The Last Walk (Part Seven)
In spring 1976 Eugene McCarthy brought his presidential campaign to Oregon! In doing so, he changed my life.
To explain this, I have to provide background. Some historical context: Eugene McCarthy played an important role in American politics when, as a Democratic Senator, he challenged President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy lost the primary, but Johnson’s narrow margin of victory helped convince him to not run for reelection.
“Wait a moment!” you might object. “McCarthy challenged Johnson in 1968, but you mentioned 1976.” And you would be right. McCarthy’s fifteen minutes of fame (according to Andy Warhol in the future we will all be famous for fifteen minutes) came in 1968. For a few months in that awful year McCarthy was a major political figure in this country.
[Brief side comment: many of us are deeply troubled by presidential politics this year, as we should be. But if you can, recall 1968: Vietnam war going full blast, MLK assassinated, Robert Kennedy assassinated, the Democratic convention and “the whole world is watching,” and Richard Nixon picking Spiro Agnew to be Vice President. As bad as 2016 seems, things could be worse.]
In 1976 Eugene McCarthy was not a major political figure. But like other politicians he had caught the presidential bug, and he could not let the dream go. So he soldiered on, taking his 76 campaign to the little places away from the bright lights. One of those places was Linfield College, where he would make a speech to college students. Students from many Oregon colleges were invited to attend.
History professor Ralph Beebe jumped on the opportunity. McCarthy wasn’t important in 1976, but only eight years before McCarthy had helped pull down a wartime president. Ralph urged George Fox College students to drive to Linfield to hear McCarthy’s speech. Naturally, I went. McCarthy’s speech was totally forgettable, proven by the fact I remember nothing he said.
After McCarthy’s speech, attending students were divided randomly into discussion groups and sent to various classrooms in Melrose Hall. And that’s when magic happened. There was a girl in my group (about 25 students) who contributed insightful comments to the discussion—and to my surprise she identified herself as a George Fox student.
George Fox College in the 1970s was much smaller than today. I thought I knew everybody. Yet here was this smart—and very pretty—young woman whom I hadn’t met! I came back to campus with a mission to find out about Karen Bates. It turned out that she had transferred to Fox from another college, and she lived off campus, which explained why I didn’t know her. I asked her for a date. We rode bicycles to Champoeg Park. (I had to borrow a bike for this purpose.) Afterward, she kissed me on the back porch of her parents’ house. Later that year, in summer, I said to her, “If things keep going this way I’m going to ask you to marry me.” She said that would be okay.
Let it not be said that presidential candidates never accomplish good things. In 1976 Eugene McCarthy did good.
Karen Bates-Smith died on October 9, 2016. I miss her terribly.