committeeman from Maine. The full committee was an admirable composite of the real Democratic party with labor union people, Catholics, experienced politicians and intellectuals. The big mistake, Hubert thought, was the naming of Eli Segal as executive director. I agreed. I knew Segal. He was a campaign aide to Gene McCarthy and as radically anti-Democratic party in an establishment sense as they come.

A brilliant young man who for some reason was compelled to bring his Jewishness to the fore in every conversation (he repeatedly kept reminding me of this fact although he was not interested in being observant in his faith but was a secular—but over and over again his reference to being a Jew which caused Jerry Eller to say “hey, Segal! So you’re Jewish, huh? I would never have known. You don’t look Jewish, Segal!” just to bait him.)

Eli Jay Segal was a native of Brooklyn, a 1964 history major at Brandeis where he became radicalized, bringing to the campus Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, the conspiratorial theorist of the Kennedy assassination Mark Lane and others. He was a 1967 University of Michigan law grad who appended himself to the McCarthy campaign right after his law degree. Let’s say he was so radical that he had no interest in working for Bobby Kennedy rather than Gene because Kennedy had used the term “law and order” in connection with his presidential campaign to quell riots in the cities, which Segal interpreted as code words for racism. That gives you an idea of how radical he was: Bobby was too tame. He figured he could radicalize the peace movement working with an abstruse Gene rather than Bobby. He was right. So he glommed on to Gene in the presidential campaign, was a brilliant organizer and dreamed of a real electoral change overnight in the country but was quickly outgunned by the party pros after the primaries.

He became outraged at seeing McCarthy win primaries but see the delegates being picked by the old rules. He fomented a revolution. What we see today in the Democratic party, the squabbling over quotas in delegations, so many blacks, so many Hispanics, so many gays, is the legacy that came down from the late Eli Segal who died a rich man who while he was “reforming” the Democratic party had shown himself to be a brilliant entrepreneur at a very early age, making a fortune for himself working for Miles Rubin, a Democratic contributor who ran Pioneer Systems, Inc. and who later became CEO of Vogart Crafts, a manufacturer of yarn and crafts (a subsidiary of Pioneer Systems), American Publishing, a manufacturer of games and puzzles and Bits & Pieces a mail order game catalog. Compulsively active in Democratic politics at the same time, he was close to Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, giving Clinton the idea for Ameri-corps which he headed for a time. He was in many ways a genius as was plain to be seen—but his view of politics was to make it a highly regulated industry. He succeeded hugely with the Democratic party before he died a wealthy man at age 63 of mesothelioma, the rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

“Mark me well,” he said, “Segal is more trouble than anybody else since he works at it full time,” Humphrey told me. Sure enough, Segal worked as dexterously as Nikolai Lenin would have to isolate the regulars. He worked as a weasel to convince McGovern to name a n executive committee whom Segal had screened to radicalize the party. Segal wanted the executive committee to be dominated not by party pros but by the “new politics.”

To appreciate Segal’s influence, remember that the Democratic party of 1968 was largely centrist, so-called because, frankly, many of its leaders were Catholic which stemmed from the party’s heritage of blue-collars. If the Democratic party had stayed moored to that group (I don’t mean just Catholics but rooted to the center that Catholics usually were affiliated with) it would not have veered so leftward as to almost fall off the edge of the earth. Imagine in 1968 the chairman of the DNC was John Bailey of

Connecticut (a Catholic), the chairman of the platform committee was Congressman Hale Boggs (D-La.), the House majority leader (a Catholic). Chairman of credentials was Gov. Richard Hughes of New Jersey, father of nine and a Catholic with a kingmaker the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley.

But working against that centrist influence was Segal, the McGovern commission’s director of research, Ken Bode (who was later to take control of the “reform” mechanism, become a lefty journalist, preside over “Washington Week in Review” on national public TV and then become dean of the Medill school of journalism at Northwestern where he has done incalculable service for the Left. Another top staffer was Ann Wexler who began as a McCarthy operative (ended up in the Carter White House but who turned corporate right and became president of one of the top corporate lobbying firms in Washington). They along with Yale law professor Alexander Bickel whose view of the law was more circumspect and Dr. Richard Wade formerly of the University of Chicago rounded out the staff. They had more than enough time, energy and octane to run the commission no matter who else was on its membership.

“Segal’s the one,” Humphrey would say. “This [the Commission] will come to no good.” He was right. The influence of Eli Segal and the Commission are tying up the Democratic party right now with the struggle over a complicated delegate selection between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, with the line of skew favoring the left, in this case Obama.

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