This article originally appeared on therollingstone.com.
He emerged from the plane smiling into the madness of the cameras. He looked through them for a moment, and seven long years were sucked into one tiny increment of time.
For seven years he’d asked the London press to come to his marches and meetings, as he stood with other exiles and friends outside the American Embassy. They never came.
Now they came to see how far this gutsy kid was gonna get. They knew the FBI was upstairs. He saw NBC push CBS to record his homecoming — and he couldn’t believe it.
Fritz Efaw, fugitive from justice, draft resister and erstwhile enemy of the people, was finally coming home; and he was coming because he’d been elected to attend the Democratic National Convention. A project that had started as a grand foray into political mau-mauing had somehow gone way out of control. Eight manic days later, despite the FBI and despite Robert Strauss and even Jimmy Carter, Fritz W. Efaw was to be nominated for the vice-presidency of the United States.
A half-hour before Fritz’s plane arrived, Leonah Scurlock, Fritz’s mother, had downed an apricot sour in a restaurant in the back of the Pan Am terminal. She looked pale and full of tears as she waited for Fritz to come home. Leonah had never thought of Fritz’s decision — to leave the country instead of fight — as a bad decision or a good decision; it was just his decision, and in that she took pride.
Louise Ransom raised her glass and waited for Fritz’s mother to open her eyes. Louise had especially asked if she could come to be with the family before Fritz came home. Her son had been killed near My Lai in May of 1968, on Mother’s Day, and she had since become an affiliate director of the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty. “That poor woman,” she said. “Imagine seeing your son after all this time.”
Now Louise held her glass high in the air and waited for Fritz’s mother to look up. “To Fritz,” she said.
At the press conference after his arrival, the reporters asked Fritz if he really thought the government was going to let him attend the convention. Fritz said he didn’t know. Louise Ransom patted Fritz’s mother lightly on the back.
It was late afternoon when 12 people finally piled into a VW camper and left for East Meadow, Long Island. Fritz couldn’t enter Manhattan because he would be leaving the Eastern judicial district of New York. A deal had been struck by which the assistant U.S. attorney had agreed to let him through immigration to see his family if he gave himself up in Brooklyn the next morning. So for one day, Fritz Efaw was underground. He put his arm around his sister Marilyn and spoke quietly. “Where am I,” he said.
It’s a long way from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to South London.
Fritz’s great-grandfather had come to settle in Nebraska after leaving Germany to avoid being drafted by the Prussians. His children moved south and became Oklahoma dirt farmers.
Fritz was the skinny kid with the glasses. He spent long hours alone reading things like USSR magazine and the British humor magazine Punch; he also read Plato. He eventually earned a full scholarship to MIT and went “up East.”
He had gone to MIT to learn how to build a sputnik and ended up studying philosophy. He had played around with various radical groups but was never a leader. He surprised his family at Christmas 1968 when he announced that he was leaving the country rather than fight in Vietnam:
“Nineteen sixty-eight was the year that changed me. The Tet offensive, Martin Luther King was killed and there were riots in Chicago and Los Angeles. McCarthy running for president and there was all this flower power in the air in Boston.
“The pressure started to build up as the specter of induction into the Army got closer. I couldn’t write my thesis, my money was running out. It was a bad time. I went to a draft counseling session at Harvard and I’ll never forget that rich kid with a medical deferment telling me to join the Army and do the right thing from inside the military.
“I thought about faking a medical deferment, but I hadn’t had that solid middle-class experience with doctors and lawyers. During Christmas vacation of 1968, I announced that I was leaving.”
So in May of 1969, Fritz Efaw, American picaro, lit out for London with a one-way ticket, no money and some misplaced dreams of European life that he’d drawn from books.
The GI movement had extended to England because of the large number of American flyers who were stationed there after their first tour in Vietnam. Fritz helped organize the illegal GI marches in London and was involved in various programs to relocate deserters in other European countries.
He found work in London as a freelance computer programmer and found solace with other young American draft resisters and GIs in an organization called the Union of American Exiles. He eventually became president of the organization.
