Sparring with Saint Jude

I feel a lingering regret for one of my first interviews as a reporter, with Al Lowenstein, the charismatic, complex American activist/politician who was shot dead 36 years ago today.

Like Bernie Sanders, Lowenstein attracted cadres of young and idealistic disciples. One of them, deranged and resentful, eventually stalked and killed him.

I’ll get to that. But first, a bit of background.

Allard Lowenstein was a passionate participant in the liberal causes of the ’50s and ’60s: civil rights, anti-apartheid, antiwar.

But, while often on the right side of history, he was mostly on the wrong side of elections. He failed in all but one of several runs for office, and consistently backed losing candidates – from Adlai Stevenson to Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid.

His one great triumph was leading the “dump Johnson” campaign. LBJ yielded to the Democratic Party forces allied against him in 1968, announcing in early spring he would not be running for re-election.

Great. But then Bobby got shot, Gene McCarthy pulled up lame, the Hump got the nomination and Nixon won the presidency.

Lowenstein secured a Democratic seat in Congress in 1968, but was defeated two years later.

About a month after that loss, on Dec. 6, 1970, I went to his house in Long Beach, on the south shore of Long Island.

I had just turned 24, in my first year as a reporter for UPI in New York, already cocky and cynical. He was 41, with a long and virtuous resume.

I arrived at Lowenstein’s modest two-story home with a preconceived notion of what I wanted to write and what I wanted him to say: That political action was a waste of time, that the surge of energy that brought down LBJ died with Bobby and was buried in the streets of Chicago, that we were all doomed to live the rest of our lives under Nixon and his scummy ilk.

We sat at his kitchen table – the phone ringing constantly, kids wailing in the next room, jets flying overhead on their approach to JFK, his wife Jennifer interrupting with messages – and argued.

He wanted to talk about hope for the future, his effort to find the best candidate – from either party – to bring down Nixon in 1972. He was back in the “dump” business.

“What makes you think,” I said, “that there is anyone – Democrat or Republican – who can go into that office and cleanse the political process to the point that you’re not going to have deceptions and lies?”

“It’s a matter of degree,” he said. “I’m not trying to suggest purity. I’m just trying to suggest that there are some standards of public integrity which people in the country expect—whether they are right to, or not.”

“You really believe that?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Based on what?”

And on it went. Finally, exasperated, he said: “What’s happening is you’re pushing me into a situation in which, on tape, you want me to say things that I’m uncomfortable with, which, when taken out of context, are going to make it sound like I’m some Pollyanna.”

“I wouldn’t take anything you say out of context,” I snapped.

“I don’t know you,” he said. “I can’t take that chance.”

After about an hour of close-quarters combat at the kitchen table, I turned off my tape recorder and stood to leave.

Like two boxers at the end of an exhausting fight, we shook hands. About the only thing we’d agreed on was that we were still bummed about Bobby’s death.

I asked about his kids and discovered our daughters had the same name. (My Kate had been two the previous day. His Kate was not yet a year old.)

Suddenly, unexpectedly, he said: “You want to join us for dinner?”

It turned out to be a fundraiser, to help pay off his debt from the last campaign.

It was at a restaurant in Great Neck, Fitzgerald’s West Egg. I stayed for cocktails, stood at the edge of the crowd, spotted the actor George Segal, skipped dinner and left.

I never saw Lowenstein again.

A couple of years later, I moved to Canada for UPI.

Lowenstein would pop up in the news from time to time, still plugging away, the Saint Jude of American politics, patron saint of lost causes.

Then, on March 14, 1980, he was back in the headlines – shot in his Rockefeller Center law office.

The killer, Dennis Sweeney, 37, had met his target in the early ’60s, when he was a student and Lowenstein was lecturing in political science at Stanford.

Sweeney became a devotee, adopting the teacher’s causes, going to Mississippi to work for civil rights.

But the younger man spent much of his adult life in menial jobs and mental institutions – the voices in his head blamed Lowenstein – which did not prevent him from buying an automatic pistol at a gun shop in Connecticut.

He emptied the clip in Lowenstein’s office, five slugs hitting home, placed the gun on a secretary’s desk, sat down and waited for the cops to arrive.

I found the news shocking. And, for the first time, considered my belligerence and youthful ignorance at his kitchen table 10 years earlier.

Now, I regret not talking less and listening more.

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