Academic journal article Journalism History

Pardon Me, Mr. Carter: Amnesty and Unfinished Business of Vietnam in Jimmy Carter's 1976 Campaign

Academic journal article Journalism History

Pardon Me, Mr. Carter: Amnesty and Unfinished Business of Vietnam in Jimmy Carter's 1976 Campaign

Article excerpt

"For some, the most moving moment of the Democratic convention occurred when two young men of the Vietnam era embraced each other on the stage-one who fought and one who ran way," Mary McGrory, a Pulitzer Prizewinning, Washington-based political journalist, observed in her August 2, 1976, syndicated column for the Boston Globe.1 McGrory, a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, wrote of the "tableau" created by the appearance of war resister Fritz Efaw bending to embrace paralyzed veteran Ron Kovic on the main stage of the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York. Kovic seconded Efaw's nomination for vice president. Although the nomination had been largely symbolic (Efaw, age twenty-nine, could not occupy the position), it represented a segment of the party's fight for amnesty and desire to "heal the wounds of Vietnam."2

Despite gavel-to-gavel national network television coverage of the Democratic convention in mid-July, some Americans would not have a chance to see the symbolic act. ABC, which offered limited coverage of the proceedings, refused to acknowledge the nomination, and the other networks, according to one New York Times television critic, provided "superficial coverage," missing the opportunity to delve more deeply into the issue of amnesty.3

The network television cameras may not have captured the scene, but through her words, McGrory shared the image with the readers of her syndicated columns. She also captured the immediate reaction to the gesture, offering insights into the cultural milieu surrounding the domestic legacy of the Vietnam War. In 1972, George McGovern had lost his bid for the presidency on his platform disparaged by critics as one that centered only on "amnesty, abortion, and acid," and four years later, unconditional amnesty remained a contentious issue with the potential to once again divide the party. McGrory offered her readers a window into the divisive nature of amnesty as she described the dramatic response as Efaw and Kovic exited the stage. Democratic leader Hubert H. Humphrey, a vocal opponent of unconditional amnesty, patted Efaw on the back, assuring him that he would consider the measure, but one Alabama delegate refused to shake Efaw's hand as the pair pushed through the teary-eyed crowd. In the immediate aftermath of the convention, a local Veteran of Foreign Wars post expelled Kovic for "hugging that goddam draft dodger," and Efaw, a fugitive from justice, was arrested in Oklahoma City the last week ofJuly, McGrory reported.4 Even still, as the headline of the article indicated, the pair and millions of others held out "modest hope for amnesty," "putting all their chips on [Democratic nominee] Jimmy Carter" and his promise of a "blanket pardon."5

These "modest hopes" in the dark-horse candidate must have seemed rather dim only months earlier. At the outset ofhis campaign, Carter, a retired naval officer and member of the American Legion in Americus, Georgia, had hesitated to support unconditional amnesty, but after reviewing materials culled by his issues staff from various factions, including the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty, and publications such as the Congressional Fact-Sheet on Amnesty and the alternative newsmagazine AmexCanada, Carter made the "single hardest decision [of his] campaign" and offered a "blanket pardon" to draft resisters and evaders.6 As his campaign gained traction during the early caucuses and primaries, he informed the national press of his position on the controversial issue. In a March 16 interview with the Washington Post, he told editors and reporters he wanted to "get the Vietnam war over with." He continued, "I don't have the desire to punish anyone. I'd just like to tell the young folks who did defect to come home."7

In the coming weeks and months, reporters outlined Carter's position, and newspaper editorial boards, political columnists, and letter-to-the-editor writers expressed opinions about the topic. …

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