In 1973 Fritz wanted to go home. In March his flat was firebombed by a right-wing British group because it was above a black community bookshop in South London. One of his flatmates committed suicide. He lost his job as a computer programmer. But it would be three more years before he would find a way to go home.
Fritz had known about the London Democrats Abroad since 1972, and he didn’t like them. He was afraid of their money: “Those people have carpets that go all the way to the wall,” he had said.
Despite his fears, in February this year Fritz agreed to involve himself in a wild scheme to take over the Democrats Abroad. Fritz had mustered 15 friends to sign a petition to get his name on the ballots for the Democrats Abroad primary that was to be held in May. He said that he wasn’t running to win, but that he’d use the opportunity to promote the cause of universal and unconditional amnesty for the party platform hearings in London. He didn’t like to talk about it but Fritz Efaw had become a Democrat.
He addressed the Democrats Abroad platform hearings on April 1st at the University of London. His statement was personally moving and incisive in its analysis. He had shaved off his beard, cut his hair, and bought a tie on Bond Street. “These people’s sons look like hippies,” he explained. “I’ve got to look like they’d like their sons to look.” At the end of the hearings, everyone came up to shake his hand.
By June 8th the results of the primary were in. There had been 39 names on a mail ballot with biographical data that read like the board of directors section in a corporate proxy statement. Fritz had tied for the third alternate spot on a nine-person delegation by running as an amnesty candidate. In his biographical sketch, he had written “draft resister.” The chairman of the party called him and said that he approved of Fritz personally, but not of his tactics. Fritz was amused.
At the victory party, Fritz’s friends danced amid the books and files in his room. They wondered if he knew what he was doing. He had won but he was a fugitive from justice who was going back to dare the government to arrest him.
On the three walls of Fritz’s bedroom, where the books left some wall space, three portraits stared out into celebration: Elizabeth II of England, Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox and Madame Binh of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam.
Four hours after entering America, Fritz took off his suit and watched himself arrive at Kennedy on a variety of television sets at the hideout in East Meadow, Long Island. That night the phone kept ringing with updates on his legal status.
All the people in the East Meadow house were members of the amnesty council steering committee. They represent various tendencies within a fractious organization that is unified only in its demand for a blanket amnesty and in its tireless efforts to rectify some of the Vietnam war’s injustices. Everyone kept taking Fritz aside to advise him on his next move:
“You’ve got to get at Carter, Fritz. His amnesty proposal is class discriminatory and racist; you’ve got to take this opportunity to attack him.”
Another amnesty activist agreed: “You allowed yourself to cater to their questions, Fritz. Don’t let them construe your words like that.”
“Fritz,” another said, “you sounded like you were running for office out there. You have an independent voice in this thing, Fritz. You are the man of an issue.”
Fritz walked into the backyard and flopped into an armchair. It was finally quiet. “I find it hard to take it all so seriously,” he said.
At six o’clock the next morning Geraldo Rivera’s ABC limousine picked us up and headed toward Manhattan. Rivera had promised that if Fritz snuck into Manhattan before his court appearance, he would interview him on Good Morning Americaand personally assure his safe return to the Eastern District. Geraldo proclaimed, “If Fritz goes to jail, I go with him.” Fritz looked exhausted as he sat between his brother and sister. As we neared Manhattan he leaned forward and whispered, “Who’s Geraldo Rivera?”
By 7:45 we were sitting in a yellow room at ABC. A British writer entertained us. He had just written a book about the KGB and showed us some fake female nipples with tiny transmitters in them. Helen Gurley Brown smiled and fixed her hair.
Fritz’s lawyer, Jon Marsh, sat nervously reading over his notes. There were legal problems. Marsh had obtained personal assurances from assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Maher that Fritz would not need to report to Oklahoma until after the Democratic Convention, but an AP story about Fritz that had appeared on July 5th in the Oklahoma City papers had infuriated the Oklahoma authorities. They had requested the FBI arrest Fritz immediately and send him on down to the county jail.
After the show, Fritz walked out of the studio and into the limousine. There was a distinct possibility that any Manhattan official who had seen the show could send someone over to pick Fritz up.
