Memories of an intense Oregon primary, 1968

A young cameraman watched the McCarthy-Kennedy contest close up, wrestling with his own issues in a time when "I was scared of my own country."
Crosscut archive image.
A young cameraman watched the McCarthy-Kennedy contest close up, wrestling with his own issues in a time when "I was scared of my own country."

Tuesday's presidential primary takes me home to Oregon and home to the young man I was in 1968, when Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy last made that contest an historic one.

Our company, King Screen Productions, was hired to do film work for the RFK campaign. My job was with Kennedy, but my heart was with McCarthy. I saw McCarthy's stand as principled and Kennedy as a strategic latecomer who got into it after McCarthy had done the dirty work in New Hampshire, where he shoved Johnson aside and made it a completely new day. It was McCarthy who had lit the fire, but it seemed it was lighting Kennedy's way.

McCarthy's message was overwhelming to people like me who saw their country doing terrible things and were soon to be asked to join in the slaughter. The horrible images of January — the Tet Offensive of '68 — were vivid. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April and I had filmed the rioting in my beautiful little city. My father died. Days later, a letter came from the draft board in Oregon City that my deferment, to care for him, had been revoked. Each week the body count was 200 or 300 or 400 Americans and untold Vietnamese. One day I went to the Canadian consulate and got the forms necessary to be a Landed Immigrant in Canada. I was scared of my own country. And mad at it. And it seemed that everyone we pointed a camera at was mad at it, too.

The primaries slowly rolled west, much as they do today. The pace of politics was more leisurely. Like today, with Super Tuesday out of the equation, the campaign seemed endless. Everything — your whole life — was defined by a series of elections that never quite satisfied, whose message of discontent was never really resolved.

Our job was to follow the candidate in Oregon and ship the film to Los Angeles at the end of the day. Some of it was to be used for the Oregon campaign film, organized around a train trip from Portland to Medford. The campaign had produced a series of conversations with various voter groups, and our job was to place Sen. Kennedy in iconic Oregon locations like Cannon Beach or the Capitol in Salem, and the producers would insert those local shots with the pre-taped conversations. Some of the film was collected and sent to other media markets in the state. When not shooting film on this job, I volunteered my time and equipment to McCarthy.

Our cameras were a passport to both the remarkable intimacies and dreary repetition of the campaign. Once, I had a tight shot of a sea of hands reaching up with Kennedy's freckled hands reaching down through them. Bending down at a clumsy angle, Kennedy asks the security guard holding him by the waist: "Does anyone know where the dog is?"

On election night, Kennedy was at the Benson Hotel, and McCarthy was at the down-scale Imperial a couple of blocks away. We left the Benson soon enough. No campaign would want those images. And we pushed our way through the delirious crowd at the Imperial and up to a suite where McCarthy greeted his young supporters. "We'll have a short inaugural address, take down the fence around the White House, and have a picnic on the lawn," he said. Here was finally an election that had gone right.

For the next week, as I struggled with the realities of my own citizenship, we watched McCarthy's momentum get chewed up in California. I lay in bed the next Tuesday night and watched the coverage. I put a pillow over my face and let the tears come. I heard Kennedy say: "Now it's on to Chicago and let's win there." I turned off the television and went to sleep.


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