George Plimpton, William Styron Get Down for McCarthy
A Concurrence of Poets, And One Who Stayed Home
by Joe Flaherty
Possibly realizing their influence on the Great Society and the mathematicians in Chicago, a group of writers and artists staged what they called a "Mini-Gala for McCarthy" at the Cheetah discotheque last Wednesday night. And perhaps it reflected the sweet naivete that has been part of the McCarthy campaign since its beginning. Hubert Humphrey, knowing how this country really rocks, does his gyrations in backrooms with Richard Daley.
But after a week of watching the Republicans in Miami with their old immobile bottoms glued to their chairs, it was delightful to watch young people on the dance floor trying to hump some life back into the country. One thinks the strategists at Miami missed a major opportunity by not running on a platform plank of unilateral withdrawal.
This evening was organized by George Plimpton (an ex-Kennedy backer) and novelist William Styron. The real political effectiveness of such evenings (outside of fund raising) I suppose is somewhat dubious. And any evening that bills itself as Writers and Artists for anyone or anything is in danger of taking on a superior moral tone. My own feeling toward this kind of evening has always been ambiguous. It's always pleasurable to find your name in the morning Times among the talented for one particular cause or another, but it is also distressing to not that when these names appear, the cause, though usually worthy, is normally doomed. But in fairness writers and artists like the Teamsters and the Sons of Pulanski should have their right to band together for collective bargaining.
The evening seemed launched on an emotional note. The distressing "realities" of Humphrey's reported first ballot victory at Chicago were never discussed. Also there was the entrance of the Kennedy forces' George McGovern into the race. What upset many McCarthy backers was the slur on their man that McGovern entered because he felt "passionately" about the poor. This language was hard for them to swallow after McCarthy's well thought out position paper on poverty and his declaration to fight to seat the Julian Bond-led Georgia delegation at the convention. But this kind of talk has always been with us...
During most of the evening Allen Ginsberg moved about the floor with a knapsack affair over his shoulder, sowing his seeds of love. The most moving reading was delivered by sociologist Michael Harrington who read from his book "The Other America." It wasn't the words but Harrington himself that touched the crowd. While most of his generation is corrupted by the longing for power, or maddened by despair (a despair that certainly should be shattering to Harrington since he championed the two Kennedys), he remains constant to one goal -- to change the lot of the poor in America. When he ended his plea, as usual, the audience was struck by the decency of the man.
At the bar composer David Amram was delivering roundhouse endorsements for two of his loves -- Gene McCarthy and prize fighting. Playwright Arthur Miller, who earlier read a sketch called "The Reason Why" which used the killing of a woodchuck to point up man's indifference to death, was at the bar also. No -- Miller did not hold McCarthy's vote against him during his trouble with the House on Un-American Activities. "That was just a bad time for the country." One forgets Miller's Brooklyn background and a work like "A View from the Bridge" and is taken aback by his charming rangy toughness. Probing for the crux of the Miller endorsement one gets it hard and fast. "He's an honest man and unbelievably hones for a politician. He just makes the most fucking sense."
So the poets had their evening and the pundits tell us McCarthy also had his day. Poetry, like McCarthy's candidacy, is made of airy stuff and usually it can never penetrate the columns of death tolls or delegate counts. So now it's on to Chicago. And if the people here tonight had a message, if McCarthy's whole campaign had a message, it was probably the ancient one the life givers have been trying to tell the attendants of the slaughterhouses since time began. It can be found in William Saroyan's song to life "My Heart's in the Highland." In one scene the hero of the play, an unpublished bard, picks up a newspaper with a headline announcing World War II. shaking his fist at a callous God or the eternal stupidity of man, he shouts into the void: "There'll always be poets."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]