U.S. attorney Maher was furious at attorney Jon Marsh by 9:45 that morning. Maher stood outside the removal hearing magistrate’s courtroom and explained why the Oklahoma authorities wanted Fritz sent to Oklahoma City for the trial.
He continued this line in front of Magistrate Simon Chrein at ten o’clock. After hearing the argument, Chrein looked at U.S. attorney Maher and said, “This man is a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He has a responsibility. He voluntarily came back here to face the music. I think we should allow him to go. Mr. Efaw will be released to attend the convention on two weeks’ personal recognizance bail….”
By two o’clock on Friday afternoon, the 9th of July, Fritz Efaw was struggling with his fame. Grandmothers introduced their grandchildren; NBC filmed his registering at the Statler Hilton; people lined up to shake his hand and welcome him home. He looked confused.
At dinner in the Village that night, Fritz and his sister and brother tried to catch up on seven years of news. They all talked about home and about the last time that they remembered feeling close and Fritz seemed comfortable for the first time since his arrival.
He felt truly afraid of Democrats, awed by their money and made uneasy by their power. He was more afraid of the Democrats than of the FBI. The Democrats, he believed, had the incomparable power to send him into exile, and then invite him back to their convention.
“I walk in a room with them and I know they know I’m just a dumb Okie from Payne County. I can play the cosmopolitan act but I’m really self-conscious around them. They’re the ones who sent me away.”
But the next night at Sarah and Victor Kovner’s party attended by many leading liberal Democrats, Fritz left behind the fumbling Okie. He mixed and mingled with governors and representatives, journalists and movie stars — and Myrna Loy.
The national coordinator of the amnesty council waited about two minutes before she attacked Sam Brown, the man who had negotiated for the liberal left with Carter’s representatives on the platform committee. The platform plank on amnesty called for a pardon for “all those who suffer legal or financial jeopardy as a result of peaceful opposition to the war” and for a case-by-case consideration of each Vietnam-era deserter. This fell far short of the amnesty council’s expectations.
Brown looked like he considered hiding when she came into the room.
“Hi Sam,” she said, “I’m Irma Zigas. I hear you sold us out.”
At around 11 o’clock, in a bedroom above the Kovners’ party, Fritz met with some of the sharpest political strategists on the left side of the Democratic party. By this time, Fritz was not only relaxed but confident. He had suddenly become the only potential source of drama at what promised to be a singularly boring convention. Sarah Kovner had introduced him to a lot of important people, and he sensed that there were more people in that one apartment who really cared about his welfare than had cared about him at all for the past seven years.
The meeting was attended by Harold Ickes, the son of Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior. Harold is a veteran campaign manager and one of the best minds in the party. Ken Bode, a political editor of the New Republic, was also present, as was Alan Baron, the infamous left-wing gadfly.
Harold Ickes had been instrumental in Fritz’s progress so far. He proved in the following days to be a brilliant guide through the maze of the Democratic establishment. With the help of Sarah Kovner and Harold Ickes had come the support of so many of the left-liberal Democrats who had very little to be happy about during the week of Jimmy Carter’s penultimate step toward apotheosis.
While Fritz paced his room in London, Harold Ickes took up the fight in Washington.
Ickes and Sarah Kovner had run Gene McCarthy’s campaign in New York in 1968. Both are well versed in the labyrinthian politics of the Democratic National Committee. Ickes had just come back to New York after winning two credentials fights — he went back to Washington to try for a third. Harold, a man known for his lawyerly use of the English language, reported his reaction to the first credentials meeting with the DNC in defense of Fritz on June 27th:
“The assholes. I don’t see why they gave them the vote anyway. It’s bad enough in the United States.”
But Ickes worked out a compromise by which all the somewhat or supposedly injured parties got to come to the convention — including Fritz. Fritz sounded far away on the phone that night: “They tried to screw me again.”
