This cute rhyme has been rattling around my brain since I viewed the YouTube video of Peashoot’s former student. The phrase has no current meaning and only can be found in the footnotes of history books analyzing the tumultuous year 1968. But the quip played a significant, though not dominant, role in toppling the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1968, as the Vietnam war raged, anti-war sentiment finally gained national traction. The surprise attack known as the Tet Offensive rebutted administration claims that the US had “turned the corner” in Southeast Asia and their optimistic promises of seeing “light at the end of the tunnel”. That the Tet Offensive failed militarily for the communists mattered little; it was an enormous political victory that demonstrably altered public opinion about the war in the US.
With Robert Kennedy refusing to mount a primary challenge to LBJ fearing charges of splitting the party, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy stepped into the race with peace in Vietnam as his foremost issue. College students flocked to him, but recognized a significant problem: image. Although public opinion trended against the war, the anti-war coalition polled equally poorly with the American public.
To assuage the public’s apprehension and persuade voters, young McCarthy volunteers came up with the “Be Clean for Gene” strategy. In order to defeat Johnson, McCarthy needed to win the primaries which required a strong ground game in the voting states. His volunteers cut their hair, shaved and generally behaved as though they were auditioning for the church choir. The notion was average Americans would be more receptive to hearing them out as they went door to door if they were “presentable” and “respectful”. It worked.
McCarthy stunned LBJ in the New Hampshire primary garnering forty percent of the vote. Like the Tet Offensive for North Vietnam, it technically was a loss, but an equally enormous political triumph. The president’s vulnerability exposed, RFK jumped into the race and days later LBJ formally withdrew altogether. Hubert Humphrey, also from Minnesota, outlasted McCarthy and the assasinated RFK to win the nomination.
So what does this have to do with Occupy Wall Street and the aforementioned video? Well, I think the young lady in the video personifies the “be clean for Gene” principle nicely. She’s polite, articulate and respectful. People might disagree with her, but she certainly gives no offense and, more importantly, offers the undecided no easy reason to dismiss her. While demonstrative displays of chanting, swearing, taunting might arguably have its place, ultimately it does not persuade the independent voter and most often turns them away.
Americans are tired of bailouts. In the past few days I’ve read many an editorial or blog post noting – ironically – that the Tea Party and OWS share some common ground. I’ve also seen many Ron Paul supporters referenced as attendees at OWS. But I’ve also read descriptions of boorish behavior that should be unacceptable. I guess it comes down to a choice: do you wish to persuade and perhaps change, or do you wish to disrupt and topple? President Obama, VP Biden and Rep. Pelosi have all offered their support of OWS believing the movement seeks to persuade. The influential liberal publication The New Republic repudiated it, suspicious of its motives (http://www.tnr.com/article/96334/how-occupy-wall-street-will-hurt-liberals). If OWS wants to influence the outcome of the 2012 elections, I would suggest they take a page from another divisive and unsure time in American history and “be clean for Gene”.