Two Viet vets in the Burg

by Norm Winick

Two survivors of the war-torn 60s and early 70s were in Galesburg this week. They couldn't be more different but they also have a lot in common. Arizona Senator John McCain is a genuine American war hero, a former North Vietnamese Prisoner of War, an author and a respected public servant. Angela Davis earned her notoriety protesting that war, served time in an American jail for a crime she didn't commit, spent some time on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list, and is, like McCain, an author and a public servant.

Both were radical in their days -- and on opposing sides of many of the same issues. Today, both have mellowed. Both are on the speaking circuit. Davis was here Saturday; McCain Tuesday.

Neither hold grudges. Davis says her complaints were never with the American soldiers, just the government and policies they were fighting for. McCain says, ''I don't harbor any ill-will toward the war protestors. It was a long time ago. They had every right to protest the actions of their government. Where we part company is when some of them start destroying property or hurting people. Just like the protestors in Seattle against the WTO or now in Washington against the IMF, they have every right to demonstrate peacefully against their government.''

That might be where the agreement ends.

Unrelated but in some ways serving as the finalé to the Sandburg Days Festival, Angela Davis addressed several hundred students and activists in Harbach Theater at Knox College. Her politics are similar to Sandburg in his radical days. Her theme, mobilizing for action to end injustice, is one Sandburg often espoused. She's still an avowed communist -- but not a member of the party. Sandburg was a socialist activist.

Angela Davis at Knox CollegeDavis, who eschewed the firebrand political rhetoric she's famous for, delivered a low-key address on the topic ''Women in Prison.'' She made an appeal to end the prison mentality that engulfs America. She repeatedly decried the ''prison-industrial complex'' which has made keeping 2 million Americans behind bars a major industry. In her view, it's not only the government and companies which earn income by building and maintaining the prisons which are the problem, it's the companies which use prison labor to earn a profit. She named dozens of them.

She also accused tax-cut mania in California of destroying what she says was once the world's best public education system. Davis, a professor in that system herself, also didn't let her ''share the wealth'' politics stand in the way of accepting a reported $10,000 honorarium for giving the speech.

Davis' only real radical statement, a final appeal to depopulate the prison system, came with caveats that we still need to segregate the violent criminals from society and institute a real system of rehabilitation.

John McCain came to Galesburg to campaign for Mark Baker in his attempt to unseat Congressman Lane Evans. Addressing a handful of supporters at a ''rally' in front of Wal-Mart, McCain paid tribute to veterans and thanked Wal-Mart for their support of the WWII memorial planned for Washington. Baker aides privately agreed that Evans is not particularly vulnerable on veterans issues. (He's a veteran himself, the ranking Democrat on the Veterans committee, and was instrumental in getting a VA clinic for Galesburg.)

After a $100 per person fundraiser at Dr. Thomas Patterson's home, McCain covered more diverse topics at a ''Town Hall Meeting'' before several hundred people, just about all Republicans, at Galesburg High School. He and Baker answered a variety of questions from the audience -- some of them obviously planted. Baker was uncharacteristically silent as McCain lambasted corporate welfare, the ethanol tax credit, campaign spending and massive tax cuts. Baker chimed in with his support of proposals to provide parental and school controls over internet sites and general calls to further economic development.

When asked directly, McCain would not endorse George W. Bush for president though he did say he'd support the Republican nominee. To a mixed response, McCain said that the wishes of his supporters -- who were sincerely seeking reform -- will be respected.

Privately, McCain denied that skipping an Iowa campaign hurt his overall presidential effort. ''I think it was the best decision we made. It was clear we were going to lose to George Bush; he had a huge head start in organization and money in Iowa.''

John McCain and Angela Davis are both reformers in their own way. Both find flaws in the system and actively seek to change them -- Davis from outside the system and McCain from within. For their efforts, both have earned the admiration and scorn of their colleagues.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 22, 2000

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