At the meeting in the bedroom above Sarah’s Saturday night party, some highlevel people urged Fritz to present his case from the podium. There were two operative possibilities: one was to speak on amnesty during the discussion of issues promised in the Bleicher minority report. Mike Bleicher, a member of the Democratic National Committee, was bringing one of the few minority reports to the convention floor on Tuesday, which would require 20 minutes of pro and con discussion on no more than three issues.
For Fritz to speak on amnesty under the Bleicher minority report stratagem, the amnesty activists would have to get a pile of signatures together on a petition — so that amnesty would be one of the three issues discussed if the minority report were adopted. Fritz sat quietly, awed by Ickes’s and Bode’s sophistication.
The second possibility was to nominate Fritz for the vice-presidency of the United States. Fifteen minutes were allotted to any certified nominee to use as he wished. Fritz could take the whole time if he wanted to second himself, and decline the nomination at the end. Ickes warned that there was the distinct possibility that he could be booed off the podium if Jimmy Carter’s whips called for booing.
We all left the party with a greater feeling of legitimacy by virtue of these powerful new allies.
By Sunday morning, the day before the convention’s opening ceremonies, it was clear that the political odyssey of Fritz Efaw had moved into a new dimension. The press followed him everywhere. Cab drivers would stare in their rearview mirrors: “Hey, you’re that draft dodger!”
At ten o’clock the Democrats Abroad delegation was holding its first caucus in the Vanderbilt suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Fritz was being interviewed on television in another part of the hotel when the chairman of the delegation brought the meeting to order.
Suddenly, two huge floodlights burst into the room followed by a mobile ABC camera. The camera was rolling and the commentator was demanding to know where Fritz was.
The septuagenarian chairman of the group jumped to his feet. “Please, please!”
“Where’s Fritz Efaw!” demanded the commentator.
The chairman looked on the verge of paroxysms. “Do you gentlemen agree that this is our meeting? Do you agree that I am running this? This is convention business. Fritz has had his day — this is our business. Do you agree?”
“No! Where’s Fritz Efaw?”
In 1972, after Fritz first found out that there were organized Democrats in London, he and his girlfriend went to a cocktail party at a house in Primrose Hill overlooking Regent’s Park. It was one of those places that Fritz was afraid of. Carpets that went to the walls and all. Mama Cass was there. He had come there to pass out leaflets about amnesty. They kicked him out and humiliated his girlfriend to the point of hysterical tears.
As it turned out, Fritz had five distinct allies on the Democrats Abroad delegation. The constituency had proved to be quite progressive in a rarefied sort of way. Only 3000 American Democrats had voted in this first Democrats Abroad primary. There were no hard hats, no rednecks, no welfare mothers and to my knowledge there was only one black.
The party fathers had told themselves that Fritz would never win. Then they assumed he’d never get certified and accredited. Then they probably relied on the FBI’s wrath. But he was there: not only was he there, but he was one of the most important people at the convention. He was the only reason that anyone had heardof the Democrats Abroad. In their magnanimity they had created a monster. Fritz had been the flowered centerpiece to their liberalism; he was the clean-cut, rent-a-draft-dodger patsy — but now he was carrying them all on his newly bought coattails. His face stared out at them from every television convention report. They envied the kid.
Fritz left the caucus at the Waldorf early to attend the Liberal Rules Caucus meeting across town at the Statler. His exposure to European politics made it easy for him to pick up the gist of rules issues that many of the members of the study committees had been discussing for two years.
Mary McGrory interviewed him after the meeting and wrote a column in favor of the Bleicher minority report. She wrote about Fritz and said that the liberals now had “a spokesman and a symbol.”
The signatures in support of the Bleicher minority report were being gathered by the amnesty people who had come in from all over to help, and by allies of the various delegations. Things were going ridiculously smoothly, and the idea of Fritz addressing the nation was taking on verisimilitude.
At ten o’clock the following evening, Jeff Carter put his feet up on a chair and told Fritz that on the whole, he’d really rather be in Atlanta. Downstairs, the Carter campaign staff and assorted luminaries had gathered for a party. Fritz sought refuge on the roof with Jeff and his wife Annette.
Relations with the Carter camp had been surprisingly good up to that point. There were frequent offers of meetings and new arrangements, and the only negative expressions toward Fritz’s activities had emanated from the Democratic National Committee.
