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Campaigning with Paul Newman

Paul Newman wearing McCarthy pin, Life magazine, May 1968.

KENOSHA, Wis. — “I just want to make one thing clear,” Paul Newman told the crowd at the American Motors plant. “I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I got six kids, and I’m worried about their future.”

He held up his right hand and the thumb of his left, which made six, and a little girl with long brown hair and tears in her eyes could restrain herself no longer.

“Oh, Paul,” she cried. “Adopt me.”

That broke the ice. Newman grinned and the auto workers haw-hawed and a housewife waved a homemade sign that said: “Paul Newman, We Love You.” On the other side, it said: “The Corset Set for McCarthy.”

Newman stood on the tailgate of a station wagon and looked out over the crowd. Jammed against the station wagon were teenage girls — seemingly hundreds of them — who had skipped school to see their hero. Then came the mothers and the grandmothers and little kids and then — toward the rear of the crowd — the men from the Rambler plant.

Newman has been stumping for Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.) since the New Hampshire primary, and that is usually the way the crowds run.

The problem is to talk to the people old enough to vote without offending the youngsters.

So he put up his hand and said: “I guess you know I’m here for Sen. McCarthy. I don’t want to mince words. A lot of people are fed up with Lyndon Johnson.”

“Brother, you said it!” an auto worker called from his perch on a fire escape.

“…And they’re ready,” Newman said, “to elect a man who doesn’t care what you think about his dog. That leaves out Johnson and [Richard M.] Nixon.”

Newman grinned, the Cool Hand Luke grin, because he was bugging the Establishment. He has been in Wisconsin twice for McCarthy, and he’ll campaign in Oregon and other primaries, too. That despite his long- standing friendship with the Kennedys and his speeches for President Johnson in 1964.

“Yeah, that’s right, I campaigned for LBJ,” Newman said between stops.

“I wish I could wash that.” He relaxed in the back seat of the station wagon, eating a roast beef sandwich and sipping a beer donated by thoughtful McCarthyites. “That’s the one reason I’m working for McCarthy now. I’m trying to make amends.”

He took out a bottle of eye drops and put a drop in each eye. “Mister Newman was seen taking narcotics from an eyedropper, according to the Republican press,” he said, grinning. “He was also seen weeping copiously at his own jokes.”

He shook his head. “I don’t see how those guys campaign for eight months,” he said. “One week, and I’ve had it.”

The driver, a college student volunteer, asked if maybe Newman was warming up to run for office himself.

“I’d have to be crazy,” he said. “I’ve got kind of a short fuse. I’d get impatient. And I don’t have the arrogance to run for office.”

Does it always take arrogance?

“Not if you’re qualified, like McCarthy,” Newman said. “But look at [California Gov. Ronald] Reagan. I don’t have the arrogance to offer myself without credentials.”

The station wagon passed a large billboard announcing, “Nixon — He’s the One.”

“I tell you what,” Newman said to the college student. “The night before this election, you guys oughta go out with paint brushes and fix all those Nixon posters. You could just blot out the word ‘the’ see?”

The procession reached the Pershing Plaza shopping center, where a large crowd was waiting.

“Here we go again, teeny-bopperville,” Newman said. “Listen, drive very slowly, you hear? Don’t run over anybody. And if they get a door open, don’t slam it. Never slam a door, you’ll catch a dozen fingers.”

The first wave broke against the station wagon, the teenage girls first, then the others. “Sometimes this is a little difficult to take,” Newman said.

A corps of McCarthy volunteers, college girls wearing blue dresses with red and white banners, fanned out to distribute lapel pins and campaign literature. Newman climbed over the back seat to reach the tailgate without going outside.

This time there were more adults in the crowd, and Newman said McCarthy was running a grown-up campaign: “He refuses to wear funny hats. He runs a campaign the right way, not like the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Nixon Circus.”

Newman’s speaking style is borrowed from his movie roles, unless perhaps it’s the other way around. He uses direct, blunt language, compressed into short sentences.

“You’ve got to listen to this man McCarthy,” he said. “He had the courage to say the nation was fed up. He’s not like some people who are cashing in on his political guts…”

“Yeah, but how is McCarthy going to end the war in Vietnam?” a man in a business suit asked.

“Listen to the man, and he’ll tell you,” Newman said. And then, dropping for a second out of character, he said, “The man is stylish and graceful and courageous. He had the wisdom to see that the country needed a choice, and he was brave enough to give us one. The others held their fingers up to the wind and backed into this election thinking of their own careers when the nation was in critical need.”

Back in the station wagon, on the ride to the airport, Newman said maybe that hadn’t been such a great answer for the man who wanted the solution to Vietnam.

“I wish I could have told him about the cop in New Hampshire,” Newman said. “We were going somewhere with a police escort, and one cop pointed to his partner and said he had received word the night before that his son had been killed in Vietnam.

“At a moment like that, it takes every ounce of your conviction to continue to believe the war is wrong. I mean, that man’s son was dead and that was a hell of a personal thing to put up against all these political arguments.

“So I went up to the man, and I offered my sympathy, and he thanked me. And then we stood there, not knowing what to say to each other, because I was there campaigning for McCarthy. So I finally blurted out something. I asked him what he thought of me, some Hollywood big shot, a functioning illiterate, a peacenik — what was he supposed to think?

“And the cop said no, he didn’t resent it. And then he said something I can’t forget. He said: ‘Even if a war takes your boy, that doesn’t make it right.’”

By that time the station wagon had reached the airport, where another crowd was waiting. Newman thanked them briefly and got into a private plane to fly to the next stop, which was Janesville.

The college volunteers and the girls with banners and the campaign workers piled back into their cars and returned to McCarthy headquarters in downtown Kenosha. There was a sense of anti-climax.

Everybody said it had been quite a morning.

There was a poster of Paul Newman on the wall, the one with him in an undershirt, and one of the volunteers went to work with a marking pen, drawing on a shirt and a tie.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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