Fortitude and Patience

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Fortitude masked outside the New York Public Library.

Monday, June 3, 2024. A beautiful, sunny weekend in New York. Although according to my sources (and yours too), it’ll be another warm (but not too) week in New York, but lotsa clouds and some rains may fall.

Family politics.

A lookback on (political) history: written on June 29, 2020. Reading my emails. The bulk of them in these naked days of lockdown are hawking contributions for political races all the way from Prez down to Congress, gubernatorial to mayor and councilman.

Every day I must get at least a dozen of these requests. So many I don’t count ‘em. They all want ANYTHING you can spare, even a couple of bucks. And they’re from all over the country, writing to me (and millions of others), little David, social historian and part-time starving writer, for a couple of bucks.

I get it. I’ve worked as a volunteer in seven different campaigns in my now long life. The first being for Carter Burden when he ran for City Council in 1969 from what was referred to as the Silk Stocking District.

Carter Burden himself was a Vanderbilt heir who came from and lived the life of a rich man. However, he had the consciousness to understand the needs of those of us who were not rich. These were his people, and he had a beautiful young wife (his age), Amanda Mortimer, the daughter of Stanley Mortimer and Babe Paley. After Harvard and Law School, he went to work for Senator Robert Kennedy. Just the year before – 1968 – it looked like Bobby Kennedy was going to the White House.

It was this same neighborhood I’m living in now. The Burden campaign headquarters were in an abandoned supermarket on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 79th Street. (It’s now a 35 story luxury apartment building.)

In those days, much of the Upper East Side east of Third Avenue were neighborhoods of Yorkville. Real working class neighborhoods, four and five story brick, walk-up apartment buildings. Often referred to as Germantown earlier in the century as many were elders in first and second generation families who had emigrated from mainly Europe; still living in the neighborhood.

The corner of 86th Street and Second Avenue, 1916 — Library of Congress/Bain Collection

The volunteers’ assignment was canvassing the neighborhoods — going door-to-door, usually two of us, starting in the early evening after office hours. Our job was to tell them about Carter but also: find out what their issues were; and in the end, get them to vote for Carter. Among the volunteers making these rounds of the neighborhood were Douglas Fairbanks and Christina Onassis, both of whom were longtime family friends of the candidate.

Susan and Carter Burden in 1988, photographed by Mary Hilliard.

The result of this, however, was the rich and memorable experience of meeting the neighbors and promoting a good cause (Burden) with those of us in need.  That, to me, is the wealth of politics when it is practiced with honor toward all, which is a major challenge for many if not most of us humanoids.

Robert Kennedy’s murder had changed everything for Carter Burden, who had worked for him. With Kennedy he had developed the consciousness to understand the needs of those of us who were not rich. He took Kennedy’s work (for the people) as inspiration. He won the election that year and served two terms on the City Council. But at some point he decided it was not for him. His first marriage ended also in 1972 after eight years.

A person who had worked closely with him told me years later that Carter was disillusioned by the process and how it neglected the voters’ needs. Before he left, however, he’d created something in the neighborhood to assist the needs of his constituents (many of whom were seniors). In the beginning it was a little one room office in the upper East Eighties — the Carter Burden Center for the Aging. Today, a half century later, it is a leading neighborhood proponent of helping thy neighbor, still under the guidance and direction of Carter’s dynamic and devoted wife and widow Susan Burden.

In those years, I was a registered Democrat by whatever voting requirements. All of the candidates I worked for were Democrats. I also volunteered for Ed Koch’s Congressional campaign (also for the Silk Stocking district) where he’d be campaigning, greeting commuters at subway entrances during morning rush hours introducing himself as people entered: “Hello, I’m Ed Koch; how’m I doin’?”

Photo by Bill Golloday/Wikimedia Commons

But I also admired John Lindsay, who happened to be a Republican. And I admired him even more after he left office, not rich and highly “rewarded” for his public service, but a kind man and a gentleman.

I later did the same for George McGovern when I was living in Connecticut. My father who was a Nixon man asked me “why George McGovern?” When I told him it was partly because McGovern reminded me of him, he didn’t get it. I meant it — the best part of him, my father, the man I came to know in manhood through retrospection.

George McGovern: Psychedelic Campaign Poster.

He was not specially educated and the child of the hard knocks of early 20th century New York. Son of Irish immigrants, he learned the rules early. The children of working parents never knew to expect more than just working. The more ambitious moved forward financially, but the greater number remained in place — a place which prospered as the 20th century moved forward.

I was very disappointed that George McGovern did not beat Mr. Nixon who, to me, always seemed to have a kind of snotty arrogance about himself. In retrospect, I’m inclined to think Mr. Nixon was doing his best, given his set of circumstances in coming to the fore.

Politics and Poker. In the early ‘70s, I had a retail business in Greenwich, Connecticut and Pound Ridge, New York. In Greenwich, I had a young woman working for me, a Cuban girl whose family had emigrated to Greenwich during Castro’s Cuban Revolution.

The family was obviously wealthy, living in a large mansion on Round Hill Road. A very nice, sophisticated family, they had obviously been prominent in pre-Castro Cuba. On election day of the 1972 Presidential election, I off-handedly asked her whom she was going to vote for. She responded: “President Nixon.”

When I asked, truly just curious, why President Nixon, she responded: “Because he and my father planned the Bay of Pigs invasion in our living room in Havana.” Period.

I did know that her father had been important because he was specifically captured by Castro’s forces during the Bay of Pigs battle, and imprisoned. The family paid a six figure ransom to free him and allow him to come to America.

Castro’s takeover killed business for many American interests, especially hotels and casinos. The plans of Nixon and the anti-Castro Cuban failed entirely. The results, however, led fantastically to Las Vegas.

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