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Senator Stephen M. Young


By James Lardner

When the sponsors of last week's "Dirty War" forum invited Stephen Young to speak, they probably figured that such an unequivocal opponent of administration policy had to be both radical and swinging, but Young--who defies quite a few dove stereotypes--is neither.

By his own account, he was just another warhawk when he took a senatorial excursion to South Vietnam, where--by simply keeping his eyes open--he found out things which completely contradicted officials dogma. Yet there is something in Young's attitude that makes the quick-change act incredibly hard to swallow. He is skeptical not only about the administration's Vietnam policy, but about the administration, period. And if, like certain other Senate liberals, Young avoids attacking the President directly, he more than makes up for it in his comments on the Secretary of State.

At last Friday's forum in Boston, for example, he sensed that the audience like to hear Rusk knocked around; so he obliged them at every opportunity with statements such as, "I would sleep better at night if someone other than Dean Rusk were Secretary of State."

Not always, however, did Young gauge his audience so well. In the process of discounting China's military threat, he said the Chinese navy consisted of "nothing except thousands of junks." The type who laughs compulsively whenever he hears the word "junk" laughed, and Young--apparently encouraged--went on to coin a new phrase--"junks full of Chinks." It was an awkward moment all around. Some hissed; most were pointedly silent and the Ohio Senator had no easy time of it recovering.

The junk--Chink experience particularly disillusioned a number of people in the audience who knew Young only by his voting record and public statements, which have of late been a Vietnam protester's dream. But the episode was more a reflection of Young's roots than of his beliefs. Certainly, nothing he has done could be reasonably traced to prejudice against Chinese.

In his six years in the Senate, Young has been one of its most liberal members. His first feat, and by no means his least, was the unseating of Senator John W. Bricken in 1958. Few Ohio Democrats--none of consequence, anyway--had wanted to take Bricker on, and the 69-year-old Young won the nomination by default. During the campaign, he tried to use Bricker's conservatism for all it was worth, or not worth ("My opponent is John W. Bricker, the darling of the reactionaries."), and, to the surprise of one and all, he won the election handily.

Nor did Young do the country any less of a service in 1964, when he was returned to the Senate. In that election, he secured a close victory over Robert Taft Jr. with the help of the Johnson landslide.

There was nothing much to distinguish Young from a slew of administration democrats until the Vietnam issue arose. His left-of-administration stands were confined to matters like the Domestic Peace Corps and fallout shelters, which he regarded as nonsensical. But with his 1964 win, he had the political flexibility to join the Senate's miniscule band of outright opponents to the war.

Last month, Young came before what must have been a very surprised Cleveland, Ohio, City Club, and urged--in effect--withdrawal of American troops in Vietnam. One might suppose that his constituents were a little unnerved by this development, but Young says his mail has been running five-to-one in his favor from Ohio, and twenty-to-one nationally.

At any rate, re-election is the least for Young's worries, and at 76 he is freed of the politically constraining effects of ambition. His age also permits him to indulge his one really wild eccentricity without fear of voting-booth reprisals. When Young is displeased by a letter--whether or not it comes from a constituent--he writes a thoroughly nasty response. For example: "Dear Sir: It appears to me that you have been grossly misinformed, or are exceedingly stupid. Which is it?"

Young can be painfully predictable in his speeches. While Julian Bond and Donald Duncan, the other two speakers at last week's forum, made a point of avoiding the usual moral and practical evaluations of American policy, Young acted as if he were still taking to the Cleveland City Club. "Historically, there is no North and South Vietnam," he told an audience which was already way ahead of him.

And his images were none too striking either. Witness his description of Vietnam as "an Asiatic Eden of Eden converted into a hell on earth by man's inhumanity to man."

What is hard to figure about Young is just what in his blood count motivated him to take a stand so repugnant to his Senate colleague and--most likely--to his constituents as well. There is something of the traditional midwestern isolationist in him, but he is clearly more than that. His progressivism is evidenced by his votes on domestic questions, and, while hardly a leftist, Young has a leftist's distrust for the military.

Maybe he fails to take all the subleties of the Vietnamese situation into account. But if a simplified understanding of the issues can lead dozens of Longs and Fords to support escalation, there is no reason why it shouldn't produce a few Youngs in opposition.

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