My Own Democratic Platform Story

This week’s embarrassing brouhaha at the Democratic convention over Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel recalled for me a brief foray into Democratic Party politics I made back in 1976, when Sen. Scoop Jackson, whose office was the hatchery and central command for the burgeoning neo-conservative movement, was running for president in a crowded field that included the eventual winner, Jimmy Carter. I was living in my hometown of Seattle at the time, clerking for a superior court judge and serving on the boards of several local international-affairs organizations, including the World Affairs Council, the United National Association, and the regional Peace Education Committee of the American Friends Service Committee. I was also working with friends on a daily international-news program on the local community-sponsored radio station, KRAB-fm.

Back then, the party — especially the state party — was deeply divided between an anti-war wing most closely identified with George McGovern and, for lack of a better word, a more-hawkish wing whose champion, of course, was Scoop himself. The split was particularly strong in the Seattle area (King County) where grassroots Democrats were overwhelmingly anti-war, but the party machinery was controlled by Scoop, in part due to the strong loyalty he enjoyed among the unions which were much stronger then than today. I was a delegate to the King County Convention which, among other things, was charged with electing delegates to the state platform committee. The county convention elected two slates: the majority slate was controlled by Jackson, while the minority, or alternate slate, belonged to the anti-war wing. As a result of a nominating speech by a very popular director of the Country Doctor medical clinic, I was elected as the first alternate delegate — a status that meant that I could take part in the platform committee proceedings and the state convention whenever anyone from the county Jackson slate was absent.

Some weeks later, the platform committee met at the Edgewater Hotel on Seattle’s waterfront, and I naturally chose to serve as the first alternate delegate on the foreign policy subcommittee. I thought that I would have to spend most of the time on the sidelines, but it turned out that the Jackson faction took the platform committee somewhat less seriously than they did the convention itself, as a result of which I was able to take part — was even elected chair at one point in what was apparently a parliamentary maneuver designed to neutralize me — throughout the proceedings. And, to my gratification, I found several other delegates — albeit a minority — on the subcommittee from elsewhere in the state whose views were pretty close to my own.

In any event, the Jackson people worked from a prepared document (which unfortunately I have filed away in a box in the basement of a house back in Seattle) which included some general boilerplate language on the Middle East that went something like this: “We extend the hand of friendship to all the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, and uphold the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” (The second part is not exactly right, but it isn’t far off.) Despite strong objections by the Jackson delegates, however, a sufficient minority (including me) on the subcommittee prevailed in their effort to present an alternative statement on which the state convention would eventually have to vote. That plank took the same language from the Jackson draft but added the phrase “and support the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people.” (It wasn’t as radical then as it might seem today; Jimmy Carter came out soon after his election in favor of a “Palestinian homeland”, a statement that ensured that incoming Israeli Prime Minister Menahim Begin would do whatever he could to defeat Carter in 1980.) As I left the meeting room that day and entered the hotel lobby, another delegate — a medical doctor with a strong Swiss accent — began shouting at me something like: “You have the blood of 20,000 Jewish soldiers on your hands” and “Your parents must be very ashamed of you.” (My parents, who were pretty well known around town due to their civic engagement, came to the U.S. in 1936 after fleeing Germany soon after Hitler took power.)

A few weeks later, I drove down to the state convention in Olympia as the first alternate delegate from King County. In contrast to the platform committee deliberations, however, the Jackson organization made damn sure that its delegation remained at full strength through the proceedings, and I stayed very much on the sidelines. It was clear that Scoop and his advisers wanted a very smooth convention, nothing untoward that could embarrass him further at a moment when his presidential candidacy was already faltering pretty badly. (Scoop was a very hard-working, very conscientious senator, totally lacking, however, in anything resembling charisma.) Soon the convention took up the proposed platform, including the minority planks that had mustered enough support on the platform committee to require a vote on the floor.

That’s when some very weird stuff happened. As the convention moved into the foreign policy section, I was approached by two rather burly-looking young men and was told by them that it would be in my best interest if I did not try to address the convention during the debate. As I was only an alternate delegate, I told them that I didn’t see how I could do so in any event, but they simply re-iterated what they had told me and walked away. They never identified themselves or indicated on whose behalf they were telling me this. But some minutes later, just before the two Middle East planks were scheduled to be taken up, something even more surprising took place: without any explanation, all of the Jackson delegates walked out of the hall (I think it was a gymnasium), thus depriving the proceedings of a quorum, and ending discussion of the platform. The result insofar as I remember: the Washington State Democratic Party didn’t have a platform in 1976 because, as best I could tell, Scoop and his handlers didn’t want the minority language even debated, despite the fact that they had the votes to defeat it soundly.

Early in the following year, I was contacted by a senior aide to Marvin Durning, an attorney and well-respected environmentalist, who was running in a special election to succeed (newly installed Transportation Secretary) Brock Adams as congressman from Washington’s 7th district. He asked whether I would be willing to give the candidate a private briefing on various foreign policy issues. I naturally agreed and met him in his law office downtown one evening. It was impressed upon me both in the phone call and at the meeting itself that it would necessarily have to be completely off the record, because my views were considered controversial in some quarters, and it wouldn’t help Durning if it became known that I was advising him. After a pretty long session — about 90 minutes as I recall — he thanked me and said he hoped to meet with me again soon. But about a week or ten days later, I got a call from the same aide who had originally contacted me to say that, unfortunately, the candidate could not meet me again. He was very, very apologetic but stressed that he couldn’t tell me the reason.

I was later told by one apparently knowledgeable source that Durning had been asked several days after the briefing to meet with a group of prominent Jewish donors, and, at that meeting, had been told that it would be very difficult for them to continue supporting his campaign if he continued to meet with me. The main spokesman for the group, according to this account, was none other than my pediatrician, an altogether wonderful man whose family had been closest to my own through most of my youth. Despite some strains that developed over a 1960 trip my family took to Europe during which my parents spent several weeks revisiting their favorite haunts in Germany, our two families remained friendly, and I never asked him about it.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.