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Curtis Gans, a man who changed the course of history

In high-stakes politics, sometimes the action of a little-known player drastically alters the chessboard with significant results. Such was the case of Curtis Gans, a serious game-changer who, as a University of North Carolina graduate, helped engineer the end of the Lyndon Johnson presidency.

Gans, who died Sunday at 77, teamed at Chapel Hill with Allard Lowenstein, later a New York congressman, and orchestrated the Dump Johnson movement in 1967. Together they persuaded Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to challenge LBJ in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, and it worked beyond their dreams.

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Gans and Lowenstein, foot soldiers in the radical Students for a Democratic Society(SDS) and in the National Student Association, headed up a group called the Conference of Concerned Democrats to dislodge the president for prolonging the Vietnam War.

They first approached Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York, but he initially declined, not wanting to be perceived as dividing the Democratic Party or acting out of his known animosity with LBJ. Kennedy thought the attempt to dump Johnson "quixotic," according to Lowenstein later, observing: "He took it as seriously as the idea of a priest in Bogota deposing the pope."

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Kennedy asked who the next prospect was. It was Army Gen. James M. Gavin, proponent of the "enclave" theory of keeping only enough U.S. troops in Vietnam to negotiate peace with North Vietnam. But Gavin also declined, as did former Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith and Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who recommended McCarthy, better known than himself.

McCarthy at first demurred, telling Lowenstein: "I think Bobby should do it." But he finally relented. Johnson didn't campaign inNew Hampshire, leaving establishment Democrats in the Granite State to carry the task through a delegate slate pledged to him, led by Gov. John King and Sen. Tom McIntyre. While Kennedy continued to agonize about the long-shot challenge of taking on the sitting president, Gans and Lowenstein used their connections in the student antiwar and liberal communities to rally a "children's crusade" in behalf of McCarthy. He proved to be a surprisingly dynamic if often acerbic speaker, igniting the growing opposition to what had become Johnson's escalation of the war.

In a campaign notably waged by college students dropping out for a semester, shaving beards and long hair to be "Clean for Gene," the little-known McCarthy won 42 per cent of the vote to 49 for the sitting president's slate, and 20 of the 24 Democratic convention delegates at stake.

Buoyed by that unexpected result, McCarthy pressed on to later primaries. Kennedy, seeing LBJ's vulnerability, jumped into the race too late for the next important test, in Wisconsin. On the Sunday night before that primary, Johnson shocked the nation announcing he would not seek re-election, saying he intended to focus on ending the Vietnam war. The Gans-Lowenstein campaign suddenly was an astounding success, a step in their own effort to end the war, though it dragged on for another seven years.

Lowenstein went on to a brief and stormy career in Congress as a fervent critic of the war until a tragic death in 1980. Gans, of more reserved and studious temperament, continued privately in activist politics, and in 1976 began small think-tank called the Center for Study of the American Electorate.

He became the go-to expert for a generation and more of political reporters and statisticians on American voting patterns and attitudes. He deplored the sinking turnouts in presidential elections a point where only about half of eligible Americans were showing up at the polls, and one-quarter actually selecting the nation's chief executive.

The "Dump Johnson" movement fanned by Gans and Lowenstein had originally blossomed out of their hopes to make Robert Kennedy the vehicle to get rid of the sitting president of their own party. It ended with their first choice assassinated in Los Angeles, and with LBJ-controlled Hubert Humphrey narrowly losing the office to the despised Republican Richard Nixon.

Anyone thinks one man -- or two -- can't make a difference need only remember Curtis Gans and Al Lowenstein.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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