by Gary Gordon
(a slightly edited version of this article was published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Jan. 17, 2001)
In the winter of '73, on the heels of the defeat of George McGovern, the re-election of Richard Nixon, and the infamous Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, eighteen of us from Northwestern University drove to Washington D.C. to protest at the inauguration.
Sandy had a friend whose actual name was Susie Sugar (sometimes the 60s just writes itself), and Susie had a dorm room at George Washington University (G.W.) where she said we could crash.
D.C. was familiar territory to marchers and protesters. From S.A.N.E. and Ban The Bomb picket lines at the White House in the early 60s, thru the Integration Now! marches and the huge rallies where a beautiful future was dreamed of, thru the Hell No, We Won't Go and Out Now! marches and demonstrations and the so-called MayDay riots of '71 (when thousands of people were unconstitutionally held at RFK stadium-- now why didn't they name that after Reagan?)-- to this catch-all protest against Nixon: his war, his racist "southern strategy", his "no-knock" Attorney General, his agents provocateur, his burglaries.
It had gotten to the point when everyone knew the drill: a few hundred thousand protesters would show up. Most would be peaceful. Some might be intent on throwing red paint (symbolic of blood) on the Justice Department or another "fascist" building. Helicopters would circle overhead incessantly. If we were unlucky, we'd be gassed. If things got really out of hand, we'd be beaten. If it got ugly, we'd be shot. But chances were we'd have some fun, demonstrate a presence, and maybe make love, not war.
And although the helicopters would be annoying as hell, it would be a very public and very open event. We would get to shout and show our numbers; they would get to be in power.
This, alas, was before the days when alleged terrorist threats succeeded in turning D.C. into more of an armed camp, with barricades.
This was before the days we live in now, when the Secret Service invites CNN reporters to witness their preparations for the Dubya Inaugural by practicing for Stinger missile attacks.
Here is how it used to be.
G.W. was the hotbed meeting place. Nixon might've won but our kindred spirits ruled the campuses. We drove there to find out about protest events and to secure our housing. Susie greeted us at her dorm room, she had strawberry blonde hair, and waved at the floor, "throw your sleeping bags anywhere."
We went to visit our newly elected representative, Republican Congressman Sam Young, who had beaten the great liberal Democrat Abner Mikva. He was hosting an open house in his new office, serving roast beef sandwiches. We did not dress up, we did not have to endure searches as we entered the Congressional Office Building; we were greeted by Mrs. Young who pretended not to notice our McGovern and End The War and Dump Nixon buttons and cordially asked, "You drove all the way from Evanston?"
Being from Evanston, and having driven from there, we didn't want to point out there was no way to drive part way. Not to make too much of this, but this level of thinking on her part didn't reflect well on our new congressman or on the future of the United States of America, unless Nixon had a secret plan to change the laws of physics regarding traveling between two points.
That night we went to the Kennedy Center to shout at the "dignitaries" entering the main pre-Inaugural party. They wore tuxedoes, we wore Army jackets and jeans. I remember Reagan and Charlton Heston arriving, stepping out of limos, smiling sanctimoniously, waving to autograph seekers, ignoring us. Just like a movie premiere, I imagined. And I'm sure I thought Nixon was as bad as it could get, having no idea Reagan was on the horizon.
The contrast between wealth and status was stark. As Kurt Vonnegut had written in the December '72 issue of Harper's, there were two political parties in America, the Winners and the Losers, "and the fix was in." We were shouting at the winners, trying to suggest to Time Immemorial that there was indeed a moral consciousness within certain communities in America that did not approve of bombing women and children, that did not approve of the Vietnam War, that did not approve of racism. And, at the time, most of us would not have been caught dead in a tuxedo. (This was back when GQ was a magazine primarily distributed in Formal Wear rental shops, and was not the fashion bible it is today.)
On the way back from the Kennedy Center some of us stopped at the Lincoln Memorial. Say what you will about Lincoln, the guy could write. And the idea of "malice toward none" was especially appealing. Lincoln had offered amnesty to those who rose up in arms against the nation; Nixon wanted to jail anyone who disagreed with him. Our fear lay not only in what violence Nixon would perpetuate within the next four years, it was that someday there would be a monument to him that would not include the phrase, "with malice toward all".
