When Poetry Met Politics
Published on Thursday, December 6, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
When Poetry Met Politics
by John Nichols
"When I think about who was the most effective person for me in that 1968 campaign in Wisconsin, I always come back to the name Midge Miller. She recognized the possibility."

Eugene McCarthy

Politics and poetry are infrequently associated - to the detriment of both endeavors.

Once upon a time, however, in a different and more hopeful America, politics and poetry had a brief acquaintance. And Midge Miller was central to the enterprise.

In the fall of 1967, Miller was a Madison mom with nine children, a job coordinating religious activities at the University of Wisconsin and a too-long list of community duties to juggle. Yet, she decided to take on another task: Deposing President Lyndon Johnson and ending the war in Vietnam. No small maneuver this, but Miller and a small band of anti-war Democrats determined to find a U.S. senator brave - or foolish - enough to take on his own president and party.

They found an unlikely candidate in a senator from Minnesota who was at least as serious about poetry as he was about politics. McCarthy was a radical anomaly in American politics even then, a former college professor who began one of the most important speeches of that 1968 campaign - an address to a great rally in the Dane County Coliseum - by quoting, from memory, Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."

McCarthy's literary bent tended to put off fellow senators, who sometimes dismissed him as too prone to rumination and independent thinking for the game of politics. But it sat well with the ragtag band of political dreamers who dared believe they could defeat a sitting president, end a foolish war and set right a nation.

Their slogan was: "To begin anew... ."

Anyone who knows Midge Miller, whose 79th birthday will be honored tonight with a benefit at the Cardinal Bar for the Wisconsin Community Fund and the Verna Hill Memorial Fund, well understands the appeal for her of a poet-candidate promising new beginnings. A woman whose endless curiosity still pulls her in the course of a single conversation from a discussion of Japanese art to a critique of George W. Bush's national missile defense schemes to a reflection on a rare bird seen while walking, she is the sort of romantic radical who has ever turned the wheel of politics and governance just a little further than more restrained activists would imagine it might go.

As a key player in the effort to persuade McCarthy to run and then as a manager for his Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary campaign, Miller turned the wheel in 1968. Indeed, says McCarthy, now 85, "Midge had been active before my campaign. She knew politics. That made her invaluable, because most people who 'knew' politics were certain that our campaign was doomed to fail. She was that rare combination: someone with experience who still believed that great things were possible."

With a candidate as unconventional and yet as faithful as she, Miller achieved that which older and "wiser" liberals deemed impossible. They built a campaign for McCarthy so strong that a stunned Johnson responded with an eve-of-the-primary announcement that he was ending his re-election effort. In Wisconsin that spring, McCarthy wrote a poem that well captured the ironic, insurgent and, above all, romantic character of that campaign:

Whose foot is on the treadle/That turns the burning stars/Has spun the world half way round/Since last I called/Come down, come down.

That stars that in September/Looked through the mournful rain/Now set their sight again/Upon a world half night, half light

Men of distant years have said/That much depends on change of seasons/On solstices and equinox/And they have given reasons.

I disagree./Too much turns on inadvertence/On what seems to be/An accident of hand and knee/A chance sunrise/A glance of eyes Midge Miller put her foot to the treadle in 1967 and 1968, challenged the men of distance years, betting on the inadvertence of a poet-senator, and changing the course of her party and her nation. For a moment, all too brief, she found that common ground between poetry and politics. And she has stood it ever since - calling the rest of us to believe in the prospect that an inspired few can spin the world half way round.

"We proved something in that 1968 campaign, recalls McCarthy. "We showed that you could challenge the two political parties and all the powerful institutions in that country, and we did so with some success. Midge was very much a part of that. She believed, when few others did, that we could take on all the institutions of politics - the parties, the media, the pollsters, the military-industrial complex. You had to have something of the poet in you to believe that - and, of course, Midge did."

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times.

Copyright 2001 The Capital Times