One: A Political Education
I was an unlikely political activist. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in Montclair, New Jersey, an upper-middle-class suburb outside of New York. When I was eight months old, my father died of cancer and my mother, Barbara, became a twenty-four-year-old widow. Three years later, Mom remarried and left her job at IBM to stay home and raise her children. Her decision to quit work was never in doubt. That’s what women did in the fifties—?if the family could afford it.
When I entered Hollins College, an all-women’s school in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1965, I was an eighteen-year-old preppie who was essentially apolitical. This was an era when men’s schools and women’s schools were more common than they are today, and it did not even occur to me to go to a coed school. I didn’t even really know the difference between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. I’d never heard of Vietnam, much less realized we were at war there, and I didn’t even know that hundreds of thousands of Americans were protesting.
But, in 1968, at the urging of a friend, I went to Philadelphia to work for Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar senator from Minnesota, during the Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania. I knocked on doors, handed out literature, and talked to people about the issues. McCarthy won 71 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania. I had just turned twenty-one and was now eager to vote in my first presidential election.
It was 1968 in America. All across the country, the counterculture of the sixties was ascendant. A generation of antiwar protesters and long-haired hippies were replacing buttoned-down, crew-cut frat boys and sweater-and-pearls sorority sisters. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones were on the airwaves. On the other side of the globe, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam. U.S. campuses were in an uproar. On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.
Four days later, on April 4, 1968, I was crossing the Hollins campus when I heard that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Hundreds of thousands of people rioted in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and dozens of other cities. On June 6, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. There were countless demonstrations all over the country.
My political innocence was over. Both Montclair and my family were Republican to the core, but I headed off in a very different direction. Too much of what was happening in the sixties was close to home—literally. Just eleven miles from Montclair, Newark was the epicenter of the most violent racial upheavals of the time. The year before, six days of rioting, looting, and violence left 26 people dead, more than 700 injured, and 1,500 arrested—?not to mention millions of dollars in damages. In the aftermath of the King assassination, civil unrest spread to 125 cities.
To affluent suburbanites like me, all this was shocking. By that summer, I was fully committed to fighting poverty and racism, as well as the war. I believed that job training could help the unemployed, so my mother found me a volunteer job at the Manpower development program in Newark. There I was, a nice, young, MG-driving white girl from Hollins, whose mother was urging her to join the Junior League, working on Broad Street in Newark—?not far from the riot-torn ghetto. It was an eye-opening experience.
In August, the McCarthy campaign sent out word that staffers and volunteers should stay away from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, so I watched it on TV from the comfort of home. In the aftermath of the MLK and RFK assassinations, Chicago was the apex of counterculture protest. For five days, thousands of Chicago police fought demonstrators in the streets, while nearby, in the International Amphitheater, the Democratic Party selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey as its presidential nominee.
By the time I returned to campus for my senior year, I had become Hollins’s version of a campus activist. Granted, I didn’t build bombs or take over the administration building. But I had changed. I went to Charlottesville to hear blues singer Janis Joplin give us “Another Piece of My Heart.” I went to civil rights meetings. And, in my own decorous way, I did something audacious: I invited the college president to the campus dining hall as part of a campaign to allow Hollins’s students to wear pants.
As a measure of exactly how radical I was, I took the defiantly militant step of wearing pants to the meeting. Lo and behold, soon enough the rules were changed. It wasn’t exactly rabble-rousing, but it was my first taste of political success, and I loved it.
In the summer of 1970, I moved to Washington, D.C. I had learned about a new nonpartisan, grassroots “citizens’ lobby” called Common Cause that focused on campaign-finance reform, election reform, accountability, and the media. I arrived when the organization was just six months old. Our first goal was to end the Vietnam War.
Common Cause took a less attention-getting but more pragmatic tack than those used by most antiwar groups: its goal was to cut off the federal funds that allowed the war to continue. My job was to oversee a small army of volunteers to mobilize public pressure on senators and representatives to pass our agenda. We didn’t have the money that the special interests had, but we had created a new kind of organization as a counterweight: a citizens’ lobby that harnessed the voices of ordinary Americans. I focused on organizing volunteer lobbying groups in congressional districts and on keeping volunteers informed and excited so they would work successfully. In addition to our antiwar efforts, we initiated campaign-finance-reform legislation to limit how much money individuals and organizations could give to candidates, to make those contributions public, and to establish an independent organization to oversee campaign financing.
Campaign-finance reform wasn’t the kind of issue that captured the imagination of the American people. But it soon became clear that our work was part of something much bigger. In 1971, Common Cause sued the Democratic and Republican Parties, asserting that both parties were ignoring the Federal Campaign Practices Act of 1925. In response, Congress quickly passed the Federal Election Campaign Act to increase disclosure of campaign contributions. The law went into effect on April 7, 1972, just as the new presidential season got under way.
The names of the Republican donors soon turned out to have enormous historic value. The reason? Three months later, on June 17, 1972, five men paid by Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President (aptly shortened to CREEP) broke into and entered the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington. Over the next two years, as the Watergate scandal unraveled on national TV, the names of those donors became essential to following the money ?— ?which was the key to getting to the bottom of the entire scandal. And the reason those names became public was that Common Cause sued CREEP, thereby forcing it to reveal who had contributed millions of dollars—much of it cash literally stuffed into suitcases and satchels.
As a result, I had a front-row seat to one of the greatest political spectacles of the century: a psychodrama about paranoia and power starring Richard Mil...