Fritz and Jeff talked about amnesty for about five minutes. Then they talked about cars, money and Lester Maddox. Fritz said, “I feel at home here.” Jeff and Annette told Fritz to come see them in Atlanta.
As we were leaving the party, Fritz ran into Ron Kovic, a disabled former Marine sergeant who had been conspicuously active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Fritz told him that he’d see him around.
By Tuesday morning, Ickes and his colleagues had put such tremendous pressure on Bleicher that he was considering letting Fritz speak in favor of passage of his minority report instead of making his amnesty speech contingent upon its passage.
Ken Bode called to ask if I had the speech ready. Two speeches were actually needed: one in support of the Bleicher minority report (tone: I risked a hell of a lot to come here, now I want to speak) and one on the issue (tone: moral indignation; an intensive educational tract by a draft dodger on one of the most complex issues around).
Then the word came through from the Carter camp that they were considering giving Fritz five minutes of podium time right after Coretta King. Whether they expected us to pull out of the vice-president idea was unclear. Now there were three speeches to be written: a pre-Bleicher, a during-Bleicher and one to follow Coretta King (tone: I’m a 29-year-old draft dodger who’s been a Democrat for three months . . . and I’m not as moral as Coretta King). The third speech was going to be a problem.
Harold Ickes, Sarah Kovner, the amnesty activists and several members of the Democrats Abroad delegation met in the afternoon to discuss our progress. Six hundred eighty-one delegates had signed our Bleicher petition.
Upstairs in his room, Fritz lay shaking under the covers. The jet lag, the scotch and the thought of following Coretta King and addressing the nation had finally taken their toll.
When I came into the room, Fritz sat up. “I can’t follow Coretta King; she‘s a great lady!”
He was watching the varied loonies on television who were wearing costumes and carrying signs around Madison Square Garden. “That’s where I would be if I wasn’t here,” he said.
Then it was over. The Tuesday afternoon votes on the Bleicher minority report had failed dismally. Bleicher had vetoed the idea of Fritz speaking to the report at the last minute. The Coretta King offer never materialized. Accordingly, the decision was made to go with the vice-presidency.
The idea for the vice-presidency had first been suggested by Professor Ronald Dworkin, an Oxford jurisprudence don who was a member of the Democrats Abroad delegation. A couple of the delegates had laughed when he suggested the idea.
The signatures for the VP petition had already been collected. Ickes had researched the idea with the Rules Committee and found that there was a distinct possibility that, because of his age, Fritz would be ruled “frivolous and dilatory” by the convention parliamentarian. He still thought we should do it. There were nods all around. Fritz agreed. A press release went out saying that Fritz Efaw would hold a press conference at two o’clock on Wednesday in the Gold Ballroom of the Statler Hilton Hotel to announce that his name was going into nomination for the vice-presidency of the United States.
Fritz still looked pale at dinner that night. He reread a note which Julian Bond, the Georgia state senator, had sent to him, that explained how and why he had put hisname in nomination in 1968.
By Wednesday morning the amnesty council office at the Statler was in a turmoil. Representatives of each of the major pro-Fritz camps were milling around the office and waiting for the meeting to convene. The energy for the VP nomination was now clearly coming from four distinct camps: the amnesty activists; the Harold Ickes/Sarah Kovner/left-liberal (for lack of a better word) establishment; the five Democrats Abroad who were allies; and a new group of young delegates from various states who were helping to organize the floor activities.
Ramsey Clark had agreed to nominate Fritz. It had originally been felt that this was a fine idea. If Clark was willing to say something like, “My name is on the indictment of Fritz Efaw” (which it is) “and I’m here to tell you how wrong I was and nominate him for vice-president,” then we all agreed that he should do it. Fritz would then second himself and end his speech by declining the nomination.
