Two years ago, a young liberal running for Congress in a district which included the very poor, heavily blue collar city of New Bedford as well as several wealthy suburbs and Cape Cod, had a fund-raising party at a large seaside estate at Woods Hole. It was a beautiful people party at a beautiful people place: the men clad in bright red and yellow cotton pants with boat shoes or tassled loafers, the women in heels and tastefully chic dresses.
It was a Gene McCarthy kind of crowd. In fact, McCarthy himself made his one campaign appearance of 1970 at this particular party, mobbed as the hero of the new suburban politics. These were his people: clean, earnest, charming, socially sophisticated, with an almost psychological addiction to pure, but inevitably lost causes.
Much of the candidate's New Bedford staff came up to Woods Hole for the party, both for the bit of relaxation and the culture shock it provided for those who had spent months in the hot cramped quarters of a dying industrial ghetto. They listened to the several hundred guests loudly cheer the Congressional candidate and pledge their willingness to do anything to help him win this critical, good versus evil campaign.
"Come to New Bedford," the staffers urged the guests. "That's where the election is being won or lost. Get out of the suburbs and find out what life is like in a real city."
The guests were aghast. Most had never been to New Bedford a scan 40 miles away. Most feared it as ugly, riot-torn, dangerous; as somehow impure and of a different species of America. No, they said, they would play their political games in the suburbs where politics is neat and clean and genteel, and have nothing to do with those ugly places where the work people did made smoke come out of factory chimneys.
Suburban liberals like these have a tendency to deal in platitudes like peace and justice, without ever confronting the fact that for most people, the real issue is something on a less lofty plane: personal survival. In remaining pure, they avoid recognition of the New Bedfords around them, where working class people both black and white confront the gut issues of life.
The problem with the McCarthy campaign in 1968 was that it attracted only these suburban types, and failed to reach out beyond them to urban America and its more earthy concerns. Because of this, George McGovern has always tried to identify himself more with Robert Kennedy, who could forge the alliance between the suburb and the city, than with McCarthy. That "unholy alliance" is the key to success for any significant left-wing movement in the mainstream of American politics, and since February, creating it has been McGovern's primary aim.
But he hasn't been successful. McGovern still has the suburban liberals, but is lighting no fires among the urban working class.
This was never so much in evidence as at the McGovern Day Gala Wednesday night at the Commonwealth Armory. The crowd was reminiscent of the scene at Woods Hole two years ago. These were the idealists, for whom politics meant lofty discussion of noble ideals, rather than the nitty-gritty of organizational campaigning.
Each of the tables set up at the Armory had as its centerpiece a platter of fruit, cheese and bread. The bars at the corners of the hall served wine and champagne as the only hard drinks. Incredibly, there was no beer. "A political rally without beer?" one reporter exclaimed. "I never thought the state of Massachusetts would sink so low."
Political dignitaries and celebrities began arriving. Father Robert Drinan of Newton, a new politics hero, received a huge ovation. Former House Speaker John McCormack of South Boston, on the other hand, an old school Irish politician who served for forty years in Congress, evoked literally no response.
Young McGovern "campaign aides" in styrofoam hats and ultrabrite smiles were everywhere. "Look you're desperate for campaign workers," a reporter said jokingly to one of the aides. "Why don't you tell all these people here (over 6000) that before the show starts, they'll have to go out and canvass for an hour?"
The aide did not find it particularly funny. "I don't think that would be very appropriate," she said icily. Indeed it wouldn't. Canvassing smacks too much of the old politics of traipsing up and down three-deckers on dark nights, for this new breed of political activist. Much better to greet old friends here and discuss old lost causes than to confront a different group of people in the working class areas of the state.
Of course, the ticket price of $25 for the affair certainly discouraged the attendance of any but the wealthy. This is understandable, particularly for an event billed as a fund-raiser. But what is less understandable is that this kind of crowd, made up of people from Newton and Brookline, not New Bedford or South Boston, represents McGovern's most ardent following, and form, in effect, a prison out of which he has been unable to escape.
McGovern is probably going to lose the election, and the reason is that there are a lot more New Bedfords than there are Newtons. But beyond this probable defeat lies the failure of American liberalism today to form a philosophy broad enough to encompass the urban working class as well as the suburban elite. For the present, liberalism deals only with platitudes, not the gut concerns of people. And as such, it is doomed to a never-ending series of righteous, but inevitable, defeats.