Without ever meeting me, George McGovern taught me a lesson I’ve kept in mind since 1972. Even back in the grim and exciting days of the Vietnam War era, I interviewed other pols, including similarly anti-war U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse. As newspaper reporter and editor, I was eager to speak with pols.
Yet the lesson McGovern coincidentally revealed was news I could and can use.
In 1972, I lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, long before Yuppies or hipsters. Instead, it was the Hell’s Angels, many Russian and Ukrainian elderly women (hubby had died), junkies, and immigrants using the area of cheap apartments as staging ground for becoming Americans and maybe even wealthy.
In some political ways, I felt a bit like I was back in South Carolina. There, I had been a hippie peacenik sort. That was a decided minority persona. Back on East 3rd and 9th Streets, I sensed the conservative vibes all around.
Russian and Ukrainian greetings and conversations were ubiquitous. Even the tiny A&P on First Avenue was an Eastern European outpost. It sold those deceptive loaves of black bread that weighed two or three times what sandwich loaves the same size did. The old women chatted with clerks and each other in their native tongues, even though many had been in the neighborhood since the 1917 Revolution. I recalled enough of my college Russian to understand the gist.
To a one, the old women seemed dour and sour. I even recall seeing one stumble and fall, spilling her bag of groceries. I helped her up and repacked her bag. I told her in Russian that I’d help her home, but she snatched the brown bag from me and looked terrified as she limped home with her bloody knee. Trust of the other was not big outside of that community.
I thus knew it was surely a fool’s errand to canvass for pinko McGovern in my precinct. I knew Nixon decidedly wasn’t THE ONE as his campaign claimed but rang the bells anyway.
The old women who filled the apartment buildings (one to five story humble dwellings, as was my own) would not have rung me in. However, as was and is the standard NYC practice, I’d just go in when someone else opened the door to enter or exit. Once I was inside, I did get a face-to-face hearing after the woman had looked through the door peephole.
They were stunningly unresponsive. I gave my pitch about the pivotal election and hopes for peace and equality via a McGovern administration.
Sometimes I threw in a little Russian, always being careful to avoid such loaded terms as товарищ (comrade), far too risky I knew. They invariably remained impassive. They certainly were not like the Swiss, who quickly forgive poor pronunciation of any of their three languages or the Japanese or Chinese, who largely sincerely appreciate any effort to speak even a few words in their language. Instead, I saw the same stone faces, never smiling nor nodding nor asking anything.
After several weeks of doing this in the evenings, I had covered the precinct, but was deeply disheartened. Clearly my audience was conservative, unswayed by McGovern’s messages or at least my delivery of them. I had done the right thing in the cause noble, but to what effect?
I had a keen bead on my target voters. They were not buying what I was selling.
Come Wednesday, November 8th, the day after the election, I had an awful acknowledgement and a shock. First, Nixon had crushed my man. Only Massachusetts went for McGovern. Yet, yet…when the precinct results appeared in the papers later, mine had gone overwhelmingly for McGovern. I think it had the highest percentage in the city and state. Those sour elderly women were not at all as I knew them to be.
They didn’t make a deal out of their leftist leanings. They didn’t show them, at least to me. Those many Russian and Ukrainian elders did want what McGovern offered. Perhaps they had experienced enough war and violence and death and instability in their earlier years. Perhaps this or perhaps that. Regardless, they voted as I.
So I learned and have remembered. When I’m cocksure that my assumptions are absolutely correct, that’s far, far less important than reality. You need to ask, to make your pitch, to expose yourself, to be open to the obvious or even the eventual responses of others.
As my mother told me many times, ask, the worst you can hear is, “No.”