Several people had doubts as to whether Ramsey would deliver the mea culpa. New names were thrown around and rejected: Fred Harris, LaDonna Harris, Gene McCarthy (unpopular and divisive), Phil Hart (too sick), George McGovern (bad memories), Gary Hart (probably wouldn’t do it), Dick Clark, Jack Gilligan (who?), Senator Abourezk (in transit), Warren Beatty, Frank Church (said no, but wanted to meet Fritz anyway). Fritz sat there and looked agitated.
To add to our problems, Hugh Cannon, the parliamentarian, told Harold Ickes that he definitely planned to rule Fritz out of order because he wasn’t 35. Jeff Jones, a Texas delegate, suggested that we mobilize our floor allies and nominate someone who is over 35. We picked Louise Ransom, the amnesty council leader who had met Fritz at the airport. If the chair ruled Fritz out of order, then Louise would be nominated for vice-president and Fritz would do the nominating.
By 11 o’clock, with three hours to go before the press conference, the names of the nominators were still undecided. It was at this point that two of Bella Abzug’s top aides came into the madness. One was Lee Novick, Abzug’s administrative assistant, and the other was Mim Kelber, Bella’s right-hand person.
They weren’t happy.
It appears that since Bella and Ramsey Clark are involved in a Senate race, Clark’s nominating speech could be construed as free national TV time at Abzug’s expense. “I think it’s quite sad,” said Novick, “that after all those years of alliance in the peace movement, that you people can do this to Bella.”
Fritz sat in the corner mouthing expletives softly and staring hard at a stain on the rug.
It was decided that the answer at the press conference to the “who’s the nominator” question, would be, “No comment.”
Harold Ickes left the chaos, muttering to himself, “Fucking left.”
Fritz was loudly applauded when he announced his decision at the press conference. After answering questions about the amnesty issue, Fritz was joined at the news conference by Ron Kovic, the disabled vet he had seen at the party two nights before. Kovic made a short and powerful statement from his wheelchair:
“I only wish that I’d had the courage to do what Fritz did. Welcome home, Fritz.”
At 3:15 that night, Fritz set his alarm for 7:30. In 15 hours he was to address a nation in which he was only nominally accredited. He had never dreamed it would be like this. It was out of control. The nominator problem hadn’t been resolved. The speeches weren’t written. The tension and stress on that Wednesday night after Jimmy Carter’s official nomination were hurting him. He looked different. Cesar Chavez had spoken for Jerry Brown that day, Fritz had quietly said that Chavez is a great man. He was feeling small — out of his league. Everyone owned a piece of Fritz Efaw’s body. It was getting to be a bit much:
“I’m so tired,” he said, “I’m just so fucking tired.”
By 7:45 on Thursday morning, D-day, I was up and working on a draft of the speech. All pretense of journalistic “professionalism” had long since been cast aside. I had been called an agent provocateur and a blackmailer. I had played flack, confidant, spy and speech writer — senior factotum to a political pilgrimage which had suddenly reached Icarian heights. Irma Zigas phoned at 11 and asked what I thought about having Louise Ransom and Ron Kovic do the nominating for Fritz, and thus avoid the Abzug-Clark problem entirely. It was incredibly audacious. In a world of Jimmy Carter abstractions, where the operative nouns were words like “love” and “trust,” we were thinking of rubbing the most real of dirty wars in their faces. Mike Ransom, Louise’s son, was killed on Mother’s Day. Ron Kovic was born on the Fourth of July. It would be a cavalcade of Vietnam memories. Was Bicentennial America ready to have its nose rubbed in the shit of Vietnam — even for 15 minutes?
Down in the office, Kovic was in an advanced euphoric state and kept wheeling around the office and thumping people on the back. “I’m gonna make history tonight, I’m gonna do it.”
At about the time that Fritz’s speech was ready, the word came through that he had been certified. He was to be the fourth nominee — right after Mondale.
In the elevator on the way to a CBS interview, we ran into Berkeley congressman Ron Dellums, who was also using the VP route to discuss previously muted issues from the podium.
“Hey man,” Dellums said to Fritz, “this is the way to go. We all gotta get out there and talk, I’m with you.”
Many of Fritz’s liberal allies were furious about the decision to use Louise Ransom and Ron Kovic. The Democrats Abroad were very unhappy about it, especially in light of Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp’s willingness to second Fritz’s nomination. Harold Ickes had arranged a floor meeting with Bella Abzug, Governor Shapp and Fritz on Wednesday night. Shapp was willing to second, but not to nominate. Fritz had to take a stand on whether or not the efficacy of using a well-known politician was worth violating his basic instincts. The speeches started at 6:30 — it was 4:30.
He looked pained. “Politicians, politicians. For seven years I’ve waited in London hotel lobbies for them, waited to talk to people like Milton Shapp, and they would never talk to me. This is going to be the first real thing that a lot of these people have ever seen. We go — without Shapp.”
By five o’clock, Fritz had received word to go to the podium; he practiced the speech one more time and left. Kovic and Ransom had come into the room to work on their speeches.
Kovic came out of the bathroom cleanshaven, borrowed a tie, and asked me to dial his home on Long Island:
“Dad,” he said, “I’m going to be on TV tonight. I’m going to nominate a friend of mine to be vice-president of the United States. I know it’s hard for you to believe, Dad . . . yeah, vice-president, it’s true. I’m gonna speak out against the war tonight. Tell the kids on the block.”
Louise Ransom went into the hall to practice her speech. Kovic’s speech was incredibly powerful, but much too long. CBS said that they would only carry the speech if it was down to two minutes. I started slashing out lines.
At one point he threw his arms around me, “You can’t take these lines out. I ache for each of those lines.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but you can’t get down on the Kennedys in front of these people. And you can’t let them crawl under their chairs. You have to let them be able to look at you.” We cut it down to 3 minutes 20.
“Shit, what an incredible day,” he said. “What an incredible day.”
In the background, Walter Cronkite reminded us that in one hour, Fritz Efaw, a draft dodger, would be nominated for vice-president.
The convention podium rose over 30 feet above the floor of Madison Square Garden. By 6:30 it was alive with activity. Fritz, Ron and Louise stayed behind the structure and reread their speeches. The nominations started with an absurd right-winger who looked like George Burns nominating an antibusing candidate. Nobody listened. For four days no one had listened to anything that happened on that podium. They talked and whooped and threw peanuts at each other and tried to get their pictures taken. Neither Hubert Humphrey nor George McGovern had really corralled their attention.
Ron Dellums gave a great speech. He threw in a line about unconditional amnesty and received applause — a good sign.
Hubert Humphrey got a rousing ovation for saying very little other than that Walter Mondale was a nice guy. Sarah Kovner stood next to me on the floor and said, “Poor Louise, how can she follow this.” Louise looked confident as she came into view.
That afternoon Harold Ickes had missed some of the rules discussions for which he’d worked for months, in order to get the Democratic Committee to put George Wallace’s wheelchair platform up on the podium for Ron Kovic. It took him all afternoon, but he did it.
When they wheeled Ron Kovic onto the back of the podium, Sarah began to cry. Kovic looked down at me and raised a clenched fist high above his head. He wasn’t used to looking down on people he reveled in it. He smiled and smiled.
Fritz and Louise both looked poised and proud. Louise went to the platform and delivered a powerful statement on amnesty. She told of the loss of her son, and of her dedication to the belief that amnesty is the only fitting memorial he could have: “The only way that we can give meaning to the lost lives of our sons is to see that their deaths have not been for nothing and to demonstrate that we have learned something from them and have insured that never again will there be another Vietnam.”
The hall broke into applause. “Total amnesty,” Louise concluded, “would be a fitting memorial to the sacrifice of my son.”
When the delegates could see the attendants struggling to get Kovic up onto the podium, they did something that they hadn’t done in four days. They became quiet. It was a deadly quiet, the kind of quiet you imagine in your dreams after an ear-splitting scream. The power of their guilt swept over them and obscured Ron Kovic’s joy. He looked down at them for a minute and then thrust his hands above his head. He did it again and they started to clap, then they cheered, then they stood up.
When they stopped, Kovic started.
“I am the living death
The Memorial Day on wheels,
Your Yankee Doodle Dandy
Your John Wayne come home,
Your Fourth of July firecracker,
Exploding in the grave . . . .”
He told them about the American dream of manhood and truth gone wrong. He told of joining the Marines and being a good American. He told them about killing one of his own men, and about killing civilians. He told of going back to Vietnam, after his first tour of duty, to prove he still loved his country. Then he told them about January 20th, 1968, when he was shot, and paralyzed for the rest of his life.
The delegates looked down and many of them cried. A cameraman in front of Ron was wiping away tears. Bella Abzug was crying. Ramsey Clark was crying too.
Ron went on to talk about learning to live with “legs that would not stand and a body that would not feel.” He talked about turning against the war. Then he paused. They were silent. Sarah Kovner continued to cry. “And tonight,” he said, “I have the proud distinction of nominating Fritz Efaw for vice-president of the United States.” He looked down at Fritz and smiled. “Welcome home, Fritz,” he said. Fritz climbed up on the podium and they threw their arms around each other. People stood and applauded again.
A project that had portended little more than a bit of fun had culminated in the rare act of touching millions of people. Some private memories in a public place had brought three damaged lives to a glorious moment, frozen in crescendo. They wheeled Ron Kovic down off the podium and Fritz waited alone for the applause to die.
As Fritz began his clear exposition of the case of a universal amnesty, Mo Udall, the great liberal hope of several months earlier, got up to leave, dragging his noisy and obscenely loyal retinue with him. The floor momentarily grew clamorous. Sarah Kovner was a Udall delegate at this convention, but her heart was on that podium with Fritz. She lunged through the crowd at Udall.”Mo, Mo,” she screamed. “You should be listening to this, Mo. Mo! I’m sorry I voted for you!” The tears were streaming down her face. Udall probably heard it, but you couldn’t tell.
Fritz looked into the living rooms of America and told them who he was. He spoke clearly and slowly as he explained why he had risked jail to come to the convention. He explained that deserters were often people who simply didn’t know that the war was wrong until they got to Vietnam. They were often poor, uneducated and black. He talked about those with bad discharges who would never find jobs. He said there were a million of them and that he was speaking for them. Earlier, Kovic’s speech had stunned the audience into listening, Louise’s had scared them. Now Fritz, after seven lonely years living 2000 miles away, was telling them something that they didn’t know, and the people were listening.
Fritz’s voice lowered as he neared the end:
“I am proud to come to this convention to represent war resisters. The risk involved was certainly worth taking. I respectfully decline this nomination for vice-president of the United States. I seek no office and no further recognition.”
Fritz wheeled Ron Kovic back across the convention floor. He didn’t seem to see anyone. They both looked like priests walking slowly between the pews. Various people who had helped us sought each other out on the floor and shook hands. There were bear hugs and there were tears. Harold Ickes looked at Fritz and said, “It had great dignity.”
As they moved past the Illinois delegation Ron Kovic did something that Fritz could never have done. He reached out and grabbed Mayor Richard Daley’s hand:
“Mr. Mayor, I’m Ron Kovic.”
“I appreciate what you said out there,” Daley said. “I hope you did,” Kovic said. “Please support amnesty.”
Daley stared right back at him: “I do, I do.”
Hubert Humphrey bounded up and declared, “Boys, I’m just gonna have to think about that.” Then he bounded away.
Kovic started grabbing every famous politician in sight. “I’d like you to meet my friend Fritz Efaw,” he shouted. Fritz was quiet. Then Kovic would grab another: “I’d like you to meet my friend Fritz Efaw,” he said, “Fritz just came home.”
By six o’clock in the morning we were back in our room at the Statler. It could have been London again. London and the beginning.
The morning showed an atomic red sky over Long Island as Fritz took his delegate’s badge off his suit.
He took off his glasses and smiled at the thought of it all. He knew that there would always be segments of the journey he would never understand. He knew it had something to do with life at the time, something to do with retrieving old dignities and coming from Oklahoma, and despite Vietnam and despite the rest of them, being inexhaustible and naive enough to really think that it could work.
“Hey,” he said. He put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, “Don’t you tell anyone how this happened.”