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Earlier Bernies and the generation gap

Bernie Sanders’ candidacy may feel new, but it echoes one-issue candidates from the past. And that doesn’t bode well.

In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy personified the anti-war movement.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Photo by John Russell Hines

Watching the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders brings to mind past Bernies — Bernie McCarthy, Bernie McGovern — even Bernie Nader. In their day, they were fresh political air destined to re-inflate the saggy lungs of democracy.

Jane Ahlin
Jane Ahlin

Until they weren’t. 

I also think of the older of our grandsons, who was about 5 years old when his mother found him sorting through papers she’d brought home from her law firm. He looked serious. She asked if he was doing some “lawyering,” and whether he might want to be a lawyer when he grew up. He answered, “I don’t know. Can boys be lawyers?”

Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy as the personification of the “Occupy Wall Street” crusade from a few years ago is impressive. Yet, rather than the “Bern,” it gives me heartburn. I’m one of those second-wave feminists, enthusiastic to see a progressive woman become president. As my grandson’s question makes clear, perceptions about gender — real or mistaken — limit the way all of us look at possibility and opportunity. (See it before you be it.) 

The ‘good’ over the ‘perfect’

Also — like Hillary Clinton — I’m a pragmatist. I’ll take the “good” that can be gotten over the “perfect” I dream about darned near every time. Looking at Hillary’s résumé — the breadth and depth of her knowledge and experience in high-profile positions on the national and international stage, plus her understanding for the toll that being a public figure takes on private life (yet still finding satisfaction in both) — is unparalleled among presidential candidates. She proved she could work with senators ideologically opposed to her — even the late Southern conservative Sen. Jesse Helms said nice things about her. (Is anybody asking Bernie what happens to his amazing plans for overhauling Wall Street if Republicans retain the House and Senate?) Hillary also has negotiated with representatives of countries hostile to the United States. Good grief, just sitting through 11 hours of congressional interrogation over Benghazi when there was no “there” there shows she won’t wilt or lose her cool under pressure. 

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But bona fides don’t seem to count for much next to the passion of “revolution.” 

To be honest, I get that. Having come into adulthood in the late 1960s, I also get the power of the generation gap. The problem is, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy may feel new, but it echoes one-issue candidates from the past. And that doesn’t bode well. When a presidential candidate is identified with one cause, history suggests they both lose — unfortunately, so do the American people. 

McCarthy’s powerful issue

In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy personified the anti-war movement. He was angry over the Vietnam War and young people responded with their own anger (and idealism and impatience). After all, old men in government weren’t being drafted. Instead, old guys sent young guys to do their fighting. For over 50,000 young men, getting sent turned out to be a death sentence. No question, McCarthy’s was a one-issue campaign, but it was a powerful issue. 

Presidential politics were much crazier in 1968 than today. Along with the anti-war movement, George Wallace started a pro-segregation party and took five Southern states in the general election. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. We can’t know whether the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, would have extricated America from Vietnam faster than the Republican winner, Richard Nixon, but we know that Nixon’s policies of “Vietnamization” and bombing North Vietnam were disastrous. We also know that when the Democrats nominated anti-war candidate Sen. George McGovern in 1972, their party ended up decimated and the country under Nixon ended up with stagnant wages, rampant inflation, and Watergate. (As for Ralph Nader’s spoiler status in the 2000 election, it most assuredly resulted in U.S. initiation of the unnecessary Iraq war with all its fallout.)

“We’re-mad-as-hell-and-we-aren’t-going-to-take-it-anymore” politics can be inspirational, a pressure for change, and downright fun. Historically, however, they don’t often accomplish what was intended.

A writer and columnist from Fargo, N.D., Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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