The McGovern primary in the GOP hilltowns
It was the summer of 1972, and we were still learning to live in a new world, having moved from Buffalo in 1969 to buy a very old house in an even older village far off in the hills of Albany County.
So far we’d been busy papering and painting, clearing out a near century of neglect and debris, too busy to pay a great deal of attention to the attitudes, let alone the politics, of our neighbors. It was, however, the ’70s. Nixon was president, and the Vietnam War had been boiling over for some time.
In Buffalo we’d been concerned and active about social issues: marching on Washington for civil rights, attending anti-war rallies on the university campus, present at student protests at the high school and, for my husband, direct, hands-on involvement as a law officer in riots and burnings after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. The idealism, the activism of the late ’60s, is hard to imaging now with the fascination with texting and other various digital diversions to consume our day.
It was a time of unrest, exciting, liberating or dangerous, depending on one’s social orientation. That our fellow villagers tended toward a less progressive, more rigid stance was brought home quickly by our 84-year-old neighbor: Her father had told her to always vote Republican, and she never failed. In the midst of these remote hills and determined conservatism, our family entered the McGovern primary battle.
George McGovern was contesting for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1972 election in the name of ending the Vietnam War. In the spring of that year, an earnest young man from Princeton walked into our lives. His assignment was to rouse the hilltowns, Republican since Lincoln, untouched by the Democratic machine in Albany, in support of radicalism in the worse degree: opposition to an American war.
How he found our name I don’t remember; how he knew we would welcome him I do not know. What I do know is that his voice on the phone from the local watering hole not far up the road was a call to arms. Rapidly we were immersed in his crusade to promote George McGovern as the Democratic candidate for president. However much we leapt at the opportunity to vent our political sympathies with direct action, the knowledge that McGovern hadn’t a chance in this town was a foregone conclusion. Of this the earnest young man from Princeton was unaware.
We opened our home to canvassers; we lent our phone to necessary calls. Large bowls of macaroni and potato salad fed the workers; our daughters, our daughters’ friends and boyfriends knocked on doors. Dogs chased them; doors slammed shut. Not at all discouraged, our young man planned a rally in Conkling Hall. Balloons, red, white and blue, were inflated; popcorn makers worked overtime, cider and doughnuts arrived. And since country dancing was very well attended here, the most popular caller and his outfit were hired.
The evening arrived and the guests, too. Cars, trucks and station wagons pulled up in quick succession and rafts of children were disgorged; four, five, maybe six, offspring of our local Democratic chairman as well. The dance went on, the buffet table was in a proper shambles of crushed cups and used napkins. The cars, pickups and station wagons arrived in time to collect the children, who piled from the doors clutching balloons and campaign literature hastily pressed into their hands as they left the hall. Some of the balloons had burst; most of the literature lay in the mud where the children had let it fall.
McGovern won that primary but lost the presidency to Nixon in one of those historic landslides commentators are fond of recalling. Nixon left the White House not long after that. The war eventually ended. We continued in an uneasy truce to live among our conservative, but usually agreeable, neighbors. Live and let live is the motto here, at least upon the surface. The earnest young man returned to Princeton, his ideals somewhat charred. Ours suffered too; a bit more of our belief in proper justice waned.
McGovern will be given a proper funeral now, lauded as an elder statesman, venerated for ideals that were as incendiary then as a roadside bomb. We never heard from the earnest young man from Princeton again.
Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit columns on local topics for the Sunday Opinion section.