After that we stumbled across a small reception in Georgetown for some more "dignitaries". Kim spotted Henry Kissinger (a known war criminal of the era) so we stuck around for awhile to shout at those folks: "Stop the bombing, end the war!" (Okay, it wasn't the catchiest slogan, but they can't all be "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many men did you kill today?")
The next day was Inauguration Day, and we made our way quickly to the parade route. Parades are exciting, even you're protesting the main attraction. It was a brisk, clear day, and I remember we did a lot of jogging.
Our plan, as was the plan of many protesters, was to dog the presidential limo from the White House to the Capitol. The streets were jammed with pro- and anti-Nixon citizens, and street vendors hawking instant memorabilia. They were not jammed with police or military, although there was a security presence. It was easy to move thru the throngs, occasionally stepping to the curb to shout. Ira, who brought his movie camera, actually got close to the limo twice to take movies; each time he was waved away by Secret Service, but he was never threatened.
Admission to the lawn of the Capitol was also easy. We just walked in with the rest of the crowd. We talked for a few minutes with a Secret Service agent who really liked Kennedy, then listened to Nixon's speech. As Nixon spoke of a generation of peace one of his supporters tackled an anti-Nixon demonstrator a few feet from us, knocking him and his sign to the ground. It was gonna be long four years.
Later that afternoon we drifted over to the Washington Monument where Pete Seeger and others were singing traditional anti-war songs and songs about peace and justice. I remember thinking how different things would be if only Pete did have a hammer.
I also remember a long argument with Cliff, who wanted to throw rocks at some nearby windows.
"The men in the helicopters won't like you if you do that, and they'll gas us," I said. "Besides, what've you got against the Department of Agriculture?"
Sometime during that afternoon I was walking with Sandy, and we found ourselves on a sidewalk with a huge phalanx of troops marching toward us. It was a public sidewalk, so we stood still and without breaking stride they just marched all around us. They did not make eye contact. We could've been light poles. Or invisible. We did not exist.
The drive back to Northwestern was filled with stretches of silent reflection and sleep punctuated by frantic discussions of building the Movement along with some free associative humor. I recounted my idea for a musical called My Fair War which would feature songs like "The Bombs In Nam Fall Mainly On The Cong". And we sang. "There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief" became our chant and theme song.
Two weeks after our return several of us published the first issue of The Albatross, an alternative monthly. It remained in publication for three and a half years, well after several of us who founded it had graduated.
I lost track of most of these folks as the 70s wore into the 80s. I heard Sandy is a fundraiser for a major eastern university. I heard Kim was in advertising in New York. Ira worked with John Sayles on Matewan then became head of Fine Line Pictures for awhile. I have no idea about Jan or Linda. Steve is a doctor here in Santa Monica and, when I had lunch with him ten years ago, he was active in ADA. He'd been to Cuba a few times, helping with medical relief.
None of us would have predicted, in Jan. '73, that Nixon's Vice President Agnew would be out of office before the year was out, and that Nixon only had about 18 months left in his reign. He won in an election marked with the illegalities that have become known as Watergate, and even though he won by a 20% margin, he could not sustain the victory.
It would be nice to think that those of us who actively participated in the opposition helped stiffen the spines of those who took on Nixon's imperial presidency. And that may be what's most necessary in the years ahead, for the Democrats, excluding the Black Congressional Caucus and a few others, seem to be without spine.
Dubya won with much less of a mandate, in an election plagued with excessive abnormalities and alleged illegalities, not to mention some Affirmative Action from his Brethren. He will rule a country where the Secret Service prepares for Stinger missile attacks along Pennsylvania Avenue, where barricades surround public buildings, where the largest terrorist act committed in our history was perpetuated by a former military man with a penchant for Nazism, and where it takes a ticket from the governing party to get a seat on the bleachers that will fill the sidewalks along the inauguration parade route.
Although the increasing militarism of our society is discouraging, the fact that the Winner of '73 so quickly became the Loser in '74 is enough to give me hope. Despite his inauguration, Dubya is not forever.