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By Grant Schott
Although he served less than two terms in the U.S. Senate, Fred Harris was a prominent presidential candidate in 1976 better known than many senior senators, and he made his mark on the watershed 1960’s and early 70’s.
In his genuine, warm, informative and fascinating (at least if you love politics) memoir, Harris looks back on a life story worth telling, and reading.
Harris grew up poor but proud near Lawton, Oklahoma, where, even as a young boy, he worked on harvest crews throughout the Midwest. A favorite Uncle, often looking for work like many Americans during that time, would respond, “Does people do it? If so I can do it” when asked if he was qualified for a job- thus the book’s title, Does People Do It?
In high school, Harris met and fell in love with a Comanche Indian, LaDonna, who would be his first wife, mother of his children, and a respected political activist in her own right. After they divorced in 1977, LaDonna was the Citizens Party’s candidate for Vice President in 1980
Harris recalls his entry into oil dominated Oklahoma politics in the 1950s, and his challenge to keep his liberal views modified in a conservative state. After a losing race for Governor, Harris became a candidate to replace the powerful U.S. Senator Robert Kerr who died on New Years Day, 1963. Harris began an aggressive person to person campaign that helped him win two upsets, against former Democratic Governor Howard Edmondson, who had himself appointed to Kerr’s seat, in the primary, and against legendary Sooners football coach, Bud Wilkinson, in the November 1964 General Election.
Harris would become friends with, and tells many tales about, some of the 60s’ most powerful political figures; the great rivals Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, and, perhaps Harris’ favorite politician of all, LBJ’s Vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. It was a tough balancing act, and Harris said that one of his toughest decisions of all was to serve as Humphrey’s national campaign co-chair (with Walter Mondale) in 1968, even as RFK had entered the race. Equally challenging for Harris was the Vietnam War. Although opposed to the war, loyalty to the Johnson-Humphrey administration caused Harris to delay his public opposition to the war after many other liberals had broken with LBJ, a decision that Harris regrets. A pro peace plank championed by Harris at that year’s convention was torpedoed by pro-Johnson hawks.
Harris warmly recalls his many visits to Hyannis Port, where he saw first hand both the fun loving and ultra competitive tendencies of the Kennedys. On one occasion, the non sailing Harris had the bad misfortune to be assigned to Ted Kennedy’s crew, and found the angry and yelling younger brother to take the sailing race somewhat more seriously than even his hard charging brother, Bobby. Dealing with LBJ on many occasions was similar to Teddy on his sailboat, especially when the president was unhappy with the stark “white racist” findings of the Kerner commission that Harris co-chaired in 1967. Still, Harris saw Johnson’s warm, witty and compassionate side, and saw the great legislative leader as one of our greatest presidents.
Harris’ liberal views and brief chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee made him ripe for defeat for re-election in 1972, and he decided to run for president. Fundraising troubles derailed that effort, but he soon set out for a long grassroots effort for the ’76 nomination. One of a dozen candidates, Harris recalls the frustrating of being labeled a radical who couldn’t win, which made fundraising a continued challenge, even as many columnists acknowledged that his populist views were helping shape the campaign and were shared by most Democratic primary voters. Unfortunately for Harris, a big plurality of them turned out to favor Jimmy Carter, while Harris’s fellow liberal Morris Udall also outpolled Harris in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, after which Harris was forced to drop out.
Harris soon began a new career as a political science professor in New Mexico where he has remained.
Harris helped shape the progressive agenda of the 1960’s and did so from a state where his liberal views put his career at risk. He does a superb job of recalling those glorious and tumultuous days, for both him and the country.