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1972: Hillary, Bernie, and Joe
February 15, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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As the twig is bent, the tree is inclined

1972 was a presidential election year. A surprising number of people running for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020 were already adults then. I believe character is important, and what they did in 1972 illuminates character. The contest may well be between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, but I am adding in Hillary Clinton because she provides such a sterling contrast to those two male candidates. As to the other co-front runner of today, he was yet to be born, and so I will write later about other tests that illuminate his character. By way of disclosure, for most of 1972 I was 17 years old. I spent the early part of the year in high school, summer working as a life guard, and fall at college, where I spend some volunteer hours as a foot soldier handing out fliers for George McGovern.

Since Hillary is not in the race in 2020, I will start with her. In 1972 she turned 25 years old in October and was in law school. So her political activities were mainly during the summer and into October. She was already well known as a reliable worker, so the Democratic National Committee sent her to register voters in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In Hard Choices she says "Some people were understandably wary of a blond girl from Chicago who didn't speak a word of Spanish, but soon I was welcomed into homes and communities where citizens of Mexican ancestry were eager to participate in our democracy." Perhaps she was drawing on her experience working on Walter Mondale's subcommittee on migrant workers back in the summer of 1970.

In 1972 Bernie Sanders lived in Vermont, a state that did not have significant Hispanic or African-American populations. He turned 31 years old, was a member of the Liberty Union Party, and ran as its candidate for Governor. At the time the Liberty Union Party was against the Vietnam War and for extending New Deal programs, so not very different that the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party. He received 4% of the vote, not quite enough to get the Republican Candidate elected Governor. He encouraged people to vote for Benjamin Spock, the People's Party presidential candidate, helping to contribute to McGovern's defeat by Richard Nixon.

Although Joe Biden was just 29 years old, he had picked up a law degree, worked as a public defender. In 1969 he changed his registration from Republican to Democratic, then won a seat on the New Castle (Delaware) City Council. In 1972 he ran a grass roots campaign for U.S. Senator pushing withdrawal from Vietnam, environmental issues, civil rights, increased mass transit, and better health care. He was widely expected to lose, but won by a narrow margin. While he was focussed on his own campaign, he supported George McGovern.

What are the take-aways? The social movements of the 1960s, particularly for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, convinced many young people that the way to political power, or change, was through a revolution, either by building a third party to the left of the Democrats, or by seizing power as in the French Revolution or Russian Revolution.

Joe Biden got a leg up the ladder early, and despite his progressive campaign, came to be known as the Senator from MasterCard. After all, he represented the State of Delaware, which has almost as few inhabitants as Vermont, and yet gets the same 2 votes in the U.S. Senate. Delaware is the legal domicile of most large American corporations. Was Biden doing their bidding because he had no choice if he wanted to keep getting elected? Or was he corrupted away from his youthful views of 1972?

Bernie Sanders stuck to his guns longer than most. It was not until 1981 that he was chosen by a gang of corporate real estate developers to provide progressive cover for their plans, allowing him to get elected Mayor of Burlington. Beyond Burlington he had the problem of living in a Republican State. Perhaps in his heart he was true to his Socialist roots when he defended gun manufacturers in Congress and opposed Gay Marriage, but despite his rhetoric about his history, he flexed just as much to get re-elected as Biden.

The reality is that representatives reflect their constituencies more than they shape their constituencies. Corruption takes many forms, not just briefcases of cash for votes, or donations from corporations or PACs.

As to Profiles in Courage, I see no evidence of any true display of courage at any point in the career of Bernie Sanders. He lived in a hip, lefty bubble in the 1960s, but did not go out on a limb by joining the Weather Underground, SLA, or any of the Marxist to Leninist revolutionary socialist parties. He handed out a few milk toast socialist fliers, then sold out when he could not stand it any more. There is nothing wrong with that: it was good to have another progressive vote in the House and then the Senate, when he thought the votes would not affect his chances of re-election.

Hillary Clinton is the only person who stands out as brave on close look. In her day it took a bit of braveness for a woman to go to law school. She did not just work with Hispanics. At other times in her career she worked to register black voters in the South, when it was still dangerous to take on that task. I think her big mistake was hooking up with Bill Clinton. He was much more of a don't-take-chances unless there is something in it for you type of guy.

That is not to say that Joe or Bernie might not be a rather good President. Neither of them performed feats of Hercules like John F. Kennedy did in World War II, but neither did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It helps to have a cooperative Congress. Biden can almost count on one. Bernie could do well if he has a progressive congress, but I don't see that happening unless a bunch of Representatives and Senators decide it is time to take off the cloak of moderation and unsheathe the sword of progress. Or perhaps I should saw, harness the Donkey to the Plough of Peaceful Progress.

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