Jewish World Review August 14, 2002/ 6 Elul 5762


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Only a fool would say that | Thirty summers ago, I was living halfway between Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey, dreading the start of my final year of high school. The family had moved from Huntington in June, where my father had bought a car wash in Hamilton, a blue-collar enclave where the occasional KKK poster could be seen pasted on telephone polls around town.

Two weeks after we'd settled in on Pine Knoll Dr., he died of a heart attack, and my four older brothers and I were left to operate the business while trying to sell it off. It was a crummy break.

One of my diversions was driving a few miles away to pick up The New York Times each morning and read about the latest strategic blunders that doomed George McGovern's campaign against Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, as a 17-year-old pot-smoking longhair, I was staunchly in favor of the charisma-challenged South Dakotan, even though I knew he didn't have a prayer that fall, hoping that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's enterprising reporting on Watergate would somehow resonate with voters. But, of course, it was too early.

Lawrence High was a virtual prison compared to the open-campus, anything-goes school I'd attended in Huntington. Just for openers, phys. ed. was a daily requirement, given as much importance as English or biology: What's more, compared to my previous school, where gym was held just twice a week, and you could choose archery, bocce or tennis instead of a more traditional regimen, at Lawrence uniforms were required and the obese coach was a complete idiot who'd scream at kids who couldn't climb a rope in 15 seconds. Talk about torture.

Not that the culture shock in other classes wasn't as acute. My American history teacher, for example, was a redneck who proudly compared himself to Archie Bunker and claimed McGovern was a communist. My fellow students were just as dumb:

In an October mock election, the tally was 28-2 for Nixon, a result that was, and still is, considering the era, simply shocking. Since the voting was by hand, I suspect there was some brown-nosing going on, just as I was hooted down one day upon proposing that marijuana be legalized.

I shrugged at the irony that one of the boobirds was the senior class' biggest dope dealer: Lost in my own teenage world of the Stones, Bowie, Rimbaud, Kerouac, Joyce and Dickens, I hung in there and counted the days until my release. On weekends, I'd drive to Princeton and browse in the bookshops and record stores, picking up Dylan bootlegs and paperbacks for a quarter, and generally kept to myself.

There were a few highlights during that bleak year. I saw Randy Newman, David Bromberg and Jerry Jeff Walker in concerts on the Princeton campus; in February the car wash was sold; the Watergate hearings were televised; and on weekends friends from Long Island would often visit and it was like old times. When I was accepted at Johns Hopkins University in April of '73 it was one of the happiest days of my life, signaling my escape from a really lousy public school.

I was reminded of all this upon reading McGovern's July 29 editorial in The Wall Street Journal, in which he whined about the new reality of having to arrive at airports earlier than just a year ago. Everyone, aside from ACLU eggheads and forever-adolescent professors, I suppose, has complaints about the chaotic security checkpoints that chew up time and patience. As I've written before, the lack of profiling (a form of political correctness that's not only dumb but dangerous) is counterproductive. It doesn't make sense to waste five minutes frisking and prodding children and the elderly while young males of Arab descent are waved onto the plane. Nevertheless, it's a small sacrifice to make in the interest of safety.

But McGovern, now 80 and very cranky, is incensed. Echoing Bill Clinton's preposterous and self-serving comments that he'd join Israel's military if the country is threatened by Saddam Hussein, McGovern writes: "I'll probably yield to the computer age eventually despite my strong instincts against it. But deep inside I'll never yield to the airport terrorism that President Bush has imposed on us as his answer to Osama bin Laden. I'm willing to shoot bin Laden. I'd even volunteer to fly a bomber against him if we had any idea of what country he is in. But I'm not willing to let fear of Osama bin Laden weaken our civil rights and convert our airports into police-state nightmares."

I found it satisfying that an Aug. 11 Boston Globe editorial took the exact opposite position of McGovern's. Those who haven't relegated McGovern to the dustbin of political footnotes will remember, of course, that Massachusetts was the only state the former senator won in his campaign against Nixon. The Globe says: "Amid all the talk about the best way to honor the first anniversary of Sept. 11, the worst way would be to retreat from deadlines Congress set for improving airport security... [I]t would be a mistake and an insult to the memory of the nearly 3,000 who died a year ago to let airlines' exaggerated concerns about disgruntled travelers trump safety."

Some Americans argue, with fairly convincing evidence, that citizens over the age of 75 shouldn't be allowed to drive automobiles unless they submit to annual tests from the DMV. Similarly, I think a strong case can be made that newspaper editors not allow former elected officials, once-esteemed novelists and playwrights or historians to embarrass themselves in print once they reach a certain age. Does anyone take the gibberish of people like Gerry Ford, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Arthur Miller, Jimmy Carter and Bob Dole, to name just a few "senior statesmen," seriously? It's bad enough that Congress is burdened by the likes of Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd and Fritz Hollings, whose incoherence just mucks up an already abysmal legislative body.

George McGovern has led a distinguished life of public service and I don't regret my youthful endorsement of his liberalism. I don't agree with nearly anything he's said or written in the decades since his landslide loss to Nixon, but he was an icon of the times, a man who bravely spoke out against the Vietnam War, bucked the corrupt Democratic party personified by Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and was a decorated World War II pilot.

But making the asinine statement that airport security, such as it is, is shredding civil rights makes McGovern seem like Al Sharpton, Cynthia McKinney or Jesse Jackson. He's better than that, and it's sad to see the man's brain deteriorate in a public forum.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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