Portrait of a Perfect Liberal Hugo Portlist '54
One of the hoarsest voices cheering President Johnson when he came to Boston on October 27 belonged to Hugo Portlist, a militant Goldwater critic who wryly calls himself "the most outspoken anti-conservative in East Waltham."
A letter carrier by trade, Portlist is the founder of the Massachusetts Citizens for the Great Society, a group which has enrolled 400 members since it got started five months ago. The MCGS has sent delegations to every local public demonstration in the 1964 campaign. At the downtown rally greeting the President, Portlist led an excited band of Citizens carrying placards that read, "Into the Future with Lyndon"--a phrase that could serve as a motto for the MCGS.
During his brief career as an amateur politico Portlist has collected dozens of uncomplimentary labels. He has been called a demagogue, a Communist, and a scapegoat. His own view of himself is less sinister. "I'm a crank," he declares. "The far right doesn't have a monopoly."
Although he has been fascinated with parties and elections since his college days, Portlist prefers to stay on the fringes of active politics. He has never run for office or campaigned formally for any candidate. But he has attended every Democratic National Convention his devotion to Adlai Stevenson earned Mr. Portlist nationwide attention; while Senator Eugene McCarthy was making his famous plea for Stevenson's nomination, the gallery chair on which Portlist was jumping up and down collapsed, nearly pitching him over the balcony railing.
Was History and Lit Major
Portlist has lost none of the intellectual zest that brought him a magna in history and literature at Harvard in 1954. He wrote his thesis on Henry David Thoreau's part in Brook Farm, the experimental community begun by George Ripley in 1841. Portlist is still an amateur student of Transcendentalism, but it was his interest in politics that moved him to organize the Massachusetts Citizens for the Great Society.
The guiding principle of the MCGS is a total commitment to the national goals which President Johnson will set forth soon after the election. Portlist describes the spirit of the group as "a realistic dedication to peace on earth and good will among men."
The immediate aim of the MCGS is to help win unanimous public support for Johnson's vision of a greater America. Once he is satisfied that Massachusetts is thoroughly sold on the Great Society, Mr. Portlist hopes to turn the MCGS into a public relations unit working on behalf of other worthy causes in the state.
As eager as he is to see the President reelected on November 3, Portlist is chagrined by "the contrast between Johnson's talents and policies on one hand, and his methods and personality on the other." He agrees with Goldwater on one point: The President should give the nation moral inspiration as well as political leadership. Portlist trusts Johnson to get legislation passed, administer the executive branch efficiently, keep the peace, and handle all the other functions attached to the White House. But he looks to Johnson's running mate, Hubert Humphrey, to symbolize "the intelligence, idealism, and integrity which the people demand in their Presidents."
When Portlist talks about Senator Goldwater his upper lip curls a bit and he begins to chuckle occasionally. "I just can't take the Republicans seriously this year," he says. "From the standpoint of most mature voters, Johnson might as well be running unopposed."
While curious about the effect of Goldwater's candidacy on the two-party system, Portlist confesses that abstractions of this sort usually bore him. "The party with the superior nominee and the wiser platform should get as large a majority as possible. If the conservatives can't get a better man than Goldwater to represent them, I don't think their philosophy can be worth much.... Democracy works best when the best man gets a clear mandate for his program. Johnson deserves a big endorsement, and he'll get it."
"I have yet to meet a conservative who can debate his views coherently," complains Portlist. "Most Goldwater people are hero-worshippers. They care more about images and emotions than real issues. I remember one fellow told me he felt Barry could keep this country from running downhill, as if Goldwater's election would be something like the Second Coming. I told him I felt he was crazy.... You can't discuss things rationally with these people, because you can't argue about feelings."
Does Portlist have any qualms at all about the Great Society? "I won't know that until Johnson describes it a little more fully." He rubbed the LBJ button on his lapel. "But I haven't found much to criticize in what I've heard during the campaign. You can't